Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Why Do We Need Halacha? - Part 1

By R' Chaim Navon

Why do we need Halakha? What role does Halakha play in our spiritual life?


Halakha is Judaism's most unique characteristic. It appears to be the only aspect of Judaism that is totally unique to it and clearly distinguishes it from all other religions. No other religion has laws that relate to all the various aspects of man's life and direct him to religiously desirable behavior. It is no wonder, then, that over the years Halakha has been the target of intense criticism from other religions. We shall, therefore, begin our discussion of Halakha's role in the worship of God with a brief review of the criticisms leveled against Halakha by members of other religions.

The first to mount an attack against Halakha was Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as Paul, the founder of institutionalized Christianity. Paul was born a Jew, but it was he who transformed Christianity from a marginal Jewish sect into an expanding, universalistic religion. Paul's assault upon Halakha is one of the most prominent features in his teachings. Paul emphasized the importance of inner faith, as opposed to outward behavior. He condemned Halakha for its focus on the concrete act. He asserted that the essential component of religious life is the spirit and faith, and not the physical deed. 

This critique has been leveled against Halakha time and again, and we are forced to confront it. Why is Halakha so concrete, dealing to such a great extent with practical matters? Why is Halakha so petty, determining how we must perform each and every tiny and insignificant act?

Paul's point of view, condemning the way the Torah relates to concrete acts as opposed to simple faith, deeply penetrated Christian thought. But it was the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, a Jew by birth, who expanded upon this point:

"So, too, the command not to commit adultery is given merely with reference to the welfare of the state; for if the moral doctrine had been intended, with reference not only to the welfare of the state, but also to the tranquility and blessedness of the individual, Moses would have condemned not merely the outward act, but also the mental acquiescence, as is done by [Yoshke], who taught only universal moral precepts, and for this cause promises a spiritual instead of a temporal reward." (Theological-Political Treatise, ch. 5)

Spinoza argues that Halakha is not a body of religious-spiritual laws, but merely a political constitution. This is because Halakha focuses on concrete deeds; it strives to correct man's deeds, but not his spirit. Following in Spinoza's footsteps, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant sounded similar arguments:

"The Jewish faith was, in its original form, a collection of mere statutory laws upon which was established a political organization … all its commands are of the kind which a political organization can insist upon and lay down as coercive laws, since they relate merely to external acts." (Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, book III)

How are we to respond to the arguments posed by these theologians and philosophers? Why is Halakha constructed as it is? In this lecture, we shall try to answer these questions.


There are two basic approaches to the service of God: love and fear. We are not dealing here merely with two different emotions between which one may alternate, but with two entirely different approaches to religious life. The approach of love sets as it ultimate goal intimacy with God and communion with Him. In contrast, the approach of fear views the service of God itself as the religious person's mission. One who chooses the path of love aspires to draw close to God and unite with Him. One who opts for the path of fear claims that man cannot become one with God, for God is distant and lofty. All that man can do is serve God, that is, observe His commandments, here in this world, without ever achieving intimacy with Him.

An example of the confrontation between these two approaches is found in the sixth chapter of Rambam's commentary to Tractate Avot ("The Eight Chapters"). Rambam deals there with the question of who is greater: one who is naturally inclined to observe the commandments ("the perfect saint") or one who is drawn towards sin and must constantly overcome his evil inclination ("one who rules over his evil inclination"). A "God-loving" man will clearly prefer the perfect saint, whose personality is more perfect and, therefore, closer to God, while the "God-fearing" man will have greater esteem for one who rules over his evil inclination, one who must work harder and invest greater effort in his worship of God. Obviously, we are not dealing with two extreme approaches that cannot be bridged, but with two poles between which we must find the proper path.

Halakha is the most prominent actualization of the approach of fear. Halakha compels man to comply with the Divine command, irrespective of his own volition or personal inclinations. When man contents himself with doing what appears right to him, he serves not God, but himself. Only when he commits himself to the absolute and unequivocal law of God can we be confident that he has subjected and committed himself to His service. 

Chazal have stated: "He who is commanded and does [a mitzva] is greater than he who is not commanded and does [a mitzva]" (Bava Kama 38a). That is to say, he who performs God's bidding because he is commanded to do so is greater than he who does so of his own free will. Many have found this assertion bewildering. Surely, on the face of it, one who fulfills the Creator's will only because he is bound to do so is inferior to one who does so of his own free will, out of his love for God. This is analogous to a child who washes the dishes only because his mother asked him to do so. He will be praised far less than the child who volunteers to wash the dishes in order to help his tired mother. 

To the God-fearing man, however, it is clear, almost self-evident: "he who is commanded and does [a mitzva]" does so because he is commanded to do so, fulfilling thereby the highest level of Divine service. He stands in sharp contrast to "one who is not commanded, but does [a mitzva]." Such a person fulfills God's word only because he thinks it is right to do so, because he likes the mitzva or feels that it suits him.

Chazal relate that before the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah to Israel, He offered it to all the other nations, but they refused to accept it:

"'The Lord came from Sinai, and rose up from Se'ir to them; He shone forth from Mount Paran' (Devarim 33:2). He first went to [the descendants of] Esav in Mount Se'ir, [and] said to them: 'Will you accept the Torah?' They asked Him: 'What is written therein?' He said to them: 'You shall not kill,' and they refused to accept it. They said to Him: 'This is the blessing which we received from our forefather: "You shall live by your sword." We cannot survive without it.' And so they did not accept it. 

God [then] went to the Paran desert to the descendants of Yishma'el. He said to them: 'Will you accept the Torah?' They asked Him: 'What is written therein?' He said to them: 'You shall not steal.' They said to Him: 'This is the inheritance received from our forefathers: "His hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him." We can not survive without it.' And so they did not accept it. … 

God [then] went to Israel and asked them: 'Will you accept the Torah?' They said to Him: 'Yes, yes; Whatever God has spoken, we shall do and listen.'" (Eikha Rabba [ed. Buber], parasha 3)

The other nations' mistake lay not in their ultimate refusal to receive the Torah. Their mistake was in their question, "What is written therein?" That is, they refused to accept the Torah without conditions; from the very outset, they intended to take only those elements that pleased them. This is the essential point, as is clearly evident when we compare those other nations with Israel, who accepted the Torah without first clarifying its contents: "We shall do and listen." Man accepts upon himself the burden of serving God, regardless of his own wishes and inclinations. This is the greatness of Halakha, which obligates man to actualize his worship of God through the approach of fear and fulfill even those laws that do not appeal to him. "He who is commanded and does is greater."

Chazal interpreted the expression found in Shir Ha-shirim 7:3, "suga ba-shoshanim" (lit., "set about with lilies") as relating to the words of the Torah, "which are soft like lilies."

"The way of the world is that a man marries a woman when he is thirty or forty years old. Following the expenditures [of the wedding], he immediately goes in and has relations with her. But when she says to him, 'I saw [blood] like a red lily,' he immediately withdraws from her. Who prevents him from drawing close to her? What iron wall or pillar stands between them? What snake bit him, what scorpion stung him so that he does not approach her? [It is] the words of the Torah, which are as soft as a lily, as the verse states: 'You shall not approach a woman in the impurity of her menstrual flow.'" (Shir Ha-shirim Rabba 7:3)

This wonderful midrash emphasizes the heroic and courageous behavior of the God-fearing person, who subjugates his own inclinations, desires, and aspirations to the commands of the Creator. The young groom who withdraws from his wife on their wedding night must certainly find it difficult to fully and internally identify with the prohibition and observe it with joy and enthusiasm. When the groom retreats in the dark of night where nobody can see him, forgoing intimacy with his bride, the love of his heart, he is guided by his absolute commitment to the Master of the Universe, and not by his love and yearning for Him. Withdrawal, restraint, and total self-control characterize the life of the God-fearing person. It is here that the true servant of God reveals himself, he who conquers his desires and bends them to the eternal will of his Creator.

Avraham Avinu was commanded to sacrifice his son Yitzchak to God, the son for whom he had waited so many years. How many emotional and moral obstacles must this dreadful command have placed in Avraham's path! He was commanded to kill another human being; he was asked to suppress the compassion he felt for his only son, whom he loved so dearly; he was expected to forgo the vision that had been implanted in his mind, the wonderful vision of "To your seed will I give this land." In a single moment, he was to turn from a proud and happy father, from a person noted for his charity and love for his fellow man, into a broken utensil, despicable and despised by all. 

Nevertheless, Avraham did not hesitate for a moment; he rose early in the morning to do the will of his Creator. To the God-fearing man, Avraham symbolizes the true servant of God, who, for the sake of the Holy One, blessed be He, is willing to sacrifice all that he has – his dreams, his desires, his feelings. 

Avraham was, indeed, found worthy. After withstanding the awesome trial of the Akeda, his Creator proclaimed about him: "For now I know that you fear God" (Bereishit 22:12).

Rabbi Akiva is known as the archetype of Jewish martyrdom. Countless thousands followed in Rabbi Akiva's footsteps, offering their lives in martyrdom with the words of the Shema on their lips. We can understand why Rabbi Akiva may have chosen to recite the Shema as he offered himself for martyrdom. Surely there is no holier or nobler utterance. This, however, is not what the Gemara tells us:

"When Rabbi Akiva was being led out for execution, it was time to recite the Shema. As [the Romans] were combing his flesh with iron combs, [Rabbi Akiva] accepted upon himself the yoke of Heaven.

His disciples said to him: 'O master, to this extent?!' 

He said to them: 'All my life I was distressed by this verse, "[You shall love the Lord your God…] with all your soul" – even if He takes your soul. I asked myself when I would have the opportunity to fulfill this. Now that the opportunity has arrived, I should not fulfill it?' 

He protracted the word 'one' [in the phrase, 'God is one'], so that his soul departed on that word. A heavenly voice issued forth, saying: 'Happy is Rabbi Akiva, whose soul departed on the word one.'" (Berakhot 61b)

Rabbi Akiva recited the Shema not because he was taken by its spiritual force and deemed it fitting for the occasion, but because "it was time to recite the Shema." Rabbi Akiva, the greatest halakhic sage, recognized and understood the way of Halakha. He reached the pinnacle of his life not in a dramatic outburst, but in silent submission to God's authority through the fulfillment of Halakha under all circumstances and in every situation. Rabbi Akiva proved his total devotion to the Holy One, blessed be He, not by choosing a dramatic and exhilarating passage, but by continuing to bear the constant and eternal yoke of Halakha. This is the loftiest expression of Jewish heroism.

(Translated by Rav David Strauss)