Understanding the Practice and Meaning of Halakha - Introduction

  • Rav Ezra Bick

            The plan of this course is to examine each week another area of halakha, and attempt to understand its meaning and significance.  But first, as an introduction, I wish to discuss the nature of halakha as a legal system in general, and why it is so central to Judaism.

            Halakha is law.  The heart of Judaism, what distinguishes it from other faiths, is that it primarily is a system of law, of obligations and prescriptions, a directive how to act, rather than a system of faith, beliefs, and experiences.  This is not to say that Judaism is not a faith.  One of our objectives in the course is to examine the beliefs and experiences that are inherent in Judaism.  But the pattern of Jewish life is defined by halakha, by actions that are prescribed or proscribed, and only within that framework can the inner meaning of the Jewish experience be found.  In countless places in the Torah, the Jews are told that their mission is to keep the laws of God.  This was so obvious to Chazal (the Talmudic Sages - the acronym means "The Sages, may their memory be blessed") that they found it strange, at least at first glance, that there are portions of the Torah that are non-legal.  Consider the following:

"R. Yitzchak said: The Torah should have begun only from 'This month is for you....' (Exodus 12), which is the first commandment the Jews were commanded.  Why then did it begin with creation?" (cited by Rashi, Genesis 1:1).

            (The answer to this question, of course, posits that there are important things in the Torah other than laws, but I am pointing out the assumption inherent in the question).  One might say that Judaism is not primarily a religion, in the modern sense, but rather a law.  I think that this is a bit misleading, but it is undoubtedly true that, for instance, a comparison of Christianity and Judaism limited to the beliefs professed by both would miss the most important point of all.  To those who are not observant of Jewish law, this point may not be obvious; to those who are, it is at times so obvious that they are wont to miss its significance.

            There are three points that I would like to examine about Jewish law.

A.  Law is concerned with actions, with practice, rather than with emotions or beliefs.  It defines the outer life of man rather than dealing directly with the inner experience.  Obviously, this has the possibility of becoming dry and lifeless, mere rote and obedience.  Throughout Jewish history, the tension between the outer practice of the law and the inner spiritual experience of Judaism has occupied the attention of Jewish thinkers, at times resulting in great controversies or even schism.  It is undoubtedly true that dedication to the law can come at the expense of inner experience.  We shall try to show throughout the course why this need not be true, but the question remains why Judaism insists on the law as the basis for man's relationship with God.  I would like to suggest three considerations.

a.  Inner experiences are amorphous, transitory, and rootless.  The relationship of the inner experience to the law may be compared to that of the flame to the candle.  People undoubtedly have feelings, but if they aren't rooted in life-experiences, they lack reality.  Tomorrow, we are not always sure that the great feelings of yesterday really took place, or whether they were genuine.  On the other hand, feelings which are rooted in life, which arise out of basic patterns of experience, are permanent facts, sharing in the reality of the outer world which forms their basis.  This is similar to the difference between the love of a long-married couple, who have shared experiences, and have lived out their commitments, whose lives together are formed by their mutual obligations (including those that are not always comfortable at the time), and that of two love-struck teenagers.  The first may seem to be less fiery, perhaps less impressive, but is undoubtedly deeper and to a great extent more real, precisely because the feelings arise from patterns of experience and not the reverse.

b.  Inner experiences, because they are personal, are individual.  They lack universality.  In that sense, we might say that the inner experience reflects truly the state of man, while the law reflects the presence of God.  Which brings me to one of the most important points which we will be discussing throughout the course.  Modern western society places enormous emphasis on "expressing oneself." Some modern versions of religion assume as well that the purpose of religious actions is to give expression to one's inner feelings, state, emotions.  Imposition of an objective, universal law is therefore seen almost by definition as false, as forcing man into modes of expression that are foreign, or untrue, to him.  The purpose of halakha, however, is not merely to allow man to express himself as he IS, but to raise man to what he SHOULD BE, to what he can be.  What can man be?  The answer of Judaism is "tzelem Elokim," the image of God.  Man was created in the image of God.  What this expression means is that the defining plan of man - the image, the set of technical specifications - is nothing else, nothing less, than God.  Man is, by definition, one who strives to be like God, to reach for the infinite.  Objectively, man is always less, always something finite, like any other natural object.  But the word by which man was created was not "Let there be an intelligent biped," not "Let there be a hairless toolmaker," but "Let Us make man in Our image." In other words, man exists in order to be more than he is, in order to transcend himself.  "Be yourself" is not the motto of Judaism, because if you are only yourself, you aren't really yourself at all, you aren't a tzelem Elokim any more.  "Be like God" is the motto, "walk in His ways," "cleave unto Him." One is true to oneself when one is reaching out to be more than oneself.  For this there must be an objective element, rooted in God, in the Image, held out to man to bring into his own experience.  One who relied only on his own inner feelings and gave them expression might be fulfilling his present state, but would be forfeiting his future.  The midrash (Bereishit Rabba 100,1) states: "'Know that HaShem is God, He has made us and we are His' (Psalms 100,3). R. Acha said: He has made us and to Him we perfect our souls." Know that you were made by God; hence you can, and must, perfect yourselves with Him as your goal.

            [A word of explanation how this midrash works.  The verse in Psalms reads "ve-lo anachnu," which I translated as "we are His." The possessive in Hebrew - "His" - is literally "to Him"; hence the midrashic explanation "we are to Him," "we perfect ourselves to Him."  There is a deeper level of meaning here, though.  "Ve-lo" can be read as "to him," which is the accepted masoretic reading of the word ("lo" spelled with a 'vav'), or as "and not" ("lo" spelled with an 'aleph'), which is the masoretic written spelling of the word.  There are many places in Tanakh where a word is written one way but read another, according to the tradition of written and pronounced reading.  This alternative version of the verse reads "He has made us and not ourselves."  The exegesis of the midrash is in fact based on this dual reading.  We are created by God and not by ourselves - we do not define our own existence; hence, we must perfect ourselves towards Him, rather than expressing ourselves as we are in the present.  Man lives in a state of obligation, not to an external alien power, but to his Creator, to his own infinite potential.]

c.  Finally, because inner experiences are personal and individual, they are not shared by the community.  Even a cursory examination of Judaism indicates the enormous importance of the faith-community, the people of Israel, the national unit.  The law forms the basis of the covenant, the "brit," between God and the Jewish people, and hence forms the basis for the existence of the Jews as a people.  In a famous phrase coined by Rav Sa'adia Gaon, "The Jews are a people by virtue of the Torah."  The shared experience of halakha, of Jewish living, is a crucial element in the experience of Judaism of each individual, binding individual Jews together in a community of mutual responsibility.  There exists a natural tension between the direct individual relationship with God and membership in the faith-community, where the unit of relationship is the people.  We shall have opportunity to examine this tension in the future.  Indeed, modern western culture places such an emphasis on individual worth that it has often obliterated the value of group membership and national identity.  Jews, the ultimate "cosmopolitans," have been at the forefront of these trends.  It is impossible, though, to construe the Torah as speaking only to the individual.  At the very beginning of Jewish halakhic history, at Mount Sinai, God declares, "And you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation," and this formulation is reflected throughout the Torah.  The framework of uniformity, even as individual distinctions manifest themselves within it, is essential to creating not merely fine individuals, but also a holy congregation.

B.  The word "mitzva" is colloquially translated as "good deed."  Literally, the word means "commandment," and the difference is crucial.  Mitzvot are obligatory, compelling, imperatives.  This is, of course, what scares many when considering the world of mitzvot.  All of us wish to engage in good deeds, whenever it is convenient, but dread the feeling of obligation, of subjugation, which a law asserts.  (The relationship of freedom to obligation will be a theme we will discuss at length in the future).  For instance, someone may decide that smoking is not a good thing, and he will make the effort to give it up.  But if he is going through a particularly difficult and tense day, he will perhaps light up, and not feel that he has "broken" his prior decision.  In halakhic terms, he doesn't feel that smoking is "assur" (prohibited), even though it is a "bad thing."  If he would refuse to smoke under all circumstances, we begin to detect a "religious" aspect to his conduct.  I know some people who object to the Israeli presence on the West Bank.  They think it is a "bad thing."  That is a political decision.  I know a few people who have not stepped foot over the green line in 28 years.  If I invite them to a "simcha," they have no choice but to decline.  That is a "religious" behavior pattern.  They have created an "issur," a prohibition, and given it the character of law.

            The obligation inherent in law derives from its source in a higher authority.  If I decide to quit smoking, I have legislated for myself, and do not feel absolutely bound to it.  I don't have to answer to a higher authority.  If I break my decision, I am exercising the same right I did when I made the original decision.  Halakha, on the other hand (and law in general, at least for some theorists), is rooted in the recognition that its authority is greater than that of the individual.  Anarchism as a respectable philosophy claims that the worth of the individual can recognize no higher authority than itself.  In a secular liberal political world, it is not easy to argue with this claim, and I leave it to political philosophers to debate its merits.  The recognition that God legislates for Man, and that man is created in the image of God, assumes that the laws are binding on a level that has greater authority than the individual.

            Why should a lover of freedom agree to be subject to another authority?  The Jewish answer is simple.  God is not an alien authority, who subjugates man for His needs.  Tzelem Elokim, the "image of God," means that Elokim is a higher authority, but what He wants is your own potential and needs and not His.  Victor Frankl once put it this way.  An airplane is an airplane even when it's on the ground, but it is not really an airplane except when it is flying.  The airplane flies, not when its components are working, but when they are working according to a plan, following instructions.  Only by accepting that authority can man find the meaning of the instructions for himself, as part of his potential nature.

C.  Finally, there is one element of halakha as a system of law that may appear strange even by comparison to secular laws.  Laws require exact definitions.  Good deeds may perhaps be defined by whether a good feeling ensues, but laws, as we see in law books, require exact definitions.  Since we do not always take our laws that seriously, we tend not to pay attention to these definitions in practice.  For instance, if it is against the law to drive over the white line on the street corner, we understand that the line has to be drawn in a particular spot, but would be amazed if a policeman would cite us for going over the line by a mere 5 cm.  Legally though, one side of that line is permitted, and one side is prohibited.  In halakha, exact definitions are as binding as the laws themselves.  One minute before the start of Shabbat is weekday; one second after sunset is Shabbat, and everything is prohibited.  If one is commanded to eat matza on Pesach, then one has to know exactly how much is the minimum needed to fulfill the obligation.  In real life, it is often impossible to achieve such exact definitions.  Life has rough edges.  The law is ideal, and attempts to impart that ideal clarity to imperfect existence. 

            This too reflects the divine origin of the law.  The law represents the ideal, not as an unattainable source of inspiration, but as the mission of man to impress God's will on reality, to bring the imperfect world up to perfect standards.  Each individual act is made to conform to exact standards, and in so doing, brings the soul, the inner infinite depth of man, closer to God, to its ideal image and potential.  We can control the definition of an action, and so impart to our inner selves the pull of infinity.  Since, as we explained above, it is the outer action which roots the inner experience and not the inner experience which causes the action, the action must share in the transcendent nature of God, of exactitude and authority, in order to be the crucible of the soul.