Few matters are as misunderstood as Judaism’s “obsession” with Halacha. Not a moment goes by in the life of a religious Jew that he is not reminded of his many obligations, both religious and moral, as codified in the various works of Jewish Law. While there is a great need to reconsider many of these laws in light of global modernization and new development, it cannot be denied that its relentless demands appear to be out of all proportion and sometimes bordering on the absurd. Halacha often deals with seemingly hairsplitting trivialities, as in how to tie one’s shoe, or how many grams of matza one must eat on the first night of Pesach.
This stands in total opposition to Judaism’s principles of faith, where we find nearly endless freedom of thought. Beliefs were never finalized in a dogmatic system such as we find in the Church. Not even Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith were accepted. In fact, they were strongly criticized and even rejected. Throughout the centuries, and to this very day, there has been an ongoing debate about what the Jew is “obligated” to believe.
Halacha, on the other hand, is far more normative and standardized. Moses Mendelssohn’s famous observation, “The spirit of Judaism is freedom in doctrine and conformity in action” (1), is most illuminating. Judaism is basically a religion without (an authorized) theology, in which the correct deed is much more valued than any of its beliefs.
Since the earliest days, Judaism has often been attacked, even ridiculed, by Christian thinkers as well as by some of the most sophisticated philosophers in modern times. Benedictus Spinoza, Immanuel Kant and many others have accused Judaism of “dangerous behaviorism” in which man loses his freedom and becomes imprisoned in a web of laws that make his life miserable and devoid of any simcha (joy). How, after all, could such a system be conducive to the kind of life we all long to live? Where is its spirituality?
Even more surprising is the fact that Jews throw a party every time another member of their community is literally coerced to comply with all these laws. The bat mitzvah girl and the bar mitzvah boy are both forced into this “covenant of the law” when they respectively turn twelve and thirteen years old. While up to that moment they are not obligated by any of these laws (except for educational reasons) and are therefore able to still enjoy their freedom, all of this changes overnight when they reach the age of twelve or thirteen.
Instead of a party, one would expect a gathering of heavy-hearted friends and relatives, where these children can mourn and are offered consolation, similar to people who have just lost a dear one. After all, losing one’s freedom is not much different from losing life itself.
Yet, religious Jews have an inborn love for the law. Anyone who has ever studied in a yeshiva cannot forget the joy that permeates the study hall when a student manages to “discover” a new law or “invent” one when no law was known to exist. While Orthodox Jews sometimes seem to be more in love with the law than with God, demonstrating that they do not see the forest for the trees, one cannot but be flabbergasted by the fact that these people would nearly give up their lives for one little law that seems, in the eyes of others, to be of no importance, and even ridiculous.
What is the secret behind this devotion?
Religious Jews seem to know something that few people have understood. For them, freedom can be earned only by great discipline. One needs to conquer it and work hard to maintain it every moment of one’s life. Freedom is the will to be responsible. It is a mental state, not just a physical condition. Its primary requirement is to live for something that is worth dying for. A life without a mission is not worth being born into. It is only through dignity that one becomes free and “the dignity of a person stands in proportion to his/her obligations” (2).
There is no greater injustice than bringing a child into the world without giving her or him a mission to live for. While most people today believe that one should not burden children with obligations, rather allowing them to make their own choices, Judaism teaches that giving a child the feeling that he has a great task to fulfill is giving him the option to experience immense joy. Joy is what man experiences once he feels he is growing in his moral and spiritual task.
Most people will complain when asked by their employer to take on a difficult task and will try to free themselves of the assignment. What they don’t realize is that by doing so they miss out on exactly what they are looking for – a compliment. A wise boss will know the art of judging his employee properly. By giving him a difficult task, he sends a strong message: “I believe in you.” Every challenge presented is, in fact, a vote of confidence: “I know you can do it.”
It is for these reasons that religious Jews revel in their many obligations. They do not see them as a yoke, but rather as a tribute and praise to their greatness and unlimited potential. For them, they are not just 613 commandments(3),but 613 compliments. To them, the question is not why they have so many obligations; the question is why so few compliments. Only 613? It is this that prompts them to look for many more, and they will sometimes use the most far-fetched arguments to discover yet another law. They will debate, arguing backwards and forwards, just to discover one more compliment, as if searching for a diamond. Nothing motivates them more than the potential joy of receiving another vote of confidence.
When Jewish religious children reach the age of 12 or 13, their parents are elated at the prospect that they, too, will now enter into “the covenant of compliments.” For that, they will throw a party, whatever the cost. It is their ultimate moment of joy. And even when the non-religious Jew or Israeli no longer understands this truth, but still insists that his daughter will celebrate her bat mitzvah, or that his son will celebrate his bar mitzvah, that insistence indicates that deep down he still knows what it really means to be Jewish.
Still, this can’t be the entire story. It cannot be denied that the Halacha sometimes goes overboard. It turns a triviality into a major issue, as if life depended on it. Is there any meaning to a law that requires one to tie the left shoe before the right one? What is the purpose of rabbinical arguments over the size of a Kiddush cup, or the length of a lulav, or whether the middle leaf on the very top of the lulav is slightly split, or not? Yet, these are part of halachic discussion, and many pages in the Talmud are devoted to such issues. Indeed, this seems to justify the claim that much of Halacha is absurd legal hairsplitting. It appears as though Halacha is the art of making a problem out of every solution.
What then is the purpose of all this?
Upon taking a closer look, we discover a most remarkable idea: Halacha apparently tries to turn everything, including the mundane and the trivial, into a moment of eternity. It searches for the infinite by looking carefully at the finite. It wants to mesh the earthly with the holy. It seems to reveal God’s concern with man by calling on him to leave the world of mediocrity and turn a simple deed into a divine moment. Halacha is convinced that no action can be trivial, not even tying a shoe, since it takes place in God’s presence and must therefore be highly significant.
Scientists dedicate their lives to the minutest details of animal life. They are fascinated by the properties of a cell, the habits of an insect and the peculiarities of the DNA code. It is the minutiae that captivate them, not the generalities. In a similar way, the great halachic authorities tremble over the smallest particulars of human life. They look for the specifics of every human move and try to discover the divine breath in the tiniest detail. Nothing is small enough to escape their attention.
How is the scientist able to sit for months behind his microscope watching a cell move? Is this not torture? Not at all. For him it is most meaningful and a moment of tremendous excitement. It is deeply moving. Here is life in its grandeur! Similarly, the religious Jew will look into the microscope of his soul and wonder which blessing is the appropriate one for a certain food. After all, each edible item, with its unique taste and color, represents something wondrous and should really command our full attention. The unraveling of a minor matter and knowing how to respond to it, thereby turning the ordinary into a great encounter with the Infinite, is one of the great privileges offered to mankind. Only when man takes advantage of this gift can he claim that he really lives. (Heschel)
But all of this makes sense only as long as one is constantly mindful. Once the blessing on food becomes automatic and commonplace, much of its purpose is lost. No doubt most of us suffer from this problem. We are no longer sensitive to the world as were the sages who looked for the microscopic peculiarities and spiritual DNA of our lives. This has become one of the greatest tragedies of modern life.
The last thing to do, however, is to stop saying a bracha, or drop some other halachic requirement. After all, we can’t wait for a great moment of religious fervor, which often eludes us for long periods of time. It may never come. Our souls would remain utterly silent if not for the fact that Halacha creates a routine of wake-up calls. But we must know that such requirements are wake-up calls and treat them accordingly. Once we forget this, the observance of Halacha becomes almost hypocritical. As the musician practices daily in the hope that one day he will “get it” and play Johann SebastianBach’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Major, in its enormous vitality, so must the religious man practice Halacha in the hope that perhaps, even if only once in his life, he will “get it” in religious terms. Once he lets go of such aspirations, he has lost the very essence of living a halachic life.
To realize this goal, religious education will have to wake up from its slumber and make a drastic turnabout. It will first have to introduce its students to the magnificent music behind the commonplace and the trivial.
To encounter the Infinite while standing with one’s feet on the ground is the great privilege of mankind. Judaism’s claim that man can achieve this is one of the highest compliments it has bestowed on him. Even when he ties his shoe!
Regards from Johannesburg!
1. Moses Mendelssohn, Jerusalem: Or on Religious Power and Judaism, tr. by Allan Arkush, commentary by Alexander Altmann (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 1983).
2. Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A philosophy of Judaism (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976) p. 216.
3. This is the official number of commandments mentioned in the Torah. Obviously, not all these commandments apply to the average Jew.