NOTE: This post is in response to a position argued by Rabbi Cardozo that the purpose of Halacha is to “complicate life in order to lead to the experience of God’s presence,” while noting that in recent centuries the development of Halacha has gone too far and overcomplicated life, defeating its purpose.
In attempting to define the purpose of Halacha, you posited that “complicating life leads to experiencing the presence of God.”
Is it really so? A personality that complicates things is neurotic and annoying. I find a great beauty in simplicity – pashtus. Why can’t Halacha’s purpose be ONLY to get us closer to God, and not via complication? How about, instead, by outlining Godly activities, in a clear, not over-burdened and over-detailed way? Does throwing myself into a myriad of complicated details regarding the legal relationships between inanimate objects, animals, people, abstract categories and everything else that fills the Talmud really bring me closer to God?
Of course, the Halachic material itself does revolve around a core of Godliness and morality, but a lot of it apparently takes us really far away from it.
This is what could be said for it:
- it certainly serves to fill up our day with stuff that is not rubbish with which many of our contemporaries alleviate their existential emptiness (TV, celebrities, internet).
- if one *perceives* oneself through these actions as getting closer to God, then that itself has a value.
This is what could be said against it:
- There is so much Halacha it is almost impossible to learn all of it and you end up feeling guilty or spending all your time studying it.
- For every action there is a cost somewhere. The constant activity and energy mandated by Halacha prevents one from growing in all sorts of other directions. No sooner do I get a bit of quiet time to think, maybe even to experience an emptiness inside me (the kind of emptiness that sends a person on a quest for meaning) than it is filled with the latest thing I am supposed to do as a Jew. On Shabbat morning, after the Halacha has beautifully constructed for me a quiet framework free of cellphones and TV, I cannot then spend the morning meditating or being with my inner life, as I am supposed to go to shul, mumble thousands of Hebrew words in prayer, listen to Torah being read at a speed far too fast for me to really engage in learning it, go home, have lunch, shluff, eat another meal – and presto, Shabbat is out.
In other words, Judaism is in its current form both a vessel for the search for meaning and journey to God, and at the same time a distracter from it. What I personally try to do within my Orthodox Judaism is to maintain as much of the vessel part, and reduce the distracter part as much as I feel comfortable doing.
I wonder why my religion tells me exactly how to tie my shoes, and yet does not pasken even five minutes of silent sitting meditation (saying no words at all), an activity that, I am finding as I practice meditation, throws me straight into the heart of who I am and my relationship to God. We have a lot to learn from the Buddhists.
Why am I instructed to say after eating cake a blessing named “al hamichya” full of words about the land, Zion and redemption but lacking a most basic spiritual message, simply put as: “Hashem, this cake contains wheat, eggs, sugar, all of which were gathered and processed by people so I could eat this delicious thing. Thank you Hashem for this and may I bless all the people who took part in this and may this food give me the strength to serve You.”
If I want to upkeep Shmitta, why do I land up squinting at labels and hanging little bags of rotten fruit up in my kitchen? The details take me far away from the core of the mitzvah, to the point of missing the boat completely.
Something is off – Halacha and spirituality overlap, but are far from the same thing.
1. The theory as presented by Rabbi Cardozo I appreciate because it’s thought provoking where a lot of people don’t think and it’s about important things. Thank you!
2. This theory is not complicated enough yet, too much one track minded, and we need the integration of alternative viewpoints on this matter – not just different ideas competing.
3. Halachah can be meant: 1. to intend to bring people closer to H’, 2. to be an alive body of behaviors that gets transmitted to the next generation, 3. to keep Jews and Gentiles from intermarrying, 4. to practice important concepts all day long like: feeling & expressing grate-fulness, showing obedience, making choices, learning discipline, internalizing humbleness, breaking emotional isolation, feeling part of a community, People and a Chain of Tradition, fostering character improvement, showing how a Jew should act, speak, feel and develop, etc., 5. etc.
4. The rabbis clearly sometimes make things more complicated (that no one in their place ever would) & make things more simple, unstructured, undemanding and unprincipled (that no one in their place ever would), so that we must say that the rabbis strike a balance between things being complicated enough to keep being aware and simple enough to have it livable.
5. Shallowness or seemingly meaningless traditional behavior should not be replaced but rather made more meaningful and relevant by acting more intensely & slowly, to contemplate deeply on what we are doing, saying, thinking and feeling. BARUCH is a word not to be glossed over! SHEHAKOL means: this food, the containers, my chair, the table, the floor, the ceiling, the walls, the company, the people who enabled it, the whole works! The problem is not that the symphony is so long but with how to pay attention to some of it. There are by far far not enough tears and sweat drops coming out while we claim to be active religiously.
6. We need to make place for slowing down and paying attention and when that occupies time for other parts of Halachah that’s not a Kooleh but rather the Halachic principle that while we are busy with a Mitzvah we are exempt from doing other Mitzvot. The is no Hetter anywhere for feeling more than a trifle guilty ever.
7. A brainless routine still ingrains behavior and when the scales have been practiced enough we can start to make music out of them. Thank G^d most of out Mitzvot still count even when we are not concentrating. Who needs perfection? The fact that some people never think about what they are doing still leaves 95% of their action as perfect because no one can be aware 100 % of the time – 5 % would be a lot.
8. Rav Yisrael Salant: People that never change reflect the Creat^r Who also doesn’t change.
9. There is no significance in taking the 6th or the 7th slice of bread from a row of 12 slice in front of us. Some choices are insignificant and their only meaning is to teach us that some choices are unimportant (except for neurotics and perfectionists).
I searched for the link to the article which you had responded to, but in vain. Still, some comments are in order:
a1) If the details had no value then it would be just as futile as the “rubbish” you mention.
a2) Every mitzva stands on its own merit, yet as a part of the whole body of Torah, as a seed in a pomegranate, regardless of whether you have studied much or studied little…so why the guilt?
b2) Halacha has not only “beautifully constructed” a space free of distractions like cellphones and television..the halacha existed millenia before cellphones and television. Was it then not as beautiful? As harmonious? As Divine? If halacha was prescient, it did so as a divine imperative that was as relevant then as now.
Had God commanded us to cut trees, that too, would have been the way of connection with Him. And even then, you would try to find meaning according to your rational mind…but the mitzvot are meta-rational.
Does halacha need to pasken silence? Silence is the ground from which everything else springs, as the Baal Shem Tov taught in the secret of the chash-mal-mal, silence and speech, with separation (read: halacha) in between. Without submission to God, there is no relationship.
I do not think that meditating like a Buddhist will bring a Jew peace of mind. Davening without preparation isn’t going to lead to a deep connection to God. Silence before prayer is always good, and certainly a value to be used in context together with preparatory study of chassidut.
Can a work of art be considered masterful without the details? How can anything in this world be considered at all without considering its myriad details? If so, then certainly the blueprint of this world, the Torah. ואין צי-ר כאלוקינו
For me Halacha can be likened to the most complex redemption plan to save a people who barley know the extent to which they are held captive and certainly are less aware of the full extent of the dangers that are around them or fully conscious of the many forces at work in this reality to prevent them from reaching the place of final redemption. It is a divine distraction that keeps a people walking forward, where as is so often the case, heaven forbid so many fall by the wayside and perish (reality).
It reminds me of a story I read, that is now vague in my recollection but basically a gunman went into a school and shot the kids and teachers. Then the teachers who survived had to find a way to get the children out without exposing them to the obvious traumatic horrors that the children would have to walk past. So the teachers told the children they were going to play a game, where the children all had to keep their eyes closed until they got right outside the school.
We can’t escape the horror of reality, because sometimes the horror and suffering is very personal, it is very close to home, but we can be sufficiently distracted to aid our survival until we are sufficiently mature and well versed as to cope ever more with challenging situations. But like the children at the school we are ultimately led out into the awaiting arms of our loving parents, who unlike the children, are much more aware of the extent of the danger they had been exposed to, and therefore despite the heavy loss and sadness involved in the tragedy, there is a sense of relief that at least these children made it out.
It is as if Hashem (the consuming fire) is keeping us occupied so that we are not consumed by the things our eyes have seen (the Sanhedrin are called our eyes, ayin having the value of 70) till we reach our ultimate redemption.
I consider the alternative to halacha being we are so in tune with the divine will that our conscious minds simply respond almost automatically to that will, go left, go right, go visit this person, say these words, bend down, sleep now, wake up, eat. A visit to the supermarket is a pre-programmed event, pick up potatoes, now get milk, etc. Somewhere we possibly had this option and rebelled, then Hashem thought, let them find the way, give them the map and some map readers. Halacha is somewhere between being totally lost in the chaos of reality so as to totally distance yourself from Hashem and being pre-programmed to the divine will on auto pilot mode but with direct access to the divine at all times.
Some people are absolute masters at Halacha, like concert pianists playing the keys of a piano it has become second nature, they are now simple infusing it with the depths of their soul and reaching ever higher heights of spiritual experience and contentment. Where as some of us are just thumping the keys and wondering whats the noise all about. Will we personally master it, who knows, B’ezrat Hashem, but we can incline our ears to listen and be inspired to the beautiful divine melodies others are managing to play.
I was on the last plane to leave Israel carrying the repatriated South Sudanese refugees back to South Sudan. It was a country where no stable order was present. Despite great efforts from so many people to establish order and the various systems needed for that, (an effective government, education, medical, legal, sanitation, transportation systems etc), progress was not as rapid as one would hope or indeed as many South Sudanese citizens expected. It is little wonder the horror of the recent civil war took place given the lack of effective government and the even greater lack of trust between different ethnic groups who failed to unite in a common cause. No society or way of life can be sustained without effective guidelines and governance and trust. When I witnessed the everyday people on the streets talking and talking and talking for hours about the hopelessness of life, it makes me value the Source of guidance in my own life. I wanted with all my heart to draw those people to the place beyond where they were and keep them occupied till they too reach redemption. I found those people who had to live in that environment without order or direction were highly oppressed and powerless, it is no place for the human soul to be.
The Jewish way of life including Halacha, is not just about personal redemption, it is also and as importantly to be a light for all other nations.