Rabbinic Attitudes toward Uncertainty Reveal the Underlying Humanity of Halakhah

Oct. 29 2020

When one hears about religious discussions of doubt, one thinks about those who are unsure in their beliefs. But in his book The Birth of Doubt, Moshe Halbertal examines something else entirely: how the rabbis of the 3rd and 4th centuries CE dealt with situations of halakhic uncertainty, such as a piece of meat that might have been purchased from a kosher butcher, but could possibly have originated from a non-kosher one. Zalman Rothschild writes in his review:

Halbertal makes sense of these disparate and seemingly arbitrary standards for determining permissible consumption [in such cases] by drawing attention to the early rabbis’ sensitivity to the chaotic nature of the public marketplace and human frailty. Early rabbinic authorities appreciated that a purchaser of meat in a busy market is more prone to forgetting from whom he made his purchases. The anxiety surrounding doubt as to the source of the meat and a . . . draconian rule requiring one to assume the worst when in doubt would disincentivize merchants from participating in public markets.

The earliest stratum of rabbinic law, with great foresight and sensitivity, established a [set of rules] according to which the Jewish merchant can enter the marketplace armed with confidence that an entire system of laws would be implicated in any situation of legal doubt, and that this system of laws does not stringently require him to discard something he purchased simply because he doesn’t have near-certainty that it is kosher.

The heaps of laws surrounding states of uncertainty—which Halbertal correctly describes as some of the most complex areas of Jewish law—were not designed, by virtue of their sheer volume and complexity, to increase anxiety but to quell it. Early rabbinic engagement with doubt was thus an expression of liberation, not legal bondage. Its intent was not to compound hair-splitting laws on top of likely never-to-be-experienced hypotheticals for the sake of burdening Jews with laws where none previously existed, thereby adding to their already extensive repertoire of rules. Rather, this complex system was intended to free up the Jewish practitioner.

Read more at Marginalia

More about: Halakhah, Judaism, Moshe Halbertal, Talmud

How Israel and Its Allies Could Have a Positive Influence on the Biden Administration’s Iran Policy

Nov. 25 2020

While the president-elect has expressed his desire to return the U.S. to the 2015 nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic, this should not in itself cause worry in Jerusalem; it has never been the Israeli government’s position that a deal with Tehran is undesirable, only that the flaws of the deal negotiated by the Obama administration outweighed its benefits. Thus Yaakov Amidror, Efraim Inbar, and Eran Lerman urge Israel to approach Joe Biden’s national-security team—whose senior members were announced this week—to urge them to act prudently:

To the greatest extent possible, such approaches should be made jointly, or in very close coordination with, Israel’s new partners in the Gulf. These countries share Israel’s perspectives on the Iranian regional threat and on the need to block Tehran’s path to nuclear weapons.

For Israel, for Iran-deal skeptics in Washington, and for her partners in the region, the first operational priority is to persuade the incoming U.S. national-security team to maintain full leverage on Iran. Sanctions against Iran should not be lifted as a “gesture” without a verified Iranian return to the status quo ante (at the very least) in terms of low-enriched-uranium stockpiles and ongoing enrichment activities.

In parallel, there may emerge a unique opportunity to close ranks with the French (and with Boris Johnson’s government in London) on the Iranian question. On several issues (above all, the struggle for hegemony in the eastern Mediterranean, against Turkey), Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi, and Paris now see eye-to-eye. On Iran, during the negotiations leading to the [deal] in 2015, the position of France was often the most robust. In 2018, President Macron was willing to reach an operational understanding with Secretary of State Pompeo on [key issues regarding the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities].

Last but certainly not least, it should be clear to the incoming U.S. national-security team that any attempt to negotiate must be, can be, and (as far as Israel is concerned) firmly will be backed by a credible military threat.

Read more at Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

More about: France, Iran nuclear program, Israeli Security, US-Israel relations