Innovation and Change in Jewish Thought, from an 18th Century Rabbinic Leader

Innovation.  Development.  Human intelligence.  Human error.

How important are these to Jewish thought and practice?  According to Rabbi Arieh Leib Heller, one of the foremost rabbinic authorities of 18th century Poland, they are essential:  intrinsic to the Jewish people and the Jewish religion.  He explains that the written Torah is public property, accessible both to Jews and to others.  But the verbal Torah, innovated and refined over successive generations, ‘is ours’.  It is uniquely Jewish.  

Rabbi Heller sets out his thinking in the introduction to his most famous work, the Ketzot HaHoshen, which is a commentary on the civil law handed down in the Shulhan Aruch.  His introduction provides a philosophy of Jewish thought that synthesises divine revelation with human intelligence and human innovation, based around four key ideas.

First, that innovation in Torah is an essential element of the world itself.  Rabbi Heller equates innovation in Torah with the creation of the universe.  He describes the creation as a continuous, ongoing process and parallels human efforts to create new Torah with God’s continuation of his physical creation.

Second, that innovation requires human intelligence.  As he puts it, quoting from the Talmud, “the Torah is not in Heaven”.  Human intelligence rather than divine revelation is the key to innovation in Torah and those human leaders who possess the necessary intellectual skills are obliged to use them.  Innovation via human intelligence is not just a privilege:  it is an obligation and a responsibility.

Third, that the use of human intelligence implies, necessarily, human error.  Torah that is innovated by the human mind does not equate to absolute truth and our leaders do not have access to such a truth.

Finally, that the right and the responsibility to innovate are connected with an obligation and a responsibility to retain community cohesion by listening to and obeying community leaders.  In this sense he reflects a pre-denominational view of a united Jewish community and points the way to a new, post-denominational Jewish community that can stand above today’s schisms.

Rabbi Heller’s introduction to the Ketzot HaHoshen is an astonishing, important text for anyone who hopes for a living, breathing Jewish halacha and philosophy.  But his thought is not accessible.  It has never been translated, it is rarely published – many editions of the Shulhan Aruch omit it – and it is too discursive and too long to teach easily.  But it is worth the effort.  In the draft, working translation posted here, I have added paragraphs and paragraph headings to make it easier to follow, as well as a full set of notes and sources.

Completing the first stage of this translation has been a labour of love over many years.  It is offered to the public now for comment and discussion in the hope that Rabbi Heller’s radical ideas may become as well-known in the 21st century as they were in the 18th.

Introduction to the Ketzot HaHoshen

About Benedict Roth

An occasional Talmud student and popular teacher who has studied at Oxford and at Machon Pardes.
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1 Response to Innovation and Change in Jewish Thought, from an 18th Century Rabbinic Leader

  1. Gabriel Roth says:

    The idea that “the Torah is not in heaven” can also be found in the Torah itself, in Devarim (Deuteronomy) chapter 30, verses 11-14

    “This commandment that I set before you today is neither remote nor inaccessible to you. IT IS NOT IN HEAVEN, so that you should say, “Who shall ascend to the heavens and bring it down to us so that we can understand it and keep it?” It is not beyond the sea, so that you should ask, “Who will cross the sea and bring it back for us so that we can understand and keep it?” Indeed, it is very close to you — it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can keep it.”

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