CONTEMPORARY HALAKHIC PROBLEMS VOL. VII by Rabbi J. David Bleich
(Maggid Books, 2016)
While many people write books, few can claim to have created a new genre of book. However, since the publication of his first volume of Contemporary Halakhic Problems in 1977 this is exactly what Rabbi J. David Bleich has done.
In general, halakhah does not translate well into English. There are many concepts and terms which are hard to explain and this is why many English language halakhic essays often underplay the complexity of any given topic.
In addition to this, contemporary halakhic topics often are matters of considerable debate, and to offer a comprehensive picture that incorporates the voices and opinions of all those who have addressed any given subject requires tremendous knowledge and skill.
Finally, in order to explain the technical issues that arise in contemporary halakhic debates, one needs a working knowledge of science, medicine and technology, which itself is rare amongst those capable of handling the halakhic material.
Incredibly, Rabbi Bleich has all these qualities, and since 1977 English language readers have turned to his books for understanding, depth and clarity. As he explains in the preface to his most recent volume, this book ‘is intended as an invitation to the reader to join in the noblest of Jewish activities and the supremest of joys – the study of Torah.’
Contemporary Halakhic Problems Vol. VII is a veritable treasure trove of nuanced halakhic essays that touch on Medical, Social and Technological issues facing Orthodox Jewry today. These include the status of stem-cell burgers, medical and cosmetic tattooing, circumcision by laser, do the deceased enjoy property right, vaccination, and product liability (to name just a few!).
One of the essays I enjoyed the most and which highlights what I believe to be the overlap between Halakha and Hashkafa was that on ‘Scientific Hypotheses and Halakhic Inerrancy’. In this essay, Rabbi Bleich discusses rabbinic knowledge and authority in relation to scientific knowledge, and he explores a number of approaches about intellectually coping with the apparent dissonance between halakhic definitions and scientific reality.
A further essay that fascinated me by his treatment of video surveillance as a ‘mashgiach’ to oversee kashrut and yichud. Here, the reader is taken on a whistle-stop tour of the halakhic definition of sight though lenses, photographs and video in order to ascertain the legal validity of using such technology.
As someone who gives a course about halakhic approaches to other religions, I found Rabbi Bleich’s essay on ‘Entering a Non-Jewish House of Worship’ to be invaluable, both in terms of its clarity and comprehensiveness.
Additionally, I very much enjoyed his essay on ‘Liability for Harm Caused by Metaphysical Forces’ which explores the tort liability of Yonatan Ben Uziel whose spiritual power meant that birds who flew overhead when he was engaged in Torah study would be burnt.
Contemporary Halakhic Problems Vol. VII is deep, profound and engaging. It is an extraordinary work by a truly brilliant scholar that reflects a lifetime of study and his unique gift of knowledge, wisdom and understanding. It is a book for Battei Midrashot and homes alike, and one that makes the reader think hard while partaking in the supreme pleasure of Torah study.
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