הלכה | Essays in Jewish Law

“Jewish Law” is an imperfect translation for halakhah, which can be understood as a devotional form of walking with God. Halakhah encompasses moral and spiritual goals that transcend the limited demands of most formal systems of law. I explored this idea in an essay called “Walking the Walk,” which was published in the book, Jewish Theology in Our Time (edited by Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, Jewish Lights, 2010). In another book, The Observant Life (edited by Rabbi Martin Cohen, Rabbinical Assembly, 2012), I contributed a chapter offering halakhic guidance to modern family relationships.

Most of my attention has been devoted to specific halakhic questions. The resulting essays are known as responsa (teshuvot), and mine have been written primarily for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS). These tend to be somewhat technical, but I try to write them in a fashion that is accessible and informative for any dedicated reader. Here are descriptions of my approved responsa, starting with the most recent, together with links to download their full text as a PDF. I also provide several brief studies which I wrote as concurrences to other responsa–Rabbi Danny Nevins

Early Circumcision During a Pandemic. As the Covid pandemic intensified and some jurisdictions imposed lockdowns, it became difficult for some families to convene for a brit milah on their son’s eighth day of life. In such circumstances is it permitted to circumcise early in the hospital? How might the mitzvah of brit milah be later fulfilled, and with what liturgy? This responsum was approved by the CJLS on December 10, 2020.

Triage and the Sanctity of Life. I composed this opinion at the end of March 2020 in response to the Covid-19 crisis, even as recovered from my own mild case. Rabbi Elliot Dorff composed a separate responsum with a distinct approach, but we collaborated on a shared statement of halakhic findings, and both papers were approved by the CJLS on May 13, 2020.

Artificial Intelligence, Moral Machines and Halakhah was approved by the CJLS on June 19, 2019. I surveyed the field of machine ethics and brought it into conversation with halakhic discourses of agency, damages, limited liability and ethics. I concluded that while AI and autonomous machines may provide valuable assistance to humans in making and implementing momentous decisions, a human must remain responsible, especially for matters of life and death. The boundary between human and artificial life is significant and must be maintained.

Kashrut of Cultured Meat was approved by the CJLS on November 14, 2017 by a vote of 21-1. I concluded that the species of animal from which cultured meat derives matters–it must come from a kosher source–but that the forbidden status of “meat torn from a live animal” is not transmitted to later generations in the cell line. And, drum roll, that while such meat could arguably be considered to be pareve, there are grounds for doubt, and we should rule stringently that cultured meat will be “meaty” and not permitted to mix with dairy products.

Halakhic Perspectives on Genetic Engineering was approved by the CJLS on November 10, 2015 by a vote of 21-0. In it I argued that the concept of kilayim (mixed species) should not be applied to restrict most forms of genetic modification, but would prohibit the creation of dual-species or chimeric organisms, especially if involving humans.

The Use of Electrical and Electronic Devices on Shabbat was voted on and approved by the CJLS on May 31, 2012. In it I provided an overview of the laws of Shabbat, focusing on the specific issues posed by contemporary electrical appliances and digital devices. I also considered broader Jewish values such as the demands of health, dignity, conservation, and spiritual joy in arriving at a nuanced set of conclusions. Turning to the mainstream media, I contributed a related article called “Seeing God in Other’s Faces” to The New York Times feature, “Room for Debate,” and also participated in The Atlantic Online’s article, “People of the E-book?” The NY Jewish Week published an interview with me on this subject in August 2012. The Washington Post referred to the controversy over using digital devices in an article by Michelle Boorstein published in September, 2013. New York Times writer Jennifer Medina quoted me on this subject in her April 14, 2014 article about the use of digital Hagadot and other apps on Passover, “A Question for Seder: What Role for Screens?”

Homosexuality, Human Dignity and Halakhah was  a landmark opinion that I co-authored with Rabbi Elliot Dorff and Rabbi Avram Reisner, which was approved by the CJLS on December 6, 2006. In it we argued that the halakhic demand to preserve human dignity and prevent humiliation superseded the rabbinic level prohibitions on same-sex intimacy. This resulted in a normalization of status for gay and lesbian Jews, their eligibility for all forms of religious leadership, and the possibility of recognizing same-sex marriages. It paved the way for the admission of openly gay and lesbian Jews to the rabbinical and cantorial schools of JTS, of the Ziegler School, and eventually, the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, as well as their ability to be members of The Rabbinical Assembly and The Cantors Assembly.

Subsequently, we returned to the topic with  Ceremonies and Documents for Same Sex Marriage and Divorce developing several ceremony templates and documents for each in a responsum approved by the CJLS on May 31, 2012.

Contemporary Criteria for the Declaration of Death was my examination of developments in determining death based on neurological criteria (brain death) for the purpose of discontinuing life support and permitting the transplantation of vital organs. In it I affirmed the traditional significance of respiration, rather than cardiac activity, and argued that the permanent inability to breathe as indicated by the apnea test, combined with complete lack of brain function, fulfilled halakhic criteria for declaring death. This responsum was approved by the CJLS on September 8, 2004. I was interviewed on this subject for WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show on July 27, 2009. A revised version was published as chapter eight in Hakol Kol Yaakov, a jubilee volume in honor of Rabbi Joel Roth.

The Participation of Jews who are Blind in the Torah Service was approved by the CJLS on January 15, 2003. In it I made the case for maximizing the access of people who are visually impaired to lead Jewish public worship. The one limitation was in chanting Torah for the congregation from a Braille text, but here too I looked for solutions to allow Jews who are blind to participate in this deeply meaningful ritual.

Concurrence on Hiyyuv Nashim (2014) was submitted in support of Rabbi Pamela Barmash’s responsum on Women and Mitzvot. Like Rabbi Barmash, I feel that the classical exemption of women from mitzvot such as Torah study and statutory public prayer should be discontinued so that our practice of mitzvot can be considered fully egalitarian. Yet I feel it necessary to consider the challenge of expanding mitzvah practice when it runs contrary to established religious identity, to exhibit patience in our encouragement, and to focus on education to help women understand and embrace unfamiliar mitzvot such as wearing tefillin.

A Concurring Opinion on Sign-Language Torah Readings (2011) supported the work of Rabbi Pamela Barmash in her responsum normalizing the status of deaf Jews and including them in all leadership roles. In it, I (and several other CJLS members who co-signed) identified specific halakhic issues raised by the presentation of a public Torah service in sign language, and suggested ways to preserve the ritual integrity of the recitation.

A Concurring Opinion on Mamzerut was filed with the CJLS in May 2000 in response to Rabbi Elie Spitz’s paper on the same subject. I made the case for maintaining the formal category of Mamzerut even while recommending the aggressive use of traditional strategies to disallow evidence that would harm the interests of children for events beyond their control.