And What If The Halacha Is Wrong?

What happens if the halacha is wrong?

I was wasting time, as usual, on my frum women’s groups when I had another uncomfortable encounter with “the halacha”. “I can’t get pregnant”, a sorrowed woman told us, because I ovulate on day 9.” Maybe she can never get pregnant, hold a baby in her arms because “halacha” or maybe she will but at the cost of mood swings and weight gain and increased risk of blood clots and whatever laundry list of side effects come with the medical cure for the halachic problem. What pain in the name of serving Hashem.

Except…. What if the halacha is wrong?

I was talking to a mother grieving her OTD daughter. They were still talking, still keeping in touch, but she finally asked us what to do about the non-Jewish man her daughter intended to marry. A good man, a respectful man, and how many mothers like her were told, halachically, they could not attend the wedding or even in some cases allow the son-in-law into their family life. “It would go against our values” or “the other children in the house would see and be led astray.” A choice for some, the force of a psak for others. How much suffering must that mother and daughter feel, for the daughter to have to choose between her husband and her mother? Between her values of lack of belief in the faith, in rejection of the morality of this faith, and her family? How much does the mother cry when her decision leads to lifelong estrangement not only from her daughter but her possible grandchildren?

But… what if the halacha is wrong?

My husband’s friend was severely depressed in yeshiva, and sometimes no amount of shaking and yelling could wake him for morning classes. He roamed the halls late at night reciting poetry and then slept in late, lacking the will to go about his days. I’m told he missed the arts, a field he was no longer involved in due to their rigorous Shabbat-heavy performance schedules. But more than that, I’m told he felt lonely. He was a gay man, and he knew by force of the halacha he would never be allowed companionship. In his “return” to the faith, he had committed to living and dying alone in the world…. Without husband, without children, without ever experiencing romantic love requited.

Yet… what if the Halacha is wrong?

I was talking to another woman who didn’t want to have a baby. She was the one who had never wanted, or didn’t want right now. She was the one who didn’t have the money or the emotional health to nurture a life. She was the one who had no children or had enough for her lifetime. The birth control wasn’t good for her, she said. It was this side effect or that one, this medical fragility no method could circumvent and leave her whole. All she wanted was for her husband to take the responsibility, to use the one method of prevention that would cause him no harm. But the halacha does not bend for wasted seed. It didn’t matter that he was “wasting seed” all his life, by nightly accidents and by biology, by days in which they were intimate and the sperm died or was rejected. The rules were the rules, she said, and the halacha fell all on her hands and her body…. Not his.

And what if the halacha is wrong?

I was thinking about all the things that used to bring me joy in my deep-seated clinical depression. I talked about it with the other women. “Remember when we used to sing in public, the melody bringing us to laugh and smile? We still sing now, yet it is harder, rarer, the way we tiptoe around the Shabbos guests in those few free moments we might have to sing. Remember when we used to hug, and I could cry in my husband’s arms when the darkness pricked me like a needle? I can still hug him, sometimes, but not today, nor tomorrow, not when I need it most. Remember when I could sit at my great grandmother’s table and eat the blintzes she so proudly laid out for me? Her memory is going, she points to the album pictures of her mother and nannies and says they are her now, but the making and sharing of meals is second nature. She never understands why I turn down the food, never remembers that I keep kosher, never registers why I can’t come for her weekend birthday parties because it would be impossible to catch a flight before the Shabbat comes. It’s not the food that I miss, but the time together…. The bond. The ability to accept a proudly given gift from a dying woman.

And what is it’s all wrong?

Then what do I feel? What is my life? What excuses can I give when I approach G-d on high and tell him I rejected my mother, my daughter, refused to be loved, refused to love, denied a dying woman her last wish? What will my husband say on high when he says he watched me cry alone in the name of the Law, in the name of the makers of his faith who, it turns out, had erred? Can he say simply “but I followed the G-d that CHAZAL told me to?” Can I say “but I followed the G-d that Maimonides told me to?” Can we say that we were like Avrohom, that we made sacrifices that went against the Truth of G-d in the name of G-d, because this time, there was no angel to stop us from the unthinkable? And then…… will G-d forgive us?

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  1. BT been there December 24, 2018 at 12:04 pm

    So well written. In my journey as a BT I rejected my entire secular family since I thought I knew better. I missed many weddings and stopped going to everyones home because of traif. I am burdened by this regret and I am now fully estranged from my secular family. Relatives have long since past and I am but a forgotten memory. I would do anything to be that reform girl who would eat matzo ball soup on pesach and not have to worry about wetting my matzo. I destroyed my connected over family over food!!! I admit now what a terrible person I am thinking I was better because I did not use electricity one day a week. Its far too late for me, I am fully entrenched in the community and with kids. I can’t leave now and I am stuck with the bad choices I made as a 19 year old girl allowing myself to be guided by chabad house Rabbis who are now not even in my life now that I am frum. I live a life of regret missing my family and being able to sing out loud in synagogue.

    1. Anonymous December 24, 2018 at 2:45 pm

      I hear you.

    2. CZ December 24, 2018 at 5:26 pm

      Such authentic beauty and fine writing! My heart breaks for you. I’m not trivializing your situation or saying that a drastic change would be easy, but it’s not too late until it is. Also, it’s possible to make small changes (such as aligning yourself with modern orthodox). There are many observant Jews who aren’t burdened with – how to say this? – dogmatic adherence to *tradition* (which (historically) adapts).

      You may think I can’t possibly understand, but I’m also stuck in a life that isn’t my own, yet I endure. Don’t be like me. Be brave!

      I am there with you.

    3. Miriam September 4, 2019 at 9:52 pm

      I live with the same regret. So many times I separated myself from my family, and now they are gone, and every memory is precious. So many more memories that were never made.

  2. Sandy December 24, 2018 at 12:26 pm

    Beautiful and spot on. Thank you😘

  3. Anonymous December 24, 2018 at 2:44 pm

    THANK YOU. Im going OTD and this is largely why. I want to keep halacha but for some of the above reasons, I just can’t. I need my health more than I need Halacha. Its so hard though, because it looks like I dont care, and I care a lot. There’s more that I cant articulate right now. Thank you.

  4. Justin Jaron Lewis December 24, 2018 at 6:00 pm

    This is heartbreaking, as is the comment from “BT been there”.

    As a ger who never went “all the way” into frumkeit I can relate strongly and I am thankful _not_ to have taken on some of the way of life you are describing, for the reasons you state.

    I have to say that some of the issues you mention are private matters bein ish l’ishto which _could_ be sorted out by mutual agreement. If you look, especially with the internet at your fingertips, you can find Orthodox rabbis, or at least people deeply knowledgeable in halakhah, who would allow the “halakhically infertile” woman to go to the mikveh early, the husband of the woman who can’t handle having a child to use a condom. Or you to hug your husband at whatever time of the month! I hope you and they will look! Nobody else needs to know about what couples are doing in private.

    And some of what is being discussed here really is in the category of chumra (definitely the wet matzah issue that BT Been There mentions!) But that or the issue of women singing at home or at shul — which is absolutely fine in some Orthodox communities — are matters of community standards. If you have chosen to be part of a community where women don’t sing where men could hear them, that is not something you can sort out in private.

    It might be something to become an activist about, though. You mention a lonely gay man… and growing number of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews have become activists, telling their stories, insisting on honesty, probing the limits of the halakhah. The world we live in is changing fast and that includes the halakhic world (and the argument that “nature has changed” is available to poskim!) For all i know you are a big activist already (this is the first time I am reading a post of yours) — but even if writing this article were your only intervention, that would already be a great step toward provoking change. Perhaps. Worth trying.

    Some issues you touch on _are_ going to be seen by nearly everyone as core halakhic issues. Even though Blu Greenberg has famously concluded “where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way”, I would be very surprised if you could get anyone to pasken that you can fly to your great-grandmother’s on Shabbes and eat the lovingly made food from her non-kosher kitchen (though it couldn’t hurt to ask!) So in a conflict like that I would think in terms of civil disobedience. You could choose to prioritize the Jewish imperative of mentshlikhkeyt over the Jewish imperative of following the halakhah, in this instance. Perhaps. If your frum family could handle it.

    Regardless of what can or can’t be done, I also want to say that you should not be too hard on yourself. Everyone makes choices and takes on commitments that cut us off from people in some ways while connecting us in others. (I was vegetarian before I became Jewish and that also caused some difficulties. Then I moved to a different city for work and that diminished my connection with family and friends. And so on!) The nature of human life is that every move and every joining also brings some separation. Right near the beginning of the Torah we learn
    על כן יעזב איש את אביו ואת אמו ודבק באשתו
    – “and so a husband _forsakes_ his father and his mother, and joins with his wife”!
    You and others have made your commitments to halakhah and to specific Jewish communities with courage and good will and some disconnection from other ways of life and other people was inevitable and that is not your fault but the nature of life.

    Thank you so much for this post and all the questions it raises — and the inspiration of your clarity and courage which shine in your writing.

  5. Eliyahoo Hatishbie September 4, 2019 at 9:52 am

    Very well written, thank you. One-size-fits-all rules can be very cruel and often adds agony and pain to an already dire situation. Personally, I grapple with these questions daily. These topics are often overlooked because the ones who suffer are often ashamed and voiceless. We are told not to question because Rabbis know best. However, I always wonder how come Chazal were able to find solutions such as erev, mechiras chumetz, prizble etc, but somehow when it comes to issues effect mostly women there is no leniency.


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