When we think of America, one of the core principles is freedom. The Bill of Rights enshrined and gave freedom a legal foundation. Much of American history, whether in the debates against slavery and its expansion, the protection of one’s right to think, speak and worship or not to worship and even an asserted right to privacy, revolve around an individual’s rights and his or her ability to push the envelope of society-whether intellectually or culturally-at the expense of what other elements in society would consider immoral, inappropriate or violently offensive to their sense of decency. Based upon these facts, it is no accident that the media, etc of 2008 are neither that of 1988 nor 1888.
The Torah and especially halacha, in my opinion (IMO), offer a different point of view (POV) on freedom. The Halacha is first and foremost a a system that is premised on both the individual and the community. Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik (RYBS) pointed out that the Machzor for the Yamim Noraim incorporated this factor intentionally to highlight the discrete roles of the individual and the community. However, as an individual, halacha is premised on how one fulfills one’s obligation in a particular context called a mitzvah. In other words (IOW), the issue is not how one pushes the envelope to get away with fitting in with the system, but rather in fulfilling one’s obligations in a sense that one fulfills the spirit as well as the letter of the law. By comparison, a First Amendment based challenge or even far less seemingly significant cases are all based upon pushing the level of existing precedents or merely blindly defending them.
Given that premise and the American tradition of individualism, the demand that a Jew nullify his or her own will and rely on what a Rav says or after many years of study, what they think that their rebbe would say, is no small intellectual challenge. It requires rewiring your mind to think first and foremost-what does halacha require and how can I best fulfill my obligation as a Jew. IOW, I would suggest that attempts to manipulate halacha to accommodate those who view Halacha as either sexist , etc, fail to recognize that halacha is based on obligations, not rights.
In its most pristine and ideal form, all of halacha is built first and foremost on how each of us can best fulfill his or her obligations , whether on the individual or communal level. Seder Zeraim, beginning with Brachos and continuing thru the end of that seder that deals which deals wiith many of the Mitzvos HaTelyos HaAretz, reminds us that man may only consume from this world in a proper and Divinely permitted way. Seder Moed tells us that time is sacred. Seder Nashim teaches us to get married , be a better spouse and to use our mouths and minds in a proper manner. . Seder Nezikin tells us how to compensate an injured party, how to pay for one’s negligence, how to respect someone else’s property as well as how a court system should operate. Sidrei Kodashim and Taharos instruct us how to offer what we earn to God and how to act in a holy manner. The key is how do I fulfil my obligations-not how I can stretch the meaning of the law. Even the language of Halacha speaks of obligations-Yotzei, Chayav, Patur, Lchatchilah, meizid, shogeg. Once one has fulfilled their obligation, then and only then, can one speak of enhancing one’s fulfillment of any mitzvah via minhagim , etc.
The easiest contrast between the American values of freedom and how a Torah observant Jew views the world is in the realm of marriage . In this regard, just read any of the supermarket tabloids or even the NY Times Sunday Styles and contrast the wedding announcements with those in any media that is read in the Torah world ranging from the Jewish Press to the Yated. The contrast between the two is very palpable.
Let me suggest a relatively simple explanation.Obviously, the halachic view of the family neither is hedonistic nor one based on Victorian notions of prudery. However, IMO, there is a major factor that firmly accentuates the community’s right and obligation to sanction the creation of a Bayis Neeman B’Yisrael.
The Rambam in the beginning of Hilcos Ishus describes marriage before and after the giving of the Torah and the fact that Halacha demands that the marriage ceremony be held before a minyan. RYBS once commented that the Rambam was emphasizing that marriage is an act that requires communal approval and sanction, as opposed to the contemporary ethos that basically looks at marriage either as the consummation of a long “hook up” of two pieces of plumbing for convenience or a merger of assets to obtain economic benefits. While contemporary society almost venerates romantic love as the basis for marriage and worships at the holy grail of society, Halacha, in a revolutionary way, reminds us that marriage is the holiest of acts between a man and woman for a higher purpose that requires a communal approval. It is only after the vort, chasunah and sheva brachos that a couple can learn, on a day to day basis, to love and cherish each other.
I would add one small caveat, A system that is predicated on individual rights seemingly at the expense of the community invests all with the same abilities and rights to an opinion, regardless of their level of knowledge. Halacha insists that while all Jews are created in the Divine Image and our ancestors stood at Mt. Sinai, only those with the most knowledge of Torah and Halacha are entitled or should render an opinion, especially on cutting edge issues of halacha. It is akin to seeking medical or other specialized advice. Only someone with expertise in a subject can be counted on for an intelligent, albeit not infallible opinion.