Judaism is experiencing a great renaissance these days, something we can rejoice over. Today we are blessed with a great number of highly unusual Israeli “secular” programs where completely non-religious young men, informally dressed and sporting long hair with no kippoth, bend over the Talmud and Midrash trying to rediscover their Jewish roots; where young women in trousers and sleeveless blouses try to unlock the secrets of Jewish mysticism or get excited about a Talmudic debate between Abaye and Rava, two ancient Talmudic sages. They live it and can’t get enough of it; some do nothing else but study these sources all day. There is a plethora of new Jewish ideas floating around within these circles, and one can only marvel at the creativity of these young people, though one may not always agree with some of the conclusions they reach. There is great open-mindedness, and it is becoming clearer and clearer that secular Israelis will be much more careful about scoffing at the Jewish tradition as their grandparents used to do. They are aware that this Tradition is more profound than their ancestors had ever thought it to be. Not only is there greater respect for the Jewish Tradition, but many young people realize that Judaism is more versatile and multifaceted than they had ever imagined; that it is as yet untapped and has so much to offer, far beyond what has been discovered until now.
Strangely enough, this phenomenon goes hand in hand with an increase in rigidity within mainstream Orthodox circles—not only in the ultra-Orthodox but even in some Modern Orthodox communities, although there are definite exceptions in both. While these people show enormous dedication to Judaism and an immense longing to be deeply religious, we find a frightful closing of the mind. All that counts is the careful fulfillment of every halachic requirement without asking: Why? What is the significance of Halacha? What does it mean to be religious?
One of the main reasons for this is that Halacha is no longer seen as a response to the search for meaning in people’s lives. The image of Halacha as a rigid tradition has taken the upper hand. Completely unawares, these communities have reduced Judaism to definitions, laws, codes and dogmas. While their love for Judaism is undisputed, they are not aware of how it cannot be squeezed into any of these categories. It is like trying to fit the ocean into a bath tub.
Halacha cannot be restricted to absolute definitions, because no law—and certainly not Halacha, which guides the Jew in every aspect of his life—will ever fit into a rigid code; but more than that, it is a way of living accompanied by deep emotions, a strong religious experience that can never be achieved by just observing laws, and no law can ever incorporate it.
In one of Plato’s earliest dialogues, Charmides, the philosopher discusses the question: what is temperance? After offering several definitions, which all prove inadequate, he has Socrates exclaim: “I have been utterly defeated and have failed to discover what that is to which the imposer of names gave this name of temperance…. the impossibility of a man knowing in a sort of way that which he does not know at all.” (1) Plato’s own words are: “It [philosophy] does not at all admit of verbal expression like other studies, but, as a result of continued application to the subject itself and communion therewith, it is brought to birth in the soul on a sudden, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter it nourishes itself.” (2) Indeed, to define words such as “good,” “love” and “holy” is impossible. Any attempt to do so not only limits them but actually makes them meaningless, since one removes their most essential component. The best part of beauty is that which a picture cannot express.
As with other religions, teachers of Judaism have often attempted to raise the foundations of religion to the level of clear utterances, dogmas and creeds. Yet, such endeavors cannot be more than indications, an attempt to convey what cannot be adequately expressed. To argue that they are the definite fundamentals of faith is to undermine authentic religious faith. It would be like arguing that musical notes are the fundamentals of music. They are not; they are only directions for the musician to follow, showing the way, but they are never das ding an sich, the thing itself.
Judaism is in perpetual danger of giving priority to concepts and dogmas and forfeiting the primacy of the inexpressible dimensions of religious insights. Doctrines and creeds should never become screens; they can only function as windows into a world that is beyond definition. Dogmas in the hands of man often turn into expressions of clerical authority setting down a fixed set of principles without an existential search for genuine faith.
Despite the fact that such an approach has been tried by some of the greatest Jewish thinkers, it has never succeeded, because Judaism is not the outcome of a doctrine but rather of concrete events, actions and insights of a people who experienced an encounter with God, which cannot be transmitted in absolute verbal expression. One can inherit dogmas and fundamentals of faith, but faith itself can only be discovered in the light of one’s soul. It is a moment in which all definitions end, and any attempt to come to conclusive articles of faith can only yield stifling trivialities that become suspended in the heart of the man of real faith. Genuine Judaism can only be understood in its natural habitat of deep faith and piety in which the divine reaches all thoughts.
Even if dogma has a purpose, it can never function as a substitute for faith, but only as an aspect of faith, just as music is much more than what a musical note can ever convey.
For Halacha to be a response to man’s search for meaning, it must make space for a non-dogmatic philosophy of Judaism. It must encourage dialogue concerning all basic Jewish beliefs and show how it is the practical upshot of these unfinalized beliefs, a practical way of halachic life while staying in theological suspense.
Only in that way can Judaism be saved from freezing in awe of a rigid tradition, or evaporating into a utopian reverie. Judaism is the art of encountering God in all dimensions of life. As such, it includes all that man does, feels, says and thinks.
Still, unlike the shafts of Jewish belief that dart hither and thither, wavering as though shot into the air from a slackened bow string, Halacha is straight and unswerving. It is a place to stand on, solid bedrock. But it must reflect that it consists of fluid that is somehow transformed into a solid substance. It needs to chill the heated steel of exalted ideas and turn them into pragmatic deeds. In that way, it can combine the infinite dimension with the finite deed.
But this can only work once the Halacha is experienced by the Jew through a weltanschauung of tremendous depth. He needs to know that behind any halachic act there is profound spiritual quality, which provides him with spiritual change. It allows the unseen to enter into his world and the metaphor to become tangible. Halacha alone is unable to provide insight into the quality of a halachic act. To make this known, the religious man must learn how to struggle with the great thought processes, debates and spiritual upheavals within the Jewish Tradition.
Those who want to start Jewish education with absolute certainties will end up with doubts; but those who start in doubt will become more and more convinced of its truth.
To all those who want to convince us that Judaism consists of unambiguous and all-inclusive definitions, we respond with a resounding no.
It is this undefined element of Judaism that many young secular people are beginning to discover. While they may not yet fully understand the need to incorporate Halacha in their own lives, they are laying the foundation for a healthy Judaism, which will hopefully bring them to a deeper appreciation of Halacha. It would be a significant endeavor if the Orthodox establishment would give this much more attention and rediscover that Halacha is not about law but about living in the presence of God. Perhaps it should listen to some of the voices in the secular community while the latter is on its way to discover Judaism. All of us may benefit.
1. Plato, Charmides, or Temperance, tr. by Benjamin Jowett, Forgotten Books, 2008, p. 41
2. Plato, Letters, Letter 7, section 341C