One of the happier phenomena in the rapidly changing American Jewish scene is the new prominence accorded to the Halakhah, traditional Jewish law. Often dismissed by non-Orthodox religious leaders and ignored by many a Jewish scholar in the past, the Halakhah is now more and more recognized as central to the Jewish tradition. The degree of its centrality may well be a question of one's religious commitment and theological perspective, but it is now recognized as indisputable that no appreciation of Judaism can be achieved without it.
What the casual student of Judaism often fails to understand is the seriousness with which Halakhah is taken by a large number of contemporary Jews. Far from being an ancient system of law that is essentially of antiquarian interest, Halakhah is being consulted more and more by Jews who seek its guidance—and by scholars who suspect that implicit within its legal formulations and involved dialectic there lies a body of values and norms and concepts of the greatest significance for the understanding of Judaism.
Indeed, Halakhah never experienced a complete hiatus in its inner development, that is, in the constant application and reapplication of its principles to the challenges of a society and culture in constant flux. While it is unquestionably true that at times its expositors were more creative and at other times less bold and less imaginative, every period of history made its contribution to the growing richness of Halakhah in its various branches—especially its responsa literature (the Halakhah's "case law"), which in the modern period often appears in periodicals throughout the world.
The present volume by Rabbi David Bleich is testimony to the ongoing nature of the halakhic enterprise. The very scope of the questions and problems treated by contemporary halakhists, as summarized and evaluated in this latest work by Dr. Bleich, is vivid testimony to the catholicity of the Halakhah's concerns and the vitality of its responsiveness. One will not find here the monolith that common prejudice has so often ascribed to the Halakhah. Instead, a variety of opinions, a multiplicity of voices, debate, controversy and argumentation are as characteristic of the halakhic process today as they were in the past. Yet clearly, the Halakhah, today no less than in the past, is not considered by its adherents and its major expositors as a system of vague "guidelines," a body of opinions variegated enough to pick and choose at will, and amorphous enough to sustain any predetermined conclusion. The goal of the process is a precise mode of action, the method is juridically sound, the foundation is an implicit and unshakable religious conviction.
The author has endeavored to include as many opinions as he can on each controversial subject but, because of the nature of this work, has restricted himself to those authorities whose credentials as decisors of Halakhah are widely recognized by the community of those who are committed to and observe the Halakhah. To do otherwise would be impossible within the confines of a volume of this kind. He has reported honestly, and where he ventures his own opinion, he has done so authoritatively and with intellectual integrity. Of course, he does not insist that his is the last word on the subject. But he has not allowed temerity, disguised as humility, to paralyze his critical judgment. For this too we are in his debt.
Contemporary Halakhic Problems is a most welcome addition to Ktav's Library of Jewish Law and Ethics.