by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper
Link to the Teshuvot can be found here.
The first level of moral responsibility is stimulus-response. When presented with an opportunity to do the right thing, people at this level notice the prompt and acts properly. This may involve as small a thing as expressing gratitude for an unexpected kindness, or as large as jumping into a burning building to rescue a trapped child.
The second level of moral responsibility is commitment. People at this level act not only for the moment but in order to become who they wish to be. This may involve as small a thing as learning daf yomi in order to know Shas, or as large as practicing smiling in bleak times so that one can greet every human being with a pleasant countenance.
The third level of moral responsibility is accountability. People at this level act not only for their own development, but for the sake of building a society that exemplifies their ideals. This may involve as small a thing as actively seeking out and supporting the people and work that bring one’s ideals to life, or as large as genuinely seeking out constructive criticism of one’s own character and work.
The highest level of accountability – and of love – is embodied in contracts, or covenants. Stimulus-response people make great dates; commitment people make great boyfriends and girlfriends; but halakhah teaches that true love is constituted by binding contracts that can be enforced on you even if you no longer feel the same way. This is why signing the halakhic prenuptial agreement is an ultimate Jewish expression of love.
And yet – halakhah permits divorce, and recognizes widowhood. Sometimes commitments end, and sometimes they need to be broken. Some should never have started. The job of halakhah is to create a framework of personal and social accountability that does not chain or imprison or even constrain autonomy more than absolutely necessary. (One task of a Jewish human is to become the kind of person who experiences halakhic observance as liberating.)
The 2016 Summer Beit Midrash grew out of my recognition that halakhah sometimes allows legal commitments, even marriage, to be torn out at the roots as if they never happened. How can that be done without jeopardizing the whole framework of accountability? If contracts can be broken just because they turned out badly for one party, aren’t all commercial relationships reduced to fly-by-night romances that exist only so long as they provide instant gratification?
My initial interest was in marriage, and was stimulated by the efforts of Rav Dovid Bigman and Rav Uriel Lavie to use the principle “She did not marry with that in mind” to free women who would otherwise be bound hopelessly to vegetative or absconded husbands. I thought of kiddushin and nisuin as specific kinds of contractual relationships, and so though it might be productive to understand how that principle had played out in Choshen Mishpat (civil law) as well as in Even HaEzer (family law).
But as so often happens in Talmud, an apparent tangent turned out to be the main line of inquiry.
The SBM Fellows and I ended up seeing contract law as a fascinating window on the nature and purpose of halakhah both classically and in our day. We grappled with general legal theory through the worknotes of Professor Chaim Saiman of Villanova Law School; with comparative contract law through the generosity of Professor David Morris Phillips of Northeastern University Law School; and with comparative marriage law through the generosity of Dr. Lisa Fishbayn Joffe of the Hadassah Brandeis Institute and the Boston Agunah Taskforce. We were privileged to hear guest shiurim and test ideas with Rabbi Chaim Jachter, author of the acclaimed Gray Matters book series; Rabbi Dov Linzer, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah; and distinguished and beloved SBM alums Rabbi Jonathan Ziring and Yoetzet Halacha Ora Ziring of the Yeshiva University Torah MiTzion Beit Midrash Zichron Dov of Toronto. Most of all, we built a community of learning that was grounded in commitment and accountability. This was exemplified by the deeply serious responsa written by the fellows and myself individually and honed through collective critique.
It goes without saying that for those who care about halakhah, about Modern Orthodox halakhah, and about the full participation of women in the development and discourse of halakhah – there is nothing at all comparable.
It is my privilege to present you here with some of the fruits of our labors. We hope that they will give you joy in the moment; deepen your commitment to Torah; and help us build a relationship of mutual support and accountability.