The Avodah Blog

Jewish Spirituality as a Life of the Law: Halakha and the Jewish Left — D’var Torah for Parashat VaEthanan

In our parasha, Moshe, in his final charge to the Israelites, completes the recapping of their story which occupied last week’s parasha and moves into his review of the mitzvot (commandments) and multiple exhortations not to abandon them upon entering the land. After warning them not to add or detract from the mitzvot, and reminding them how harshly God can punish violators, Moshe says the following (Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:5-8):

“Look, I have taught you laws and statutes, just as YHWH my God commanded me, to do accordingly within the land which you are about to enter to inherit. And you shall observe them and do them, for it is your wisdom and your discernment in the eyes of the nations who will hear all these laws, such that they should say, ‘Surely, this is a wise and discerning people, this great nation!’ For what great nation is there whose god is close to it, as is YHWH our God in our every calling out to Him?! And what great nation has laws and statutes as just as this entire Torah, which I put before you today!?”

There are a couple of striking things about this passage, regarding the nature of Jewish law. First, it is the laws that are considered our wisdom before the nations, inducing them to proclaim our greatness. Other aspects of Jewish life may surround the mitzvot, but ultimately, the epicenter of our Jewishness before the nations is the mitzvot, which will wow our neighbors with their insight and justness. Second, not only are the laws good, but it is the laws that demonstrate God’s closeness to us. We should not understate the distance between the rhetoric of these verses from contemporary, (Christian?), popular conceptions about law and spirituality. Over the last century and change, many Jews — both those who reject mitzvot as well as those who observe them — claim that mitzvot and halakhot (commandments and laws) are arbitrary or meant to be not understood or that the pursuit of any reason for a mitzvah beyond “God commanded it” is futile and a waste of time. Religious versions of this philosophy can be found most explicitly in the writings of Yeshayahu Leibowitz and more elegantly in the writings of various rabbis of the Soloveitchik dynasty, including Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik. That worldview is undercut by the Torah itself in these verses, which assert that the mitzvot should be so transparently comprehensible that non-Jews, upon learning about them, say, “Wow, what a smart and just law for a smart and just people!” Moreover, against a popular conception that the real heart of a spiritually connected life is ecstatic, rapturous, or meditative personal engagement with God, the Torah tells us here that it is our laws which impress our neighbors as reflecting a deep closeness with God.

The Torah’s conception seems pretty far from our experience. How could the Torah think that mitzvot would have such an effect?  To put it differently, how does the Torah here imagine the laws to be, so that they will have that effect in the world? And where does this passage point progressive and radical Jews to a relationship with halakha, Jewish law?

First of all, if the laws are our “wisdom and your discernment in the eyes of the nations,” then that means that Halakhah must not be esoteric; it is meant to be accessible to anyone. One of the tests of any ruling or argumentation should be whether it can be comprehensibly explained to reasonable people who are curious and interested, even if they are not well-educated in Rabbinic texts or currently highly practicing of mitzvot. It also means that Jewish law must engage with the wisdom of the world. Rav Sh’muel bar Nahmani says in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: What is the source for it being a mitzvah to calculate astronomy? As it says, ‘for it is your wisdom and your discernment in the eyes of the nations’. What are the wisdom and discernment that are in the eyes of the nations? Astronomy” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 75a). Jewish law must refract through the people’s wisdom, wherever it is located in any time and place. Halakha is not a list of stuff of interest to a clique; it is a culturally-specific prism through which we refract wisdom, a culturally-informed language through which we communicate knowledge and morality with the world.

Second, if Jewish law is meant to be widely and popularly inspiring, that means that it cannot be monovocal. It’s agility and potency must make room for human dispute, in accordance with the different assessments of reasonable people to the values at hand or the likely consequences, costs, and benefits and different choices. Good decisions are those considering values and consequences. Bad decisions are those that mechanically crunch supposed rules or formulae without translating them to the situation at hand. I can understand and respect a particular ruling in its own context while positing that in my own context, it would play out differently. Healthy mahloket (dispute) focuses on these actual differences of viewpoint.

Third, Torah must also be alive and growing. An early, medieval midrash captures what Rabbinic law is supposed to be in a parable offered by Elijah the Prophet to a “heretic” who embraced the written Torah, as a static, Divine text, but rejected Rabbinic, oral teachings. Elijah responded: “It’s like a king of flesh and blood, who had two subjects whom he loved completely. He gave each of them a measure of wheat and a bundle of flax. What did the intelligent one do? They wove the flax into a cloth and made flour from the wheat, sifted it, ground it, kneaded it, and baked it and arranged it on the table, spread the cloth upon it, and left it until the king returned. The foolish one did not do anything. After some days, the king came into his house and said to them: ‘My children, bring me what I gave you.’ One brought out the table set with the bread and the cloth spread upon it, and the other brought the wheat in a basket and the bundle of flax with it. Oh, what an embarrassment! Oh, what a disgrace! Which do you think was most beloved? The one who brought the table with the bread upon it!…(Similarly) when God gave the Torah to Israel, God gave it as wheat from which to make flour and flax from which to make clothing” (Midrash Eliyahu Zuta, Chapter 2). There are wrong ways to bake bread and there is bad bread, as much as there can be unsubstantiated legal interpretation and disgusting legislation. But there are many kinds of equally authentic, delicious bread, reflecting the personality, culture, climate, geography, and many other influences on the baker. Good baking requires attention, hard work, and investment. It also suggests adding ingredients for delicious flavoring and even adding essential, external ingredients, just as water must be added to flour to turn it into bread. Most boldly, preparing flour for baking involves sifting, removing pebbles and toxins which the discerning eye knows to be extraneous to the flour. (I thank Rabbi Jason Rubenstein for this observation.) When is Halakha stupid and embarrassing? When I don’t knead, sift, and bake it, with the naturally occurring yeast in my environment.

Fourth, Jewish law must be inspiring and wise. It must be freedom. A midrash which we discussed earlier this year, on Parashat Ki Tissa, teaches an important lesson about the nature of Torah via a wordplay on the Torah’s mention that the first tablets of the Ten Commandments were “God’s work…engraved upon the tablets (haruth al ha-luhot)” (Sh’mot/Exodus 32:16). Though commentators note that this word “haruth — חָרוּת” is synonymous with the more common word, “harut — חרוט”, it is an unusual, even unique spelling of the word. This anomaly leads the Rabbis to interpret the “misspelling” as a play on words, imbuing the verse with a double entendre: “Do not read, ‘haruth – חרות – engraved’, but ‘heiruth – חירות – freedom’” (Midrash VaYikra Rabbah 18:3). The Divine laws were physically carved into stone and they are engraved for us eternally as freedom. Three rabbis offer up different suggestions as to the nature of that freedom – freedom from mortality, freedom from political subjugation, or freedom from suffering — but they agree that mitzvot are freedom — not the false freedom which Toni Morrison exposes as mere “license” or personal choice (end of The Bluest Eye), but a communal, deep freedom from oppression. Leftists and organizers understand this very well. It’s the liberals who cherish everyone being able to do what they want. Leftists understand that that just means that people who have hoarded or been unjustly given excessive power will do what they want at the expense of people with less power, for whom freedom of choice will be a perverse, gaslighting, joke ideology. Freedom is law. Freedom is commandedness.

In light of the notion of freedom through law, the Rambam adds a sharp framing to his codification of the laws of pikuah nefesh, that saving a life overrides almost any other commandment, even a capital crime like Shabbat violation. First, the Rambam cites the law and its Scriptural hook, quoting the Talmud on Yoma 85b: “It is forbidden for one to hesitate to violate Shabbat for a sick person in danger, as is said, “‘that a person should do [the mitzvot] and live by them’ (VaYikra/Leviticus 18:5) – not that one should die by them.” The Rambam uncharacteristically goes off script, though, adding a comment beyond what the Talmud says there: “Here, you have learned that the Torah’s statutes are not revenge on the world, but mercy, lovingkindness, and peace on the world” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shabbat 2:3). It follows, then, that if the mitzvot are achieving violence more than mercy, lovingkindness and peace, we are probably misunderstanding either what the mitzvah is (what it means, how it applies, and how to perform it), or we are misunderstanding the evaluation of mercy, lovingkindness, and peace.

Morality refers to our Divine responsibility as human beings. Halakhah refers to our Divine responsibility as Jews. These may not be totally co-extensive, but it’s impossible for them to be in conflict, unless we posit a cruel and capricious God. That means that if we perceive morality and Halakhah to be in conflict, we are misunderstanding one or the other, or both. Perhaps our perception of morality unfairly ignored a negative consequence out of the frame of our focus. Perhaps the proper ruling of Halakhah is counter to what we thought it to be: when you instinctively dismiss or reject a mitzvah, you might actually be sitting on a brilliant and necessary interpretive innovation as the application of that law in your circumstance. If the laws are to be our “wisdom and insight before the nations”, they must apply and extend morality, not compromise it, God forbid (literally). If the laws are to be accessible, morally compelling, and inspiring, that means that every law has purpose. As the Rambam writes in his philosophical work, The Guide for the Perplexed: “Each one of the 613 mitzvot is either to instill true ideas or to remove bad ideas, or to give straight order, or to remove corruption, or to become accustomed in good character traits, or to warn off from bad character traits. Everything stems from three things – ideas, character traits, and collective behavior” (Book III:31). Rav Kook (1865-1935, Latvia, Palestine) famously asserts that real fear of Heaven always improves upon general morality and cannot undermine it: “It is forbidden for fear of Heaven to compress natural human morality, for then it is no longer pure fear of Heaven. A sign of pure fear of Heaven is when natural morality, which is rooted in the upright nature of man, is continuously uplifted by it [i.e., by the Torah] to levels higher than it had reached without it” (Orot HaKodesh 3:11). Mitzvot, properly understood, advance civilization. This is what impresses the nations.

Finally, the law is our greatest language of spirituality. The nations, witnessing many approaches to spirituality, are most moved by the spirituality of commandedness, communal wisdom, accountability, responsibility: “‘For what great nation is there whose god is close to it, as is YHWH our God in our every calling out to Him?! And what great nation has laws and statutes as just as this entire Torah, which I put before you today!?’” The advent of Judaism as we know it, Rabbinic Judaism, coincides with God’s ceasing to speak to us through prophets. The Talmud (Bava Batra 12a) asserts that this reflects not a lesser, but greater, spiritual state: A Hakham (wise person), who has to use reason to figure out the Divine will, is preferable to a Navi (a prophet). Elsewhere, the Talmud (Gittin 56b) teaches that God’s silence is an expression of God’s greatness. These surprising sentiments are explained by the Jewish, French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas:  “Spirituality is offered up not through a tangible substance, but through absence. God is real and concrete not through incarnation but through Law, and His greatness is not inspired by His sacred mystery. His greatness does not provoke fear and trembling, but fills us with high thoughts. To hide one’s face so as to demand the superhuman of man, to create a man who can approach God and speak to Him without always being in His debt—that is a truly divine mark of greatness!” (from his essay “Loving the Torah More than God”, in the book Difficult Freedom). God’s silence is the greatest expression of love: God raised us, and showed us abundant love in giving us the commandments, through which we can achieve a life of justice and love, without having to return to the womb every step of the way. Such is a true life of mitzvot.

The most profound Jewish spirituality is a leftist spirituality: the spirituality of grounded, applied wisdom through law, the spirituality of endless responsibility and accountability, a true living Torah. Halakha awaits the Jewish left to speak it into its true being.

Shabbat Shalom.

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