Few matters are as misunderstood as Judaism’s “obsession with the law”. No moment goes by in the life of a religious Jew in which he is not reminded of his obligations as stated in the Shulchan Aruch, the codex of Jewish Law. While later authorities have sometimes disagreed with certain decisions laid out in this codex, and have even ruled differently, still, Halacha stands at the center of Jewish life and is relentless in its demands. Nearly every moment in the Jew’s life is codified, sometimes touching on seemingly absurd details such as the way he has to tie his shoe, or how many grams of matza he must eat on the first night of Pesach. (1)
Judaism never had a finalized or dogmatic belief system such as we find in the Church. Not even Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith were fully accepted by later thinkers. 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 Mendelsohn’s famous observation, “The spirit of Judaism is freedom in doctrine and conformity in action,” 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, this “obsession with law” has often been attacked (and ridiculed) by Christian thinkers as well as by some of the most sophisticated philosophers in modern times. Benedictus Spinoza, Emanuel Kant and many others have accused Judaism of “extreme behaviorism” in which man loses his freedom and becomes imprisoned in a web of laws which makes 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 forced 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 people in which these children mourn and are offered consolation, not unlike people who have just lost a dear one. After all, losing one’s freedom is not much different from losing life itself.
Still, 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 which seems, in the eyes of others, to be of no importance, and even ridiculous.
What is the secret behind this devotion?
Religious Jews carry a secret which few people have understood. For them freedom can only be earned by great discipline. One needs to conquer it every moment of one’s life and work hard to maintain it. Freedom is the will to be responsible. Freedom 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 man stands in proportion to his obligations” (Heschel).
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 man’s experience once he feels he is growing in his moral task.
Most employees will complain when asked by the manager 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 manager 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 the above reasons that religious Jews revel in their many obligations. They do not see these as a yoke, but rather as a tribute and praise to their greatness and unlimited potential. For them they are not just 613 obligations (2) but above all, 613 compliments. To them the question is not why we have so many obligations; the question is why such few compliments. Only 613? It is this that prompts them to look for many more, and they will sometimes use the most “farfetched” arguments to discover yet another law. They will debate, argue backwards and forwards, just to discover one more compliment, as if searching for a diamond. Nothing motivates them more than enjoying this compliment.
When their children reach the age of 12 or 13, they are elated at the prospect that their children will now also 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.
One of the greatest tragedies in the Jewish community today is that even many an Orthodox Jew no longer realizes the significance of what he celebrates or to what he is committed. A covenant of compliments. No greater freedom exists.
(1) For an in-depth explanation see my Thoughts to Ponder no: 140 www.cardozoschool.org
(2) This is the official number of commandments mentioned in the Torah. Obviously, not all these commandments apply to the average Jew.