When trying to understand Halacha’s failure to inspire many Jews in modern times we need to recognize that not only has it been flattened by over-codification and stagnation, due to its being out of touch with the spiritual needs of modern man, (http://www.jewishideas.org/articles/nature-and-future-halakha-relation-autonomous-relig) but it has also, paradoxically, exiled God.
Halacha has been disconnected from a conscious awareness of God. Today, halachic living ignores Him. When living our “religious” lives we are more concerned about the specifics of Halacha than we are about our existential relationship with God. No doubt this is partially the fault of the halachic process itself. Even the Sages in the Talmud, when discussing halachic issues, rarely mention God in their conversation, making these discussions very legal and often dry, in a religious sense. The reason for this is obvious. There was no need to mention God in all these debates because they were thoroughly touched by His presence, just as water touches every part of our body while we are swimming. One does not have to mention water when completely immersed in it. God was the magnificent background music to anything the Sages felt and said. In their view God was a challenge, not a mere notion. They had a trembling sense of the “hereness” of God. They realized that they were more known by God than God could ever be known by them.
In modern times, this religious experience is lost on us. We study Talmud and Halacha in ways that have been deeply affected by the secular environment in which we live. God-consciousness is no longer a priority. The majority of us are no longer God-intoxicated. Most if not all of our halachic authorities have also fallen victim to this sad situation without even being aware of it. They decide on halachic matters while God is not actively present. This does not mean that they do not believe in God or that they have no yirath shamayim (Awe of Heaven), but it does mean that they are not stirred by His presence while dealing with halachic issues. How often is God mentioned in sheeloth U-teshuvoth (rabbinic responsa)?
One needs to have a religious experience while deciding the Halacha. Rabbis do not realize that one can only render a halachic decision while simultaneously experiencing the wonder of life, the astonishment of existence and the marvel of Judaism. Halacha can be lived and decided on only when we ask the question: How are we able to—indeed, how do we even dare to—live in His presence? Halacha is a protest against taking life for granted. One of its aims is to make us aware that there is no commonplace, no moment of insignificance, and no deed of triviality. Halacha is the attempt to undo the attitude of everydayness, but it can only work when we are fully conscious of this impediment and realize that there is no way to understand the meaning of Halacha unless we make this goal our primary concern. If the posek (halachic arbiter) does not realize that this is the function of Halacha and that this should be his ultimate goal when making a decision, his attempt to lay down the Halacha is futile.
The problem we face is not realizing that halachic living may become, if it hasn’t already, a form of avodah zarah (idol-worship). When we think that by following halachic demands we will automatically draw closer to God, we are guilty of self-deception. We do not understand that we often use Halacha as a way to escape Him. Living a halachic life is not what brings us close to God. That can only happen through the development of our God-consciousness. It must come from awe—from radical amazement, as Abraham Joshua Heschel called it. Only then is the Halacha able to develop and deepen these notions.
This, however, is no longer part of Jewish education. We have allowed the spirit of Halacha to be flattened and have incorporated this dullness into the way we teach our children. We have made Judaism common instead of an astonishing experience. No wonder many of our young people drop their Judaism!
Only after we have cultivated this God-awareness can we start speaking about proper halachic observance, the goal of which is to take this cognizance and introduce it into every level of our lives. The fact that we see an unhealthy emphasis on rituals, but a disregard for matters that relate to ethical standards, proves our point. Violence, a severe dislike for non-Jews, and financial corruption within certain segments of the religious community, all of which are not even properly and fiercely condemned by most rabbinical authorities, are the obvious result of this escape from God in the name of Halacha. If religious Jews would really experience the awesome presence of God, how would it be possible for them to engage in these practices? Is it not most remarkable that rabbis who suggest slight changes in Jewish rituals for the sake of greater religious devotion are condemned as heretics and as non-Orthodox, while the so-called Orthodox Jews who violate major tenets on the ethical side of Judaism are still considered to be Orthodox?
When conversing with yeshiva students I often ask them how many years they have spent learning in yeshiva and how many masechtot (talmudic tractates) they have studied. Once they tell me that they have mastered a good portion of the Talmud, I ask them what they would answer if a secular Jew, or a non-Jew, would ask them why they are religious. Nearly all of the students respond in total indignation and are completely taken aback by this question. They have no answer. When I ask them how is it possible that after so many years of intensive study of religious texts they are still incapable of responding, the answer I usually hear is that they have never thought about these questions, nor have their teachers ever discussed these matters with them. Topics such as religion, God and the meaning of life are taboo in many yeshivoth. The half hour spent on mussar literature is, for the most part, nothing but lip service. These topics are treated as chukath hagoyim, meant for religious non-Jews, and too inferior for Jews to discuss. On several occasions I have challenged their teachers or roshei yeshiva about this. Most of them, although not all, avoided my questions by telling me that more Talmud learning or “another tosafoth” (classic commentary on the Talmud) would do the trick. They were sincerely convinced that this was the solution to the problem. When I showed them the inadequacy of such an answer and kept pressuring them, it became crystal clear that they themselves were deadly scared of these topics. The policy was to ignore these issues and bury one’s head in the sand. When their students abandon yeshiva and, in today’s parlance, “go off the derech,” the teachers are totally surprised. But is this not obvious? What else should we expect?
God’s voice needs to be heard rising from the text, but we have long stopped teaching our students to hear it. It has been replaced with ceremonies, “observance” and chumroth (stringencies), but not with holy deeds. God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance, said Heschel.
In fact, many yeshivoth will skip—and not without pride—all non-halachic texts in the Talmud, such as the aggadoth, which in fact deal with the most important dimension of halachic living – the religious transformational purpose of the Halacha. By ignoring these texts, they are sending a message to their students, not only that this part of the Talmud is inferior but that authentic religiosity is of little value. Teachers do not seem to realize that although Halacha may be able to inform man how to act in any given situation, it cannot provide insight into the quality of a given act, nor can it provide a sense of spiritual change that is the result of the performance of, or adherence to, a specific dictate. The power of aggadic and other non-halachic material is in preventing mechanical observance and freeing man’s spirit, as well as in suggesting what one’s religious aspirations should be all about. Halacha is only the minimum of these religious aspirations. Religious non-halachic material allows the unseen to enter the visible world and was formulated to give man the ability to go beyond the realms of the definable, perceivable and demonstrable.
Methods such as the Brisker approach (2) to Talmud learning—today immensely popular in many yeshivoth—have in fact made this experience nearly impossible. While chakiroth (3) and even pilpul (4) may give spice to the discussion, they are unable to draw the students’ attention to the existential meaning of what religiously needs to be accomplished through their engagement with these texts. This is a tragedy of the first order, for which Orthodoxy pays a heavy price. Precisely that which needs to be its most important goal has been totally dismissed and buried under the weight of halachic discourse.
Another most important issue, which should be central to halachic conversation, is the Jews’ obligation to be “a light unto the nations.” The Jewish people have been called upon by God to be the instrument through which He enters into the lives of all people. The universal purpose of Am Yisrael is to inspire and to transform. This has serious consequences for how Halacha should be applied and, above all, how it should be taught. Nearly no halachic authority seems to make this a central point when dealing with halachic issues. Most of Halacha is decided by focusing solely on the exclusive needs of the Jewish people. Universalistic issues are ignored. While some profound Chassidic thinkers, and people like former Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitschak Kook, dealt with these issues when writing non-halachic works, I can think of only Hacham Benzion Uziel, the former Sefardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, who incorporated the universalistic mission, as expressed by the prophets, in his halachic decision making. (5)
Most present-day Halacha is self-centered and often under the pressures of our galuth experience and defensiveness, instead of being a powerful cry of protest against the tediousness of our modern world. (6) What is urgently needed is prophetic Halacha.
Indeed, one of the most serious complaints by young searching Jews, when studying Halacha, is the absence of the notion of mission and concern for the rest of mankind. This flattens the Halacha in ways that do great damage to its very image.
The contents of this essay are only the tip of the iceberg. Mainstream halachic Judaism will become more and more irrelevant in the years to come, except for a small but growing community of religious Jews. But the more the latter will dedicate their lives to Halacha, the more the rest of our people will be detached from it, for the very reasons the religious Jews get more involved: the stabilization of and self-satisfaction with halachic living. Halacha has become a platitude instead of being a great spiritual challenge. Our thinking is behind the times.
1.This essay is based on my response to a number of inquiries sent by several readers of my essay “On the Nature and Future of Halacha in Relation to Autonomous Religiosity,” published in the rabbinical journal Conversations, Spring 2010-5770. See www.jewishideas.org/
2. A highly analytic – nearly mathematical – approach to the talmudic text, developed by the venerable Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik (1853-1918) of the town of Brisk.
3. See above, Footnote 2.
4. Originally a systematic approach, often involving an intricate halachic discussion, which later was carried to extremes and resulted in excessive hairsplitting. One is reminded of the famous Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah ben Bezalel Loew (1520-1609), who stated:
“Those who see the essence of study in sharp-witted pilpul show disrespect to the Torah and are spending their time erroneously, and would do better to learn carpentry.
5. See Rabbi Dr. Marc D. Angel, Loving Truth and Peace: The Grand Religious Worldview of
Rabbi Benzion Uziel, (New Jersey/Jerusalem: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1999).
6. See Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, HaHalakha, Koha V’Tafkida (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook,
1981); English version: Not in Heaven:The Nature and Function of Halakha (Ktav Publications, Inc., 1983).