A young scholar completed his learning of the entire Talmud for the third time. Full of enthusiasm, he ran to tell his teacher the good news. “Rabbi,” he announced proudly, “I’ve just been through the whole Talmud for the third time.”
“That’s wonderful,” replied his teacher. “But let me ask you one question. How many times has the Talmud been through you?”
This story encapsulates the tension of living a halachic life and simultaneously being spiritual and spontaneous. We all know that Jewish religious life is defined by observance of halacha — a specific set of rules that dictate the do’s and don’ts of our behavior. The scope of Jewish law is all-encompassing, covering every aspect of life from business to diet to interpersonal relations, and while it can be argued that Jewish tradition includes certain articles of faith, nevertheless the person defined as a religious Jew is one who lives—or at least tries to live—by the rules and regulations of Jewish law. A Jew may feel proud to be Jewish, he may relate to Judaism culturally, or he may find intellectual stimulation in certain aspects of the Jewish tradition, but acting “Jewishly” ultimately boils down to one thing: observing halacha.
The problem with this definition is that many of us feel it is a mistake to so narrowly circumscribe Judaism in this way. Why, after all, does being a religious Jew have to be defined by observance of Jewish law? Many people are spiritually inclined, and would like to consider themselves religious, but find that the mundane practicalities of Jewish law run counter to the development of spirituality. They question what happened to all the lofty emotional and spiritual elements of life that religion is supposed to help us experience. There appears to be little emphasis on emotive expression, on the contemplation of the metaphysical, or on delving into the transcendent within halachic living. Judaism seems to glorify only deeds.
Judaism’s emphasis on the deed raises a further issue. The demand for conformity that is inherent in Judaism’s focus on regulating behavior impinges on our modern sensibilities; it contradicts our perception of ourselves as independent-minded, mature, and progressive individuals who are capable of making our own decisions. We do not feel that we need to be told how to tie our shoes, or when to wash our hands, yet the halacha seems to assume that we cannot make these types of decisions for ourselves. There is hardly a single act in our daily routine that does not fall within its purview. It seems we are being told we must relinquish our own ideas in favor of rote compliance. Where, then, is there room for individuality, and the spiritual expression that is unique to each and every soul?
Even for those who do accept upon themselves the obligation to live by these rules, and see spiritual value in them, the minutiae of Jewish law can too easily destroy its mystique. Just thinking about the sheer number of commandments can become burdensome. There are 613 mitzvot in the Torah, but as Rambam writes, even these are only the roots.1 Each mitzvah then branches out into tens or even hundreds of halachot, leaving us with a code of thousands upon thousands of laws, each telling us something else to do or not to do. The extent of Jewish law can make even the most devout Jew feel bound by fetters.
What is the purpose of all these laws? Why are there so many of them, and how are we supposed to relate to them properly? Are we meant to be like the young scholar of our story, who finds satisfaction in the simple performance of the laws and the fulfillment of his duties, or rather, as his rabbi seems to intimate, should we be striving for a more spiritual transformation that will make us into nobler and more dignified individuals? Herein lies the tension. Are we supposed to go through Judaism, or is Judaism supposed to go through us?
A Problem throughout History
Although we can be sure that this problem existed from the moment that Moshe received the Torah at Sinai (“We shall do and hear”), it was Paul of Tarsus, in the New Testament, who identified the problem and consequently sought to wage war on halacha. He, and later, his many followers, were convinced that humanity cannot approach God through the merit of their deeds. What was needed, rather, was purity of the heart, and absolute faith. The secret to salvation lay within the emotional dimension of human existence, the apostle claimed. All the good deeds in the world won’t help, because God judges what your heart feels, not what your body does. Paul claimed that because Judaism failed to recognize this basic fact, it actually failed as a religion altogether, and had nothing left to offer mankind. According to Paul, Judaism’s insistence on adherence to halacha was actually its undoing.
Later on, others, also, sought to break away from traditional Judaism on the basis of this complaint. The movement for Reform Judaism lodged their objection during the nineteenth century, and followed through by doing away with many of the mitzvot. This was not only done so as to make Judaism more compatible with modern life, but also because they believed that traditional Judaism missed the spiritual and spontaneous dimension. The reformers wanted to emphasize Jewish ethical and spiritual imperatives, as well as the keeping of those mitzvot that have “kept the Jewish people”—however those may be defined—but they argued that all other mitzvot could and should be done away with. As with Christianity, the change was viewed as transforming Judaism from a cult of action to a religion of feeling and freedom.
Secular philosophers have also written on this problem that seems to plague Judaism. Their arguments were spearheaded in the seventeenth century by none other than Baruch Spinoza, who hailed from the Jewish Spanish-Portuguese community in Amsterdam. Although he had been raised as a Jew, Spinoza broke away from his ancestral roots. He was one of modernity’s first true “free thinkers” in that he was neither bound by a tradition, nor by any particular religious conviction.
Of all modern thinkers, Spinoza is most famous for his rejection of Jewish law. His complaint, however, was not unique. As many others did before and after him, he viewed Judaism as a kind of religious behaviorism that idolizes outward action at the expense of inner devotion. He lamented that the ultimate goal of the religious Jew seemed to be mere conformity to the minutiae of the law. Spinoza claimed that Judaism had no space for “lofty speculations nor philosophical reasoning.” He continued, “I would be surprised if I found [the prophets] teaching any new speculative doctrine which was not commonplace to…gentile philosophers.” He believed that “the rule of right living, the worship and the love for God was to them [the Jews] rather a bondage than the true liberty.”2
Thus ran Spinoza’s critique of Judaism. Since he penned those words, almost every secular philosopher who has had something to say on the subject of Judaism has echoed his criticisms. Immanuel Kant even went so far as to claim that Judaism is “eigentlich gar keine religion” (actually not a religion at all).3
Despite these naysayers, there remains a flipside: those who have seen the virtue in this very aspect of Judaism. It was the eighteenth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn who praised Judaism for not being a revealed religion, but rather, a revealed law. “The spirit of Judaism,” wrote Mendelssohn, “is freedom in doctrine and conformity in action.”4 Judaism offers flexibility. If you are a rationalist, study Talmud, and Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed and his codex of Jewish Law. If you lean toward mysticism, be a Chassid. If your bent is metaphysics, find an outlet in kabbalah. But the flexibility ends where your deeds begin—your actions may not depart from Jewish law.
As we have seen, those like Paul and Spinoza read the situation differently. They claimed that Judaism offered “freedom” in these matters simply because it had no clear spiritual path to offer. Instead of directing the soul heavenward, it bound the body earthward. Hence Mendelssohn’s liberty was Spinoza’s bondage.
Beyond the actual delineation of hundreds of mitzvoth that we find in the Torah, there is a dramatic, even shocking episode in Jeremiah that seems to support this interpretation of Judaism’s unwavering focus on law to the exclusion of connecting to the Divine. Jeremiah is the author of Eichah, lived at the time of the destruction of the First Temple which was the period’s main seer of doom. The Jewish people had gone astray, and the ultimate punishment was about to come—the destruction of the Temple and exile to a foreign land. It was Jeremiah’s tragic task to try to convince the Jews to repent.
With a bitter and broken heart, he chastised the Jewish people at God’s behest, speaking for Him: Oti azavu v’torati lo shamaru (They have forsaken Me and neither do they observe My Torah).5
When we pay close attention to the words of Jeremiah’s rebuke, there is something strange about them. If the Jewish people had abandoned God, of course they must have done so by discarding the Torah. One could hardly have the one without the other. So why is there a doubling of the rebuke here? What is the difference between abandoning God and forsaking His Torah? This apparent textual anomaly led the Midrash to seek a deeper meaning to Jeremiah’s words—a reinterpretation of his prophecy. What he was really proclaiming, says the Midrash, was this:
Halavai oti azavu v’torati shamaru — Would that they forsake Me and keep My Torah.6 It seems that God would rather have the Jews keep the Torah than maintain their belief in Him!
Could this possibly be the ultimate statement of Judaism? Be an atheist, be an agnostic, even believe in another religion, but as long as you observe the mitzvot you are considered a good Jew? If that’s truly what Jeremiah was saying, then those who criticize Judaism for its obsession with human acts are, in fact, correct. How can Judaism be a religion if it makes no more demand on its adherents than to just do what it says to do? No belief, no feeling—just action. If that is the case, then Kant was right after all — Judaism is not really a religion!
Anybody who studies Judaism seriously will see that there is more to Judaism than just observing the mitzvot. It is too simplistic to claim that God merely expects the Jew to perform certain actions by rote. The mitzvot have a certain ideology behind them, an aim to which they are constantly driving those who observe them. So what is this much sought-after but enigmatic goal?
When we look into the Torah, one goal seems to stand out among all the others: holiness, or Kedusha. Over and over again in the Torah, God implores the Jews to be holy. One example is what the Torah says concerning the mitzvah of wearing tzitzit (ritual fringes on a four-cornered garment):
In order that you will remember and perform all My commandments and you will be holy unto your God.7
Clearly the point is that performing this physical act, wearing tzitzit, is supposed to make men holy. Judaism has its own unique understanding of holiness. In order to appreciate it, we must banish any preconceived notions that come to us from other sources. That said, the Jewish concept of holiness is admittedly difficult to define without oversimplification. Like love and beauty, we can only really tell what it is when we experience it. While the Torah itself fails to give us a definition, we could perhaps make the following suggestion: Holiness is that which a person experiences when he or she lets God into their thoughts, feelings, and actions. The experience is ineffable but highly recognizable for those who undergo it. A powerful encounter with the Creator. It leads to an internal transformation that brings with it both elation and elevation.
No doubt many people would like to be holy. The only question is how to achieve this goal. It is often maintained that one can reach it by utilizing some kind of “transcendental meditation.” While Judaism does have a tradition of meditation; and both Chassidism and the Kabbalah hold it in very high regard, it is not a major aspect of Jewish tradition. Nowhere in the Torah does God say, “If you want to be holy, go and meditate.”
The Torah does, however, give instructions on how to become holy. We’ve already seen one of them, above, regarding the wearing of tzitzit. Here’s another:
For I am the Lord your God, you shall sanctify yourselves and you shall become holy, for I am holy and you shall not make yourselves unholy…
What makes us unholy? Continues the Torah: …by [eating] any creeping creature that crawls on the ground.8
The Torah is making a most unusual, even strange claim. It is telling us that if we want to be holy, than one of the ways to achieve this goal is by avoiding eating creeping creatures. At other instances the Torah forbids the eating of impure animals, such as swine. It seems to imply that by refraining from consuming these creatures one will be sanctified to God. In general, the dietary laws are seen as ways to become holy.
The only problem is that it’s very difficult to see the connection between keeping kosher and being holy. History is full of examples of Jews who kept kosher — entire villages and towns of them — but it would be hard to claim they were all holy people.
As said, we believe that holiness is about recognizing God in everything and experiencing Him with everything. In seeking holiness we are supposed to try to be like God and draw ourselves close to Him. How could all this possibly be accessed merely through our deeds, through such simple things as the food we eat?
The Conflict between the Body and the Soul
To answer this seeming contradiction we need to ask a question: What is the relationship between the body and soul? And let us pose this question not only to Judaism, but also to two other important traditions: Christianity and the Western-philosophical tradition. In this way we can sharpen our understanding of Judaism by way of comparing and contrasting it with other ways of thinking.
Nearly all traditions agree that mankind possesses both body and soul, and that we strive to find an expression for our souls, to feel its imprint on our being. However, this task too often proves a challenge, as the desires of the body can thwart the loftier aims of the soul. How to resolve this conflict between the body and the soul is the principle objective of nearly every major philosophy of life. How we live, what we live for, and how we relate to the world around us, all depends on our answer to this question, and the answer varies depending on the tradition.
The following summaries concerning Christianity and the Western—philosophical tradition, will, of necessity, contain some generalizations. They are presented here with the utmost respect, with no intention of downplaying the breadth or scope of these traditions; we are aware that they encompass a wide range of beliefs and ideas. Nevertheless, there are common threads and patterns. In a broad sense then, what do these traditions teach about how to resolve the conflict between the body and the soul?
The Christian Approach
Christianity, as represented by Paul and other major theologians such as Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, offers a very distinct answer to our question.
When it came to the body/soul conflict, the Church fathers claimed that resolution was simply beyond human capacity. Body and soul are engaged in a constant struggle, and neither can reach any satisfaction by that which the other desires. In order to advance spiritually, traditional Christianity claims that one must completely subdue the body. Save your soul, said the Church fathers, because you cannot save your body—it is too attached to the pleasures of this world. The ideal lifestyle mandated by this outlook was internally very consistent. Christian leaders and monks were expected to take vows of celibacy and poverty and to separate themselves from worldly affairs. Since there was no way of sanctifying the body, it simply had to be ignored, at least as much as possible.9
The classical Christian position seems quite pessimistic. There is no hope of resolving the conflict between body and soul. However, from the perspective of our experience, this view is quite realistic. How often do we struggle with the desires of the body going against our more lofty aspirations? The Church fathers were certainly on the mark when they recognized that this is, indeed, a significant problem. They also recognized that not all Christians would be able to achieve the total subjection of their bodies, and therefore allowed some space for bodily needs, such as a sexual relationship, but only within marriage — but this was definitely seen as a compromise of the ideal.
The Western-Philosophical Approach
The Western-philosophical tradition has a very different approach. Here it is correct to consult the father of this tradition, the philosopher Socrates. Socrates’ philosophy has been made known to us mainly through the writings of Plato and Xenophon, his students. It is clear from these writings that Socrates also struggled with the question of body and soul and how to resolve the conflict between them. He was certainly not a materialist who relegated humanity to the sphere of earthly matters. Rather, he grappled with the issue of how Man is best to live his life, both spiritually and physically.
The method Socrates taught to resolve the body/soul conflict is a two-step process. The first step is to follow a path of intellectual discovery in search of the “good life” — the proper way by which all are supposed to live. Once the mind, the seat of the soul, has discovered this truth, all that remains to be done is to inform the body about it. At this point the body will be so overwhelmed by the beauty and depth of the truth presented to it by the intellect, that it will follow its advice more or less automatically. Socrates therefore prescribed a life of philosophical investigation, and put great faith in the ability of education to raise humanity’s moral standards. The world he envisioned was ruled by philosopher kings who were so conquered by their own enlightenment that the dictates of the body simply would not hold any sway, the body having become a willing slave to the insight of the intellect.10
But if Christianity is realistically pessimistic, Socrates was unrealistically optimistic. The flaw in his hopeful but rather naive reasoning is not too difficult to demonstrate. Imagine someone who wanted to become a gold-medal Olympic swimmer but had never before set foot in a pool. Socrates’ advice would probably be to tell him to go to a university; not to its pool but to its library. “Learn as much as you can about swimming,” Socrates would tell him. “Really become an expert in the subject, and then inform your body about it.” Now imagine that our friend proceeds to follow Socrates’ advice, earns his B.A. in dog paddle, then going on to do his master’s in advanced breaststroke. Ultimately, he defends his doctoral thesis, which is entitled, “Sink or Swim: Toward a New Theory of Recreational Buoyancy.” He has a doctorate in swimming, but what would happen when our professor actually gets in the pool? He is more likely to drown than he is to win any race!
Training our body to do that which our mind knows to be true is unfortunately not as easy as Socrates made it out to be. The most convincing argument will always fail to move the stubborn sinner, because we do not automatically do what is right just because we know it to be so. The body, with all its complex drives and desires, offers strong resistance to the counsel of the soul.
The Jewish Approach
Judaism’s response to both these traditions is that while there is much to say for each, both are wrong because they are too radical.11 The truth lies somewhere between the two extremes advanced by the Church fathers and Socrates. Judaism agrees with Christianity that the struggle between body and soul is very problematic; however it is not hopelessly insoluble. But whereas Western philosophy maintains that we can easily resolve this conflict, Judaism counters that it is not quite so easy. The task of training the body in the ways of the soul, of sanctifying the body and its desires, presents perhaps the most difficult challenge known to Man. It may indeed take an entire lifetime to achieve, but it is not impossible.
What then is Judaism’s answer to this dilemma? If it can indeed be done, how do we make the body receptive to the conditioning of the soul? Judaism claims, first of all, that the body and the soul are not completely separate entities. Man consists rather of a composite of the two, within which it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. The body and the soul constantly interact with each other. Therefore, whatever a person thinks or feels will be reflected in their actions, and conversely, everything that a person does will influence their thoughts and emotions.
It is this latter point that is most crucial for understanding how people work. How do actions influence the spirit? The idea here is that external actions awaken the internal being. Our deeds create a mentality; they infiltrate our subconscious mind in ways that ultimately shape who we become. Whereas good intentions and nice feelings will not necessarily produce morally correct behavior, if you behave “correctly” you will eventually come to feel the right feelings and think the right thoughts.
The reason Judaism stresses the importance of law, and places so much emphasis on the conformity of action, is not because it believes Man’s deeds to be the sum total of his existence, but rather because his deeds are the key to all the other facets of his being. As the Torah makes clear when it tells us, “You are to know this day and return it upon your heart that God exists,”12 spiritual growth starts with intellectual realization, but it does not end there. What we experience is a process of “becoming real” with our knowledge, of truly making it a part of us. That transformation only comes about through one way: action. For Judaism, once man performs “holy deeds”, holiness enters his very being.
Spiritual Change through Physical Action
Once, on a visit to America, I was sitting in my hotel lobby minding my own business when I was approached by two men who wanted to know if I was a rabbi. When I told them that I was, without asking for any further credentials, they proceeded to tell me their story. The two men were Vietnam War veterans and they had a question that they specifically wanted to ask a rabbi, because so far no one else had been able to help them.
Both men had been raised in America with strong Christian values, particularly as regards the sanctity of human life. As they were growing up, they had never thought of hurting a fellow human being. Certainly they never imagined ever killing anyone. So you can imagine their terror when, upon being sent into war in Vietnam, they were given orders to kill the enemy. Nothing could have been so incongruous with their upbringing or so repulsive to their very natures.
At first they resisted their orders. But under the duress of their commanding officers, they were eventually forced to comply. The first time it was torture for their souls. The contradiction between their beliefs and their actions was almost physically painful. They felt they would never be able to live with themselves again. But after a short while, the killing got easier. Too easy. Even enjoyable. Things deteriorated to the point that murder became a game to them. They would even compete to see who could kill the most, so far had they fallen.
As they stood before me they admitted with heavy hearts that they had lost all feeling for the sanctity of human life. The sensitivity they had felt in their youth toward others had not returned to them once they had reentered civilization. They admitted to me that they felt as though they could kill anybody on the street and not feel an ounce of regret. What they wanted me to teach them was how to get that feeling back; the feeling that life is holy and not to be violated. Their spiritual leaders and psychologists had not been able to help them—could I?
I did not give them Socrates’ advice. All the books on philosophy, psychology, and poetry would not help them regain that lost feeling of compassion. Neither did I tell them that their mission was hopeless. I gave them, rather, the advice that Judaism offers. I told them to get involved with helping others, to do acts of loving kindness—what we call chessed. “Volunteer in a hospital or an old age home,” I advised. “Just start doing things for others and you will slowly begin to recognize life’s sanctity once more. The deeds will create a new mentality and bring out the thoughts and emotions that you did not even know were hiding there.”
In this way I could offer these men to try to reverse the process that they had already undergone. Actions had desensitized them, and only by action could they regain what was lost.
One’s Heart is Drawn after One’s Actions
The same is true of all mitzvot, not just chessed, acts of kindness. Performing a mitzvah is not merely a religious rite or a symbolic act. When we perform the mitzvot, we become them. If, at the outset, the heart and mind are not engaged, by performing the actions the appropriate thoughts and feelings will be aroused. These acts slowly begin to mold our consciousness around the ideas that they seek to impart. Each act closes the gap between what we are supposed to do and that which we are supposed to be.
This is essentially the advice given by Sefer HaChinuch (The Book of [Mitzvah] Education) attributed to Aaron Halevi of Barcelona (probably 13th century) as its author expounds upon Judaism’s philosophy of action:
Know that a person is influenced according to his actions. His heart and all his thoughts are [drawn] after his deeds in which he is occupied, whether good or bad. Thus, even a person who is thoroughly wicked in his heart, and every imagination of the thoughts of his heart are only evil the entire day—would he arouse his spirit and set his striving and his occupation with constancy in Torah and mitzvot, even if not for the sake of Heaven, he would veer at once toward the good, and with the power of his good deeds he would deaden his evil impulse. For after one’s actions is the heart drawn.13
At first the body will not naturally take to the conditioning of the soul, but after an initial push, the external actions will eventually strengthen the internal feelings. These feelings will then gain more control over the actions that gave rise to them in the first place, in an escalating spiral of spiritual enhancement. Ultimately the body will conform to the demands of the soul. Obviously this is easier said than done, and it is difficult to believe that it will happen automatically. If the human spirit is not open, or somehow denies the development of these feelings, they may not be able to have an effect on the actual psyche. It is only when there is an openness and a desire for such a change that a deed can have its effect. Of course, while there may be laws, there is no ritual to ensure that one will pay one’s taxes instead of evading them. But by constantly acting in an honest way in all matters, and doing acts of kindness toward one’s fellow man, one creates a mentality whereby it will become more and more difficult to evade one’s taxes.
One is reminded of William James’s observation: “Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state. We are spinning our own fate, good or evil, and never to be undone.” (14) Habit is capitalized action. It becomes conscience. As Henri Bergson said, “It is right to say that what we do depends on what we are, but it is necessary to add that we are, in some measure, what we do, and that we are creating ourselves continually. (15)
Internalizing the Meaning behind the Mitzvot. The “As If” attitude.
There is a famous story told about a holy Chassidic rebbe. His students were so impressed with his level of piety that they assumed he must fast several times a week. Seeking to follow in his footsteps, they approached their rebbe and asked him, “Our master our teacher, how many times a week do you fast?”
The rebbe turned to them with surprise. “Why, none,” he said. “I do not fast at all.” “Then how many times a year do you fast?” they asked. “I’m sorry,” said the rebbe, “you did not understand me. I do not fast at all—ever!”
The students were taken aback. They had no doubt that at the very least, as Jewish law requires, the Rebbe must be fasting on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and on Tisha B’Av, the national day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple and other calamities of Jewish history. It could not be that they fasted on these days and their holy rebbe did not.
Reading the confused looks on their faces, the rebbe began again. “Let me explain,” he said. “Do not get me wrong. I certainly do not eat on Yom Kippur, and neither do I eat on Tisha B’Av. But it is not because I am fasting on those days. I just do not eat and drink on those days! On Yom Kippur there is no time to eat. I am too busy praying and trying to repent for my sins. Who has time to eat? And on Tisha B’Av, a day on which so many calamities happened, I simply have no appetite. Who could eat on such a day? So, you see, I never fast.”
There is a commandment not to eat on Yom Kippur or Tisha B’Av, but that is only so that we can become aware that we would not be able to eat or drink if we realized the true awesomeness of these days. The fact that many of us would be able to eat and drink on these days requires a law forbidding us to do so.
But if we truly understood that we have only one day a year on which to gain atonement and purification, drawing ourselves ever closer to God, we would hardly entertain the notion of squandering the time with a meal. And if we were able to perceive the depth of tragedy behind the events that transpired on Tisha B’Av, then we would honestly be too upset to stomach any food.
So, the Torah and our sages respectively tell us to act as if we have no time to eat or as if we have no appetite on these days. They do so based on the understanding that after some time practicing to act in this way, we will begin to internalize the meaning of the action. As the Talmud says, “Mitoch shelo lishma, ba lishma,”(16) — the performance of the deed without the proper intention will eventually lead to the performance of the deed with the proper intention. The Torah tells us to do the mitzvot so that we do not come to see spirituality as something external to us. We are called on rather to internalize it, by first doing. Once we start performing the mitzvot, we begin to think the mitzvot, we begin to feel the mitzvot. Ultimately, as the holy rebbe was trying to teach his students, we become the mitzvot.
Besides this, there is also an educational message: The fact that the Torah requires an external deed such as fasting teaches Man that he should really dream of the day when there will no longer be a need for a command to fast, but that fasting will naturally follow from his very being. Would the Torah not command him in this, he would not be aware that he should even aspire to such a dream.
Creativity through Control
Now we are able to understand the necessity of having so many positive commandments—our actions guide us toward the realization of their inner meanings. But what we have yet to explain is why Judaism places so many restrictions on our behavior as well. Granted that our thesis, reversed, also holds true: destructive actions guide the soul toward a corrupt character. But there is more to it than that.
When I was growing up, people used to say that if you wanted to be creative all you had to do was “let go.” It was assumed that the way to unleash creativity was to shed all limitations and “go with the flow.” But reality proves otherwise. Most of the time, letting go only makes us less focused and more confused. The range of options overwhelms us. The truth about creativity is that it is not born out of the chaos of a lack of boundaries, but rather from the devotion of discipline. True creativity is, as Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “an emotion controlled by an idea.” (17) It is the ultimate triumph of form over undeveloped matter.
I remember as a schoolboy in Amsterdam being taken to see the paintings of the Dutch artist, Rembrandt van Rijn. My teacher at the time was fascinated by a certain painting of his and took us to the museum to see it. The painting happened to be a portrait of the prophet Jeremiah crying over the destruction of the Temple. The teacher did not discuss the meaning of the painting. Rather, he instructed us to look closely at the hair on Jeremiah’s head. As I moved my face as close as I could to the painting, I was stunned by how real it looked. Rembrandt had painted each and every hair individually, each strand a creation of its own. It literally looked alive, as if it were growing before my eyes.
Can you imagine what it might have been like to sit with Rembrandt in his studio, watching him paint such a portrait? Watching each tedious stroke of his tiny paintbrush, you could be forgiven for thinking he was not doing anything at all. What control he must have had, what restraint! Certainly he could never have created that masterpiece just by letting go. Only a master of the trade, with an incredibly skilled and disciplined hand, could have painted such an astonishing work. It was Rembrandt’s control that facilitated his creativity. Limitations, far from being a hindrance, are what allow us to focus our creative potential.
The artist who perhaps most epitomized this concept of creativity was the great musician, Johann Sebastian Bach. Those who carefully study his music will discover that Bach dealt with music as Judaism deals with law. Bach was totally traditional in his approach to music. He adhered strictly to the rules of composition as understood in his day, and nowhere, in any of his works, do we find any deviation from these rules. But what is most surprising is that the volume of Bach’s musical output was not only unprecedented, but, above all, his compositions were astonishingly creative. According to many, he was the greatest composer of all time. After carefully listening to his “St. Matthew Passion,” anyone with a background in music would readily admit that it is probably the most, or one of the most, sophisticated compositions ever written within the Western tradition of classical music.
What we discover is that the restrictions Bach imposed upon himself—to keep to the traditional rules of composition—allowed him to become the author of outstandingly innovative music. It was from within the “confinement of the law” that Bach was able to burst out with unprecedented creativity. What Bach proved more than anything else was that it is not by novelty alone that one reaches the heights of human creative potential, but by the capacity to plumb to the depths that which is already given. Bach’s works were entirely free of any innovation, but utterly original.
To work within the constraints and then to be utterly novel, that is the ultimate sign of greatness. That is what Johann Wolfgang Goethe, the great German poet and philosopher, meant, when he said: ‘‘In der Beschraenkung zeigt sich erst der Meister, Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben” (In limitation does the master really prove himself, and it is [only] the law which can provide us with freedom).(18) Bach, then, was a “legal” giant of the first order. He realized that the adoption of a well-defined system does not force one to forfeit spiritual profundity. On the contrary, the defined system gives expression to the greatest spiritual potential.
Everyone is Unique
Music has more to teach us about how to relate to our tradition. This lesson is drawn from a personal encounter I had a number of years ago. A neighbor of mine in Jerusalem is a music teacher. In the summer, when all the windows are open, the sounds of his violin entered my home. They were uninvited, but certainly not unwelcome; on a hot summer’s eve I found refreshment in the grace of these free concerts.
One summer he was instructing his pupils in a particular section of one of Mozart’s violin concertos. As teachers do, he taught it over and over again. I listened to him play that piece so many times that, by summer’s end, I must have known it by heart. Some time later, as chance had it, I saw an advertisement for a concert: the violinist Yehudi Menuhin was to perform the very same symphony. I thought to myself, Wonderful. I’ll go and hear Yehudi Menuhin play, and I’ll even be able to correct him if he makes any mistakes. So I went to the concert, but I returned very disturbed. Menuhin’s rendition of Mozart’s concerto did not sound remotely like the piece that my neighbor had been playing all summer. I simply could not understand. The notes were the same, but the music was completely different.
I decided to seek out my neighbor and ask him to explain this strange phenomenon to me. Was it the instrument that made it sound different, or perhaps the concert hall acoustics, or was I just entirely mistaken?
He told me that actually it was all very simple. “What you heard,” he explained, “was a completely different piece of music.”
“But it wasn’t,” I assured him. “The program said that it was the same symphony that you were playing.”
“It might have been the same violin concerto,” he said, “but it certainly was not the same piece of music. You see, when I play Mozart, I take Mozart’s notes and play Mozart. But when Yehudi Menuhin plays, he plays Menuhin, and borrows the notes from Mozart.”
It was for this reason, he went on to tell me, that someone like Yehudi Menuhin would never get bored of playing the same piece of music over and over again. When one is truly creative, it is never the same piece twice. The notes may be the same, but the vibrations and the music will always be new and unique each time.
Lamnatze’ach (For the Conductor)
Around 3,300 years ago, a unique symphony was composed for an ensemble of no less than two million people. Its Composer invited His conductor into His chamber at the top of Mount Sinai. It was at this apex of history that God handed over to Moses the masterful score upon which the Jewish people were to play the music of life. God taught him exactly how it needed to be played, not a note more and not a note less. But the vibrations, intonations, interpretations of these notes were up to the musicians standing at the foot of the mountain. “We will do, and we will hear”(19) means that one hears in the doing. And although the divine voice words spoke the same the words, nobody heard the same musical sounds because this depended on the kind of soul each one had.
Every Jew is a musician. They play their spiritual music on a music instrument called halacha. We have been given the notes and it is left to us to bring them alive. If we seek creativity, the notes are anything but a burden. They are, rather, a guide. Which ones we play are just as important as which ones we omit. And while it may be easier to just play whatever comes to mind, ultimately we have to step back and listen to the sounds we are making. Sitting down at the piano, if one hand plays the music of Mozart while the other just slaps at the keys randomly, we can be sure that the overall effect will sound less than melodic. Sticking to the notes on the sheet might prove difficult, but in the end, it is the only way to produce real music. Far from being restrictive, it will facilitate the release of the most robust creativity.
What critics of Judaism did not comprehend when they criticized Jewish law was that rules, when deeply contemplated and internalized, become the impetus for a special kind of creativity and spirituality , never to be found by those who reject such limitations. As any student of Jewish law can testify, the study of halacha and a life lived according to its teachings is one of the most creative of all human endeavors.
The Signature in the Corner
So, what did Jeremiah mean when he said to the Jewish people that it is better to be an atheist who observes the Torah than a true believer who does not? Let us listen to the words of the Midrash in full:
Would that they forsook Me but still observed My Torah, since by engaging with it, the light that lies therein will bring them back to [Me].(21)
God need not worry if we disregard Him, as long as we still observe His mitzvot. Somehow He knows that if we continue to perform these deeds, we will eventually come back to Him. It is inevitable that we will be drawn to seek out God just by following the dictates of the Torah.
How long can you play God’s music without actually meeting Him? Do you have to be a trained artist to appreciate sublime beauty? Walk up to a painting in a museum and, whether or not you recognize it as a Rembrandt, you will recognize the genius of the one who created it. We first judge art by the depths of its aesthetic appeal, and only then do we look for the artist’s signature in the corner. God saw that performing the mitzvot would bring out such a beautiful expression of our true selves that we would want to know who it was who told us to live by them. And once we reach that point, how much longer will we remain atheists or agnostics?
Man’s heart is drawn after his actions. What he does will ultimately be what he is. In the realm of spiritual growth, action takes precedence because it alone is the medium of personal transformation. But not all actions produce the same effect. Halacha is the musical score that molds our actions into a symphony of the divine. We may start by borrowing notes that perhaps we would not ourselves have written, but when we play them with compassion, the sounds they make will soon resonate within us. And at the moment when we start to hear the music of our own souls issue forth, there can be no doubt that its Composer was also our Creator. Critics of Judaism, like Paul or Spinoza, simply do not understand that Judaism’s “obsessive” emphasis on Halacha is the very route to man’s spirit and feelings.