In modernity, people have learned that we dare not trust human nature as a singular entity. Rather, we rely on dependable systems and place trust in people who we believe have our best interests at heart, who have the proper authority to hold us accountable for our actions. How so? We set up legislatures to create laws, police departments to enforce those laws, courts to rule upon infringements of those laws, and punitive justice systems to prosecute those who have violated those laws. We do not merely hope and trust that everyone will live to their values, but actively ensure that they to do their part to ensure the fabric of society doesn’t rip apart.
Why should private morality be any different from societal order? If we are serious about our personal moral and spiritual lives, then we need systems of law to protect the core values we hold most dear. There is too much at stake to violate our most cherished ethics.
Judaism, as a religion, contains one of the most powerful mechanisms to uphold these core values. Jewish life is not merely confined to specific moments such as holidays or particular life-cycle moments or spaces such as synagogues and community centers. Instead, Judaism contains an all-encompassing philosophical extension of the most relevant precepts that permeate our entire lives. This is what halakhah (Jewish religious law) is for. As Rabbi Soloveitchik explained: “The Halakhah is not hermetically enclosed within the confines of cult sanctuaries but penetrates into every nook and cranny of life. The marketplace, the street, the factory, the house, the meeting place, the banquet hall, all constitute the backdrop for the religious life” (Halakhic Man, 94).
For Jewish values to have any force, they can’t be reserved simply for times of motivation. They are fixtures in our lives, solidified by law, ritual, and community. For our ethics to be actualized they must be congealed into the soul through a system of laws. Rav Kook taught the inter-dependent nature of law, ethics, and spirituality:
Morality, in its natural state, with all its profound splendor and might, must be fixed in the soul, so that it may serve as a substratum for the great effects emanating from the strength of Torah… Every element of Torah must be preceded by derekh eretz (natural ethical behavior) (Orot HaTorah 12:2-3).
The soul learns from the breadth of consistency and the depths of profundity. In a rapidly changing world, we need roots. Halakhah provides these roots, keeping us accountable to God and our fellow man. More than roots, halakhah also provides wings to ensure our private ethics can soar higher with positive social impact. Most importantly, perhaps, it holds us answerable to our own conscience. If we believe we must help the vulnerable, halakhah requires us to when the opportunity presents itself. If we feel it is meaningful to pray, halakhah requires us to consistently. If we feel we must act like a mensch even on a bad day, halakhah requires us to transcend our current mood.
The halakhah teaches that “freedom from” (negative liberty”) is not enough and that we also need “freedom to” (positive liberty) to construct a meaningful society and good life. It’s not enough to leave Egypt; one must also approach Sinai. It’s not enough for the Jewish people to survive against anti-Semitism; rather we must have a collective vision to thrive and actualize our spiritual destiny.
We can’t rely upon ourselves to take rest when we need it. Rather, even during our busiest work week when we can’t imagine stopping work, the Sabbath arrives as an obligatory mechanism for self-care and survival. Further still, a complete stop is put upon us on the Sabbath to ensure labor justice (prohibition to work another), animal welfare (prohibition to work an animal), environmental justice (prohibition to work the land), and social equanimity (prohibition to engage in any form of commerce). Where would we be if left to our devices to start and stop?
If we love another, it cannot remain an emotion. Halakhah concretizes consistent actions required by anyone who is in a relationship of love. If we are mourning someone, we don’t mourn merely when struck with depression but halakhah demands an immersed experience of mourning to honor the deceased and to address our own healing and adjustment. Emotions that change in a moment are concretized into obligations to actualize our complex emotional states.
Further, the religious and spiritual impulse is to evade this world (bringing earth up to heaven) in search of enlightenment, transcendence, and redemption. Halakhah ensures that we remain grounded in the minutiae of this world (bringing heaven down to earth). It requires that we remain fully present in relationships and moments rather than escaping them in the name of God. My esteemed teacher Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo says this well:
Halacha is the practical expression of discovering the infinite within the finite. To grasp the world of religiosity, or the real essence of halacha, it is not enough to know all of the Written and Oral Torah. One must also see how the birds fly and the flowers blossom; one must sit by the bed of the dying, watch the stars, and have unexpected meetings. Because all of these are a living commentary on the Text. Only then, and not a moment earlier, have we entered olam she-kulo Torah, a world that is completely Torah. Only then can we have a notion of what it means to be religious and know the art of how to decide on God’s Halacha.
One cannot teach the importance of music, one can only experience powerful music. It is the same with halakhah as Rabbi Cardozo explains:
Most Jews today are no longer observant; nor are they even inspired by Judaism. To them, it has become irrelevant and outdated. The reasons for this tragedy are many, but no doubt a major cause is the failure to convey halacha as something exciting and ennobling, like the music of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven. Only when a Jew is taught why halacha offers him the musical notes with which he can play his soul’s sonata will he be able to hear its magnificent music.
Emanuel Levinas, the twentieth century Talmudist and philosopher, explains the necessity of ritual for our grander visions of justice: “The ritual law constitutes the austere law that strives to achieve justice. Only this law can recognize the face of the Other which has managed to impose an austere role on its true nature,” (Difficult Freedom).
To be sure, this religious enterprise will only work if courageous individuals take responsibility for their halakhic lives and don’t merely outsource the meaning-making, the spiritual authority, and moral decision-making to other “experts.” Halakhah is not about mere submission but about spiritual empowerment through moral creativity. Rather, Maimonides taught that the teleological thrust of the law is to be a vehicle toward self-perfection and societal perfection (The Guide for the Perplexed, 3:27).
Halakhah engenders a framework by which Jews are given certain flexibility to decide the correct course of action. With a myriad of positions on every issue, the eternal contribution halakha has had on Jewish life over the centuries is the way it turned values into commitments, feelings into obligations, and wishes into actualizations. It is a comprehensive gift waiting for every Jew willing to grasp its beauty.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”