Originally published in Masorti Matters, February 1994.
Rabbi Jacobs gave a comprehensive lecture on this subject. Because of the importance of the topic Rabbi Jacobs will be writing a paper which will be published by Masorti. The following is a summary of the lecture.
Masorti yields to none in its acknowledgement of the central role Halacha has always played in Jewish life. But, precisely because of that we must not surrender to what Heschel calls Pan Halachism, namely that Halacha is the be all and end all of Judaism. It is absurd, for instance, to consult the Halacha on whether one should lose his temper since there are whole areas of life where a person has to make his own individual decision.
Rabbi Jacobs gave a number of cogent examples of where Halacha is being abused by invoking it in areas where everything must be left to individual choice.
For example, even in Conservative Judaism in the United States a tendency is to be observed to define everything in Halachic categories, albeit more leniently than orthodoxy. The problem of women’s rights, for example, is not an Halachic problem at all since there is no legal objection to a woman teaching the Torah. What Conservative Rabbis who favour women Rabbis should be saying is not that the Halacha permits it but that this question belongs to religious opinions for which one can argue both for and against without fear of infringing Jewish law.
Another illustration of the abuse of Halacha is the notion prevelent among the ultra-orthodox of Daas Torah, namely, that the Gedolim (the “Great Ones”) have a kind of built in spiritual radar system which enables them to pontificate on all topics such as political questions with the result that their opinion is that of the Torah with which it is forbidden to take issue. There is nothing remotely comparable to this in the traditional Halacha. The notion did not, in fact, emerge until the twentieth century under the influence of the veneration paid to the Rebbe in Chasidism.