December 29, 2022

Paradigm Shift & Jewish Law

By Shaul Magid

Exploring Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s Post-Halacha as a Sin for the Sake of Heaven

Elliot R. Wolfson, Entrapped, 2009

Halachic Inversions

Jewish Renewal is a movement that was established by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924–2014) over the course of the past half century. Beginning in the 1970s with books such as Fragments of a Future Scroll (1975), Schachter-Shalomi began to construct a new vision of Judaism, largely situated in America, that sought to address the post-Holocaust and post-Hiroshima reality in which conventional warfare had been replaced by mechanized genocide in the Holocaust, and the threat of planetary destruction in Hiroshima. For Schachter-Shalomi, these two instances of mass death constituted what he called a “paradigm shift” in global human behavior that required a globalized and humanistic Jewish response. This became his Paradigm Shift Judaism, which sought to open Judaism to the world in a variety of ways—a counter-intuitive response to an unprecedented attempt to erase Jews from the world.

At the center of his Renewal project was his revision of Jewish law, or halacha, that some have called “post-halacha.” Post-halacha is a term coined by Jack Cohen, a close student of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, in his writing on Reconstructionist Judaism. In Cohen’s assessment, Kaplan’s idea of Jewish practice was less a response to divine commandments and more a series of what Kaplan called “folkways”—that is, social and cultural practices that created the complex fabric of Jewish communal life.1 In this way, Kaplan turned the verticality of halacha—as an obligatory response to a divine call—into a practice that took place primarily on the horizontal plane of Jewish collective flourishing. Drawing on Émile Durkheim and John Dewey’s sociological approach to religion, Kaplan fundamentally altered the trajectory of modern American Jewish existence.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
from Havurah Shir Hadash

Schachter-Shalomi adopted many of the premises of Kaplan’s project but radically revised it as well. I suggest here that Schachter-Shalomi’s view of Jewish law is another iteration of post-halacha, although in a somewhat different register. Schachter-Shalomi attempted to merge Kaplan’s horizontal, communal vision with a new kind of verticality in which such non-binding “folkways” could now function as acts of piety. In this schema, mitzvot were not a response to a heavenly God above but to the earthly divine presence below, embodied in the in-dwelling presence of God in the world known by the Kabbalists as the Shekhinah or Malkhut Shadai. The Kabbalistic concept of tikkun olam—“fixing the world”—was now reframed as fixing the broken divinity that dwells among us. Schachter-Shalomi thus reoriented Kaplanian horizontality through a New Age and Neo-Hasidic lens.

This approach to Jewish practice is both humanistic and universal. Halacha, from this perspective, is no longer intended to separate the Jew from the non-Jew, or the Jew from the world, but to create a planetary Judaism founded on the intense particularity of mitzvot turned outward toward and for the world. Given that the very structure of Jewish law is, at least in part, a system that seeks to insulate Jews from the world (addressing the biblical anxiety about non-Israelite theological influence by limiting social interaction), Schachter-Shalomi’s vision of post-halacha is particularly radical as it seeks to invert this system by enabling Jews to worship with others through Jewish ritual. This even extends to syncretistic practice whereby the boundaries between communities of worship could be made more permeable through shared practice. The goal of such an approach is to create a more integrated global community of worshippers while avoiding the kind of cosmopolitanism that collapses boundaries between different traditions. With collaborator Matthew Fox, Schachter-Shalomi called this approach “deep ecumenicism”—that is, an ecumenicism that does not simply consist of inter-religious dialogue, but inter-religious ritual practice as well. In this way, for Schachter-Shalomi, the theorizing of modern Judaism and halacha that perhaps begins with Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem and reaches a theoretical apex in Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man, is not enough; we need a new kind of global religious praxis, one that thins the barriers that separate one religious community from another, not to merge them but to create a mix of multiple particularities functioning in unison toward a global goal of human flourishing. What I will argue below is that Schachter-Shalomi’s version of post-halacha is thus a radical inversion, and subversion, of the classic halachic system. It is, I submit, an avera lishma—a sin for the sake of heaven.

But before getting to Schachter-Shalomi’s post-halacha as avera lishma, we need to better contextualize the complex nature of halacha more generally, and the various forms of resistance against it.

“Halacha, from this perspective, is no longer intended to separate the Jew from the non-Jew, or the Jew from the world, but to create a planetary Judaism founded on the intense particularity of mitzvot turned outward toward and for the world.”

Law, Spirit, and Meta-Halacha

Conventional wisdom tells us that Judaism is a religion of law. While not untrue, this assertion hides a much more complex story of Jewish history in which the law was never without resistance and challenge.

There is little doubt that from at least the rabbinic period onward, halacha (as broadly defined) stood at the epicenter of Jewish normative life.2 But to use the term “halacha” to refer to a stable form of religious practice shared by most Jews (its common meaning) is something of an anachronism: in fact, halacha as we know it today didn’t really emerge until the Middle Ages as a response (at least in part) to internal critiques of rabbinic practice.3

But resistance to rabbinic law extends back even further. We find two competing forces, law and spirit, at the very origins of the rabbinic project, and even before. This dichotomy is made famous when, in the early years of the Jesus movement, Paul, a Jew, accused Pharisaism of being all law with no spirit.4 Paul is commonly viewed as bringing the law/spirit dichotomy within Judaism to a breaking point, thus giving us Christianity as a religion of salvation that transcends the need for Jewish law.5 This dichotomy has remained embedded in canonical rabbinic thought in a variety of ways, resurfacing especially during times when normative practice is interrupted by circumstances that demand its alteration. Sabbateanism, for example, a messianic movement from the seventeenth century, could be seen as another instance where this tension between law and spirit reached a breaking point. As was the case with Paul, the impetus for such antinomianism was also the belief that the messiah had arrived, or was about to, an event that some rabbinic sages suggested might require changes to existing halacha—or might even make halacha itself obsolete. Although in this instance, rather than a new religion splintering off from normative rabbinic Judaism, the Sabbatean movement collapsed in on itself, in some senses reifying the halachic project even more rigidly than it was before.

These are obviously extreme cases, where the tension between the codified law and the spirit of the times amounted to rupture. But apart from such acute messianism, we can see resistance to the religious monopoly of halacha in historical developments within the normative Jewish orbit as well—for example, in the emergence of Jewish philosophy in the ninth century and Kabbalah in the thirteenth century. Jewish Studies scholars refer to these forms of thought as meta-halacha.

Rabbi Isadore Twersky, the renowned scholar of Jewish philosophy and rabbinic literature, and inheritor of the Talner Hasidic dynasty, captured meta-halacha quite succinctly. In his essay “Religion and Law” (1967), he writes:

“The tension [in halacha] flows from the painful awareness that manifestation and essence sometimes drift apart, from the sober recognition that a carefully constructed, finely chiseled normative system cannot regularly reflect, refract, or energize interior, fluid, spiritual forces and motives.”

Meta-halacha emerges to address this painful tension in normative Jewish religious practice by ascribing metaphysical, spiritual, or philosophical meaning to the observance of normative Jewish law. Twersky notes that the medieval term “spirituality” was borrowed from Sufism by Andalusian philosopher and rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda (as ruchaniyot) as a means to “anchor the religious via activa, the life of mitzvot, in some form of intellectual-contemplative-spiritual activity.”6 Bernard Septimus, the scholar of medieval Iberian Jewry and Twersky’s student, elaborated on this idea, writing that “mysticism and philosophy, pietism and biblical studies, all attempted in different (and often incompatible) ways to keep law rooted in spirituality, to ensure that it was infused with inner meaning.” This tension is inescapable, in Twersky’s view: he painted “halachico-centrism”—that is, the notion that normative Jewish law can survive without something like spirituality or philosophy; or, in other words, law as an end in itself, what I call elsewhere “halachic totalism”—as not only a Jewish fantasy but often quite dangerous.7 

As we will see below, the tension between law and spirit inherent in halacha, and the meta-halacha described by Twersky, remained operative even within strongly halachic communities. This is important because when we understand meta-halacha as a form of resistance—but not rejection—of halacha, the law/spirit tension at the foundation of normative rabbinic thought becomes apparent. Here is one example:

In 1904, Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch (the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, 1860–1920) published a book called Kuntres Etz ha-Chayim for his students, and in it, he taught that for the Talmud to work—for it to be spiritually efficacious, to make one a true servant of God—it had to be accompanied by the study of Hasidism (Chassidus). The Talmud, he wrote, was the “Tree of Knowledge,” while Hasidic teachings were the “Tree of Life.”8 Shalom DovBer put this into practice in his Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim by instituting the study of Hasidism as an integral part of the day (not simply something one does after a day of Talmud study), thereby revolutionizing Orthodox curriculum. Like many musar teachers of the time,9 Shalom DovBer believed meta-halachic literature (in his case, Hasidism) was an essential part of one’s religious education. The dynamic that Twersky captured so well is illustrated here: over-extended halachico-centrism will almost always evoke a spiritualistic reaction. This dynamic betrays the tension at the heart of halachic normativity, one that finds expression in other internal challenges to the law as well. As we will see, Schachter-Shalomi’s post-halacha builds on these meta-halachic projects in various ways. I argue, though, that Schachter-Shalomi’s post-halacha goes even further—namely, that it can be seen as a more expansive notion of the “necessary transgression,” or avera lishma. I use this term because it encompasses both the positive constructive notion of lishma (“for its own sake,” or “for the sake of heaven”)10 and the negative term “sin” to suggest that there are times when the sin is itself the mitzvah—that fulfilling divine will requires one to transgress it. Let’s now look at this notion of avera lishma, to see how it informs Schachter-Shalomi’s Paradigm Shift Judaism.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
from ALEPH Canada

Avera Lishma (Sin for the Sake of Heaven) and the Law

The idea that one might “sin for the sake of heaven” is embedded in scriptural and rabbinic tradition. Numerous biblical commentators gesture toward the notion that transgression, in certain cases, is permitted, basing themselves on the oft-cited verse in Psalms, “It is time to act for God, they have made void Your Torah.”11 In fact, in the Talmud, Rabbi Natan interprets this verse to mean that there are times when “voiding the Torah” is the way to “act for God.”12 One classic Talmudic example is Rashi’s comment in Berakhot 63a concerning Elijah bringing a sacrifice on Mount Carmel after the prohibition of sacrificial altars outside Jerusalem. Challenged by Ahab regarding God’s relationship with the Jews, Elijah had to sin in his standoff with Ahab to prove that God was on his side. That is, Elijah sinned by bringing a sacrifice specifically where sacrifices were prohibited in order to show his fidelity to God.13 These and many other cases of avera lishma are episodic and thus cannot support a more sustained, systemic break with normative halacha that is emblematic of what I am calling post-halacha. And yet, as I will try to show, the two are not totally distinct—at least not categorically so.

There are other cases where transgression itself becomes the law—where sin in some sense becomes its own halachic category. If a transgression is permitted, even mandated, it becomes part of the fabric of mitzvot, and is understood as operating in the orbit of fidelity to divine will.14 For example, in the Talmud, certain cases like the endangerment of life (pikuach nefesh) call for breaking Jewish law because “the foundation of the Torah is its nullification” (sh’bitual shel Torah he yesodah).15 In other words, one must break the law, if by doing so, one maximizes the chances of saving a life.

In an essay on avera lishma, Aharon Lichtenstein (1933–2015)—Modern Orthodox rabbi and long time rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion—suggested three traditional responses to cases where one’s sense of divine mandate and halacha conflict.16 The first is that such a breach is simply impossible; halacha is the will of God and thus halacha can and should provide the solution to all potential problems. The second is that such a breach is indeed possible but has few, if any, practical implications. The third is both more radical and more conservative than the first two: he suggests that although one can actually intuit divine will outside of halacha, one is still forbidden to follow such intuition since “one’s primary responsibility is to the law, even though it may err.”

The ambiguity between mitzvah and avera (law and sin) that’s introduced by the concept of avera lishma can lead to conflicts over how this rabbinic idea is applied. Most notably, it’s been used to validate acts that are clearly transgressive of Jewish law, yet arguably necessary. A common example is how some early Orthodox Zionists, counter to most of the Orthodox Jewish world at the time, understood secular Zionism as an instance of avera lishma. Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine and the founder of the religious Zionist yeshiva Merkaz ha-Rav Kook, is well-known for such a general assessment, although he explains it somewhat differently. Rav Kook was the founder of a stream of religious Zionism that embraced the secular Zionist project as part of the messianic process. For him, secular Zionism was a divinely ordained movement that was necessary to inspire Jews to return to the land of Israel—even though those returning were, according to rabbinic law, transgressors (that is, not halachically observant). Less well-known but equally important is Rabbi Yissacher Shlomo Teichtal (1885–1945), a Hungarian rabbinic leader and anti-Zionist who changed his views on Zionism after the rise of the pro-Nazi state in Slovakia where he lived. In his book Em ha-Banim Semecha (written mostly in hiding shortly before he was arrested and murdered by the Nazis), Teichthal writes: “Even if the builders of the land [in Israel] in our days are committing sins and deliberately defying the will of God and not keeping the commandments, still God welcomes their actions of building the land with love and great affection.”17 Akin to the Sabbateans, Teichthal, like Rav Kook before him, believed he was living on the cusp of the messianic era and thus saw such an avera lishma as potentially mandated in such extraordinary circumstances.

Another illustration of avera lishma comes from the religious Zionist thinker Moshe Ya’akov Charlap (1882–1951), who argued that sin can sometimes become Torah, but will never fully lose its transgressive nature. Charlap lived in Jerusalem and was a respected member of the Old Settlement Jewish community, serving as the rabbi of the Sha’arei Hesed neighborhood. He was a close friend and disciple of Rav Kook and served as rosh yeshiva of Merkaz ha-Rav Kook from its founding in 1924 until his death in 1951. Charlap wrote several important works on a variety of topics, including Torah commentary, essays on the festivals, and musar.18 In an essay on Purim in his book Mei Marom, he writes:

There are times when it is impossible for the world to continue (kiyum ha-olam) in its complete purity except by means of transgression in a temporary situation (avera be-hora’at sha’ah). And even though this temporary setting is Torah . . . nevertheless the act [of avera lishma] still contains a remnant of transgression.19

Charlap goes on to discuss the commandment to become inebriated (le-basumei) on Purim: he argues that in this case, the “temporary setting” (hora’at sha’ah) of Purim requires that one must descend to pure physicality through inebriation to meet the evil forces of the world head-on. What is not clear is whether this temporary setting is only on Purim, or if it is always in effect—meaning that Purim is simply the day when one enacts this avera lishma in order to illustrate this deeper reality. Purim, for Charlap, is the day that the forbidden becomes an obligation.

Charlap’s model of avera lishma suggests that the inversion of law and sin is sometimes necessary. As we’ll see below, this approach is distinct from Schacter-Shalomi’s model of post-halacha, in which the law is subverted in order to be properly fulfilled. Schacter-Shalomi’s post-halacha is not about the occasional, “temporary” inversion of the law; rather, it makes the performance of sin itself into Torah, through avera lishma. The post-halachic approach retains the word “halacha” precisely for this reason. Post-halacha takes its practitioner beyond the normative as an act of avera lishma in order to do the necessary work of preparing the world for a paradigm that will no longer require its services. What that paradigm will be, we do not know, but it will not require avera lishma.

“Schacter-Shalomi’s post-halacha is not about the occasional, ‘temporary’ inversion of the law; rather, it makes the performance of sin itself into Torah.”

Mordecai Kaplan, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

It may have been Mordecai Kaplan who first articulated post-halacha as the defining act of covenantal fidelity by re-situating Jewish practice on the horizontal plane of Jewish communal life, as opposed to the notion of halacha as fidelity to divine obligation. As I mentioned above, this first-tier post-halachic turn radically altered the subject that halacha was responding to. Kaplan thus reoriented divine law as communal practice: now, halacha is not an obligatory response to a supernatural God per se but an obligation to communal sustainability—in other words, a “folkway.” In this model, law is not born primarily (and certainly not solely) from textual precedent, but rather from a combination of normative practice, social mores, and communal need and preference. While one could argue that this was always, or often the case, for Kaplan, the emphasis is reversed and radicalized. Textual precedent serves the community, and if communal need is strong enough, textual precedent (or tradition), as Kaplan famously said, “gets a vote, not a veto.”20

What interests me here is what I consider a second phase of post-halachic Judaism, initiated by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in Jewish Renewal.21 Kaplan’s post-halachism is in large part responding to his view that Jews can’t be full participants in democracy while maintaining the enclavist perspective that traditional halacha suggests (even if only in theory). That is, halacha as separation from the rest of society needs to be revised to become halacha as the expression of one social group on a horizontal plane with other social groups exercising their social and religious freedom. It is not simply that the law must change—it is that the process by which law is created must change. Democracy requires a more integrative system of Jewish religiosity, both in theory and in practice. While Kaplan deeply understood the challenges of democracy for Jews in 1930s America, he also foresaw the multicultural turn that would make Reconstructionism (and other forms of modern Judaism) normative and, at the same time, ironically, create room for the resurgence of a more separatist halachic Judaism.22 While celebrating the multicultural move away from melting-pot assimilationism, Kaplan viewed a retreat to halachic exclusivism as retrograde and unproductive. I suggest it was the multicultural turn that came to pass later in the century, which Kaplan predicted, that created the conditions for the success of Chabad in America.23

I would argue that, in some way, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994), the seventh and final Lubavitcher rebbe, can be seen as following Kaplan’s lead in the development of what could be called Hasidic Reconstructionism or Hasidic post-halacha. I’m talking specifically about his Mitzvah Campaign, which infused a post-halachic spirit with a meta-halachic one, founded on a Kabbalistic framework that was deployed to popularize halachic practice among non-practicing Jews. When the Chabad emissary (shaliach) puts tefillin on a passing Jewish man on the street (he only approaches males with his tefillin, thus illustrating the remaining attachment to normative halacha), or has a Jew shake a lulav or light a Chanukah menorah, what exactly is transpiring? The emissary may think he is activating a spark in a Jewish soul (pintele yid), but for the actor, what’s happening is a performance of a Jewish “folkway,” an act that connects them to their Jewish roots. The performance is meant to evoke a momentary emotional reaction; it is not a mitzvah in the formal religious sense, which would require an acceptance of mitzvot rooted in a divine source. The performance of these rituals in such a context can hardly constitute halacha in this sense, since they have no basis in any sense of covenantal responsibility. It is interesting that Chabad often calls such performances “yiddishkeit” (“Jewishness”), a secular cultural term now used to describe religious practice. Yiddishkeit is in some way simply a series of “folkways.” Halacha may remain as a framework for the shaliach, but it is now presented as the cultural behavior of the Jew in a multicultural world. It is a way for the Jew to “feel” Jewish: a folkway.

Schneerson is important here because he managed to situate the meta-halacha of Hasidism into the post-halacha of American Jewish multiculturalism while retaining Orthodox practice. In a sense, I think Schneerson was in some way channeling Kaplan, as well as responding to the American religious freedom that enables the public display of Jewish folkways as a tool to inspire Jews. It is no coincidence that Schachter-Shalomi was a student of Schneerson and spent his early years as a Chabad emissary, and then later taught at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, where he first started his own community, P’nai Or.24 Fittingly, the last letter Schachter-Shalomi wrote to Schneerson, in the early 1970s, was in English, on Reconstructionist Rabbinical College letterhead. Schneerson never responded. In any case, both Kaplan and Schneerson helped give birth to Schachter-Shalomi’s version of post-halacha: in it, we see Schneerson’s innovation of bringing mitzvot to nonreligious Jews to cultivate Jewish identity, and Kaplan’s inversion of halacha, turning it from a divine command into an act of communal responsibility. However, Schachter-Shalomi’s post-halacha differs in critical aspects, as we will see below.

Schachter-Shalomi’s Post-Halacha as Avera Lishma

In the previous sections, we explored the unstable nature of halacha as normative law through the concepts of meta-halacha and the rabbinic concept of avera lishma. I argued that Mordecai Kaplan’s post-halacha was a recalibration of halacha on a horizontal plane of communal life, rather than the vertical axis of divine commandment. I showed how secular Zionism became an example of avera lishma in the renderings of religious Zionists like Kook, Teichthal, and Charlap. I also proposed how Schneerson’s Mitzvah Campaign can be seen as an (unwitting) expression of Kaplan’s post-halacha. Now I want to explain how Schachter-Shalomi’s post-halacha can be read as a case of avera lishma.

Schachter-Shalomi’s post-halachism is more radical than Kaplan’s in that it is an inversion of the normative halachic system of exclusiveness. By adopting a New Age, universalist perspective that Schachter-Shalomi called “deep ecumenicism,” Renewal presents a Jewish vision founded on the very un-halachic idea that Jewish normative practice should be a way of softening (but not dissolving) barriers between spiritual, ethnic, and national identities, rather than building them up. The goal here is to foster a more global consciousness that is founded on diversity but allows for permeable boundaries.25 In contrast, the post-halacha of both Kaplan and Schneerson remained Judeo-centric: in Kaplan’s case, toward building Jewish community (albeit one that rejected divine election and viewed Jews as a collective like any other), and in Schneerson’s case, toward evoking Jewish pride in alienated Jews through the performance of mitzvot as a kind of lost ancestral practice.26 In Schachter-Shalomi, we see a post-halacha that was not solely an exercise in Jewish solidarity or community building, but rather, a comprehensive halachic perspective that was integrationist and global in scope while retaining enough difference to prevent any kind of one-dimensional cosmopolitanism. Altering halacha’s raison d’être by undermining its ostensible separatism, Schachter-Shalomi’s post-halachic move subverts the telos of halacha while retaining a commitment to its nomos. Fidelity to a divine source remains, but now it is an answer to a divine call for a global spiritual revolution, in which Jews play a simultaneously central and supporting role through their renewed commitment to spiritual practice.27 This vision was founded on Schachter-Shalomi’s belief that the Holocaust and Hiroshima initiated a new global paradigm, one that requires Jews to view Torah as their gift to the world, rather than their shield—an injunction to embrace the world, rather than retreat from it.28

“This vision was founded on Schachter-Shalomi’s belief that the Holocaust and Hiroshima initiated a new global paradigm, one that requires Jews to view Torah as their gift to the world, rather than their shield—an injunction to embrace the world, rather than retreat from it.”

This approach makes Schachter-Shalomi’s post-halacha an iteration of collective avera lishma. In the rabbinic mind, as we have seen, avera lishma is permissible (in many cases, even mandated) in extenuating circumstances.29 Under those circumstances, it is not that one could annul halacha, but that the transgression of halacha becomes the halacha itself. But if we posit that we are living in a new global era—in a new paradigm—then the criteria for determining halachic behavior can no longer be measured exclusively by past precedent—that is, within the old paradigm. As a fundamental expression of this paradigmatic shift, Schachter-Shalomi posited that the subject of halachic practice is no longer the transcendent God above but the divine presence that dwells among us, including within the natural world.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
from ALEPH

This approach does not only yield more lenient practices, but often more stringent ones as well. One salient illustration is Schachter-Shalomi’s notion of eco-kashrut, in which environmental considerations are not merely preferred, but are in fact halachic prescriptions. Schachter-Shalomi suggests that if we determine, via the ideology of Gaia, that the earth is a living organism, when we pour waste into its waters we are not only guilty of ba’al tashkhit (unwarranted waste); we are also engaged in a kind of planetary murder that is just as bad as hunting an animal for sport.30 He argues, by extension, that fruits picked by migrant workers working in exploitative conditions should not be considered kosher. In short, for Schachter-Shalomi, kashrut is a comprehensive consciousness of consumption, not simply a prescription of laws determined by the tradition. These are not meta-halachic considerations, which would constitute merely a voluntary stringency—this is halacha itself, and one who ignores these considerations is transgressing. There are many other examples; the point is that the new paradigm creates conditions that require a reassessment of religious behavior from the inside out. This is the essence of Paradigm Shift Judaism. It enacts a kind of avera lishma in which the extenuating circumstances—like Charlap’s hora’at sha’ah, or temporary setting—become normative, yielding some cases in which the permissible becomes forbidden and the forbidden becomes permissible. For Kaplan, the social condition of American democracy called for such a revision of Jewish practice, while for Schneerson, it was the social context of American religious freedom, and the theological premise of the impending end-time, that dictated the use of mitzvot as performative outreach tactics. For Schachter-Shalomi, the paradigm of global spirituality emerged in the wake of the tragedies of World War II (and with environmental disaster on the horizon), requiring the construction of a new, post-halacha grounded in the theological premise of the divine dwelling in the world (perhaps even of the world).

In some way, perhaps, this takes us back to modern interpretations of avera lishma. As discussed earlier, Aharon Lichtenstein wrote that “one can actually come to know divine will outside of halacha, but one is still forbidden to follow it since one’s primary responsibility is to the law, even though it may err.” In Schachter-Shalomi’s post-halachic register, not unlike Charlap’s reading of the commandment to get drunk on Purim, the avera is not a nullification or an evasion of the law, but its fulfillment. Thus, it is not simply that the halacha errs, but that the halacha from a previous paradigm can be destructive. The law can become the sin. In this sense, Schachter-Shalomi’s post-halacha contains certain Sabbatean resonances. But it is not messianic in any formal way and it is not about breaking the law for its own sake (or lishma!). When knowledge of divine will is assessed outside the law, the law itself becomes transgressive until it is changed to suit the new status of divine will. It is, in some sense, a shift from halacha as the “fence that surrounds Torah” to halacha as a bridge that transports and directs Judaism’s contribution toward global tikkun (rectification), the survival of the planet, and the flourishing of human civilization. As the sages teach, the tablets are already broken into shards (“the broken tablets were placed in the ark”).31 The question may be which shard best represents fidelity to a divine call, a covenantal response, in any particular era.32 As in the case of avera lishma, sometimes transgression in one paradigm becomes Torah in the next.

A much abbreviated version of this paper was delivered at the Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law conference at Harvard Law School in 2016.


  1. Jack Cohen, Judaism in a Post-Halakhic Age (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2010).
  2. On halacha in general, see Chaim Saiman, Halakha (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).
  3. In particular, it arose as a response to the critique of the Karaites, a sect of Jews who opposed the Rabbinite’s claim to authority of scriptural interpretation and promoted a more “literal,” less expansive, and often stricter view of biblical law. (See Daniel Lasker, Karaism: An Introduction to the Oldest Surviving Alternative to Judaism [London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2022].) As the early medieval codifiers were constructing halacha from discussions in the Talmud, the Karaites accused them of distorting scripture through fantastical and unsubstantiated interpretation.
  4. The Pharisees were a Jewish sectarian movement in the Second Temple period that promoted proto-rabbinic interpretations of Mosaic Law, based on an Oral Torah, and advocated for Jewish religious practice outside of the Temple service. Some of their practices and ideas became a foundation for later rabbinic Judaism, but the Talmudic sages were not related to the Pharisees in any direct way whatsoever.
  5. However, it is worth noting that numerous contemporary scholars have argued that Paul’s relationship to the law is more nuanced than often suggested. See, for example: E. P. Sanders, Paul, the Law and the Jewish People (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1983); John Gager, Who Made Early Christianity: The Jewish Lives of the Apostle Paul (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015); Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Oakland: University of California Press, 1997); and Lloyd Gaston, Paul and the Torah (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006).
  6. Isadore Twersky, “Religion and Law,” in Religion in a Religious Age, edited by S. D. Goitein (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), 69–82.
  7. Shaul Magid, “Beyond Faith and Reason,” in Unsettling Jewish Knowledge: Text, Contingency, and Desire, edited by Martin Kavka, Lital Levy, and Anne Dailey (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming). Also see the critique of musar (Jewish pietistic literature) from Hazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, 1878–1953) in his book Emunah u’Bitachon for a perspective on this.
  8. The erstwhile disciple of the famed Kabbalist Isaac Luria, Hayyim Vital, said something similar centuries earlier in his teacher’s name.
  9. For example, the musar teacher Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1809–1883).
  10. The term lishma literally means “for Hashem.” In rabbinic literature, it refers to pure motives in study and practice, “neither because of fear nor because of reward, but because of love for the Lord.” Mishneh Torah, Halakhot Teshuvah 10:5. See more texts on the subject here (assembled by Meesh Hammer-Kossoy for the Pardes Institute).
  11. Psalms 119:126.
  12. Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 54a.
  13. See Mishneh Torah, Yesodei ha-Torah 9:3.
  14. The classical sugya about pikuach nefesh can be found in Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, Shabbat 1. See also Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Pikuach Neshama: To Save a Soul,” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, edited by Susannah Heschel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 54–67.
  15. Babylonian Talmud, Menachot, 99b.
  16. Aharon Lichtenstein, “Avera Lishma,” in Musar Aviv: Al Musar, Emunah, Ve-Chevrah [Musar Aviv: On Ethics, Faith, and Society], edited by Aviad Hacohen and Reuven Ziegler (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2016), 107.
  17. Shlomo Yissacher Teichthal, Em ha-Banim Semecha [The Happy Mother of Children] (1983; repr., Jerusalem: Hotza’at Kol HaMevaser, 1998), 55. See also the discussion in Motti Inbari, “Messianic Expectations in Hungarian Orthodox Theology Before and After the Second World War,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 107, no. 4 (Fall 2017): 525.
  18. On Charlap and his relationship to other disciples of Kook, see Dov Schwartz, Etgar Umashber be-Chug ha-Rav Kook [Challenge and Crisis in Rav Kook’s Circle] (Tel Aviv: Am Over, 2001). By way of comparison, see Shaul Magid, “Purim: When the Sin Becomes the Mitzvah,” Jewish Journal, March 18, 2019.
  19. Y. M. Charlap, Mei Marom (Jerusalem: 1998). The commentary here centers on Shulkhan Arukh, Orach Chayim 298:5. Charlap is making the point that there is a resonance of transgression in the act of lighting a fire on Shabbat even by a gentile who is not prohibited from doing so. Thus, while it is permitted to benefit from such a light, one should not perform a mitzvah (such as havdalah) with it.
  20. This is markedly different from Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg’s famous adage regarding gender and halacha: “Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halakhic way.” Greenberg’s comment is a plea to the rabbinic authorities to find precedent to revise behavior, and is thus still moored to a more standard form of halachic adjudication. (Blu Greenberg, “Where There is a Rabbinic Will, There is a Halakhic Way: History or Hearsay,” lecture given at the International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, New York City, February 20–21, 2000.) In Kaplan, the obligation moves from a commanding God to the community as anchor of Jewish life, and thus in halacha’s “post” state, its parameters need not be justified according to traditional norms of adjudication (Greenberg’s “rabbinic way”) because, in part, the very object of halachic fidelity has changed. This understanding of halacha reaches far beyond Kaplan’s Reconstructionist movement and can be applied in some form to much of American Jewry’s practice of halacha, even those communities who still adhere to the normative notion of law as obligatory practice answering a divine command.
  21. On moving from a “neo” to “post” state, see my article “Joseph and Judah: From Neo to Post Hasidism,” My Jewish Learning, December 11, 2021.
  22. For the most sustained view of Schachter-Shalomi and halacha, see Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Jewish with Feeling: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2013), 115–148; and Schachter-Shalomi and Daniel Siegel, Integral Halachah (Victoria, BC, Canada: Trafford Publishing, 2007).
  23. See Shaul Magid, “Is There an American Jewish Fundamentalism? Part I: American Habad,” in Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History, edited by Simon A. Wood and David Harrington Watt (Charleston, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2014), 70–91.
  24. On Schachter-Shalomi’s history with Chabad, see Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, My Life in Renewal: A Memoir (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), 57–96.
  25. On Schachter-Shalomi and Robert Thurman, see Schachter-Shalomi, My Life in Renewal, 87–96.
  26. Schneerson’s Noahide Law campaign directed at gentiles is an interesting exception to his otherwise Judeo-centric project.
  27. A similar but also different notion of halacha and the divine call can be found in Arthur Green, Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 79–119.
  28. See my article, “Jewish Renewal and the Holocaust: A Theological Response,” Tikkun Magazine 21, no. 2 (April 2006): 59–68.
  29. On the rabbinic notion of avera lishma, see Yuval Blankovsky, Chayt le-Shem Shamayim [Sin for the Sake of Heaven] (Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 2017); Nahum Rakover, “Violation of the Law in Order to Preserve It,” Jewish Law Association Studies VI (1992): 107–123; and Isaiah Gafni, “Chayt le-Shem Shamayim: Makomo shel Ra’ayon ha-Avera Lishma [Sin for the Sake of Heaven: Contemporary Studies in the Idea of Avera Lishma],” De’ot 10 (April 2001): 10–14.
  30. Schachter-Shalomi, Jewish with Feeling, 149–180.
  31. Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 14b.
  32. Another approach to this that demands close attention is Rav Shagar’s Luchot Veshivrei Luchot [Tablets and Broken Tablets] (Jerusalem: Yediot Sefarim, 2013).

Shaul Magid is Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University, and rabbi of the Fire Island synagogue. He works on Jewish thought and culture from the sixteenth century to the present, focusing on the Jewish mystical and philosophical tradition. His three latest books are The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism (Academic Studies Press, 2019), and Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical (Princeton University Press, 2021). His book The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance will be published with Ayin Press in 2023. He writes regularly for Religion Dispatches, +972, and other topical journals. He is an elected member of the American Academy for Jewish Research and the American Society for the Study of Religion.

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