Rabbi Zemer’s Evolving Halakhah: A Progressive Approach to Traditional Jewish Law, takes a novel and I think very fruitful method and applies it to Jewish law. Rabbi Zemer is a progressive Rabbi in Israel (as the branch of Reform is called there) and is well versed in the vast literature of Halakhah, or Jewish law. As such, he does not simply play the Reform card by saying “Halakhah is no longer valid” and endorse a spiritual, cultural, or ethnic Judaism. Rather, he takes Halakhah on its own terms, using its very rules and precedents to show that in the past lenient, more humane rulings were far more common than today.
As an Israeli rabbi, much of Rabbi Zemer’s book applies to Jews living in Israel, where such matters as marriage, divorce, and ‘who is a Jew’ are handled by an established religious body. In America, things are much more fractured. Issues such as these come up, but are treated quietly within the confines of particular American communities and denominations. In a way, American Judaism is far more like the kind of Judaism that Zemer espouses: pluralistic, open to disagreement, fluid.
Perhaps the meta-conclusion that this books shows, but which Rabbi Zemer never quite spells out enough, is that more often than not Halakhah is decided based on political considerations. When all Jews were observant (and largely poor) rabbis tried to take a lenient approach for the sake of compassion. There was nothing riding on allowing a couple to marry, for instance, rather than the pain or suffering caused by their inability to marry due to mamzer, or illegitimate issues. Today, strictness in Halakhah has become a way for the Orthodox to both differentiate themselves from secular Jews, and from other Orthodox groups. Strictness becomes a way to prove one’s Orthodox credentials and in some instances have gone so far as to become mannerist in appearance.