Jeffrey Radon
Jeffrey Radon

Bridging gaps between Jews of differing orientations and lifestyles

Elie Wiesel in his book on great Chasidic teachers, Souls on Fire writes a truly remarkable dedication in my eyes; and which, in my understanding, is faithful to the orthoprax (correct deeds) emphasis of the Hebrew Bible upon moral character and morality as the essence of religion as reflected in the verse (Deuteronomy 6, 18) – “And you shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord”.  Such an orthoprax conception allows for the bridging of gaps between Jews of different viewpoints and orientations.  Elie Wiesel writes:

My father, an enlightened spirit, believed in man.  My grandfather, a fervent Chasid, believed in God.  The one taught me to speak, the other to singBoth loved stories.

I understand this dedication to mean that although Elie Wiesel’s father and grandfather had different outlooks and orientations, their moral and spiritual commitment was essentially the same from a pragmatic point of view.  His father, “an enlightened spirit”, was a person of contemporary culture, rationalistic and intellectual in orientation who taught him to “speak”.  His grandfather, “a fervent Chasid”, was a pious, traditional Jew, mystical and emotional in orientation who taught him to “sing”.  His grandfather “believed in God” – a traditional, theological expression meaning that his grandfather as a traditional Jew was committed to fulfilling moral and spiritual ideals that for him represented the will of God.  His father “believed in man” – a secular, anti-theological expression meaning that his father as a humanist was committed to fulfilling moral and spiritual ideals that for him represented the essence of a humanistic life.  Thus, in my view, in spite of the difference in vocabulary, the meaning of their different expressions (of believing in God and believing in man) is essentially the same – a commitment to fulfilling moral and spiritual ideals.  “Both loved stories” – I understand this to mean that, despite their differences in outlook and orientation, his father and grandfather shared the same basic moral and spiritual commitment.  A story teaches or expresses moral and spiritual ideals and ideas, and the word story is the literal meaning of the rabbinic term Aggadah (the non-legal material of the Jewish tradition that is a repository and source of moral and spiritual ideals, as well as philosophic ideas) in distinction to Halacha (the legal material of the Jewish tradition).

Halacha, which comes from a Hebrew root meaning to go or walk, is the external aspect of Torah – and to go or walk is an external behavior.  Halacha establishes permissible and forbidden behavior and demands obedience as a matter of external authority – and, it is also the authority of rabbis as authoritative interpreters of Halacha (law) to teach and establish law.  Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic guidance of the Torah) is the internal aspect of Torah that is a matter of internal autonomy based upon persuasion and conviction (the mind and heart) – anyone, and not just rabbis, may teach Aggadah, and there is no obligation to agree or identify with such material even if taught by rabbis.  In the Talmudic literature Halacha is termed “bodies of Torah”, and Aggadah then is the soul of Torah – and, the Christian polemic portraying Judaism as a religion of law is clearly a misconception as Halacha is only the external aspect of Torah and the internal, spiritual aspect is Aggadah.

I want to cite a remarkable teaching of Nachmanides, who lived in the 13th century, expressing the view that Aggadah precedes Halacha in importance.  Nachmanides actually formulates this position in two separate places in his commentary upon the Torah – on the verse, “You shall be holy” (Leviticus 19, 2) and on the verse, “You shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6, 18).  The problem that is bothering Nachmanides is why the Torah needs to make such general statements as “You shall be holy” and “You shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord” when there are so many positive and negative commandments in the Torah requiring and prohibiting various specific actions.

On the verse, “You shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord”, Nachmanides explains that God “wished to add that you should do that which is right and good in His eyes, even in regard to those things where no specific Divine commandment applies”.  That is, the Torah must make general demands of an Aggadic (spiritual), meta-Halachic (non-legal) nature because law regulates behavior in specific concrete situations, and the Torah must give general moral and spiritual guidance for acting properly even in situations not covered by specific laws.  However, Nachmanides goes even further in making a famous comment on the verse, “You shall be holy”, when he says that a person, even though strictly observant of law, may nevertheless be “a despicable, disgusting person with permission of the Torah”.  For example, one may be strictly observant of dietary laws, refraining from eating pig; and, yet, eat greedily and gluttonously like a pig, which would clearly not represent a life of holiness as demanded by the Torah.  The meaning of the phrase “with permission of the Torah” is that such a person would not be violating any specific law, in eating greedily and gluttonously like a pig, and thus the Torah grants one permission, legally, to act in such a disgusting way.

Nachmanides’ is arguing that the Torah makes demands of holiness and morality that are Aggadic (spiritual) and meta-Halachic (non-legal) in nature, and go far beyond the observance of the strict letter of the law, which represents only a minimum standard of behavior.  There is support for Nachmanides’ position in the plain meaning of the Torah in that immediately prior to the general warning, “You shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6, 18), it is written, “You shall diligently observe the commandments of the Lord, your God, and his testimonies, and his statutes, which He has commanded you” (Deuteronomy 6, 17).  The warning “You shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6, 18) is thus meta-Halachic (non-legal) and moral in nature – above and beyond the observance of commandments and laws demanded by the previous verse.

There is a rabbinic midrash (commentary) that illustrates Nachmanides position that Judaism requires more than the mere observance of law regarding moral behavior.  The midrash tells the story of Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach and his students who bought him a donkey to make his work easier (Jerusalem Talmud, Baba Metzia 2, 8c):

They…brought him a donkey from a gentile.  Hanging on its neck was a precious stone.  They came to him and said, “Now you won’t need to toil any longer”.  He said, “Why?”  They said, “We bought a donkey from a gentile, and a precious stone was hanging on him”.  He said to them, “Did the owner know?”  They said, “No”.  He said to them, “Go and return it to him”.

The background to this midrash is that the Halacha (law) in the early Talmudic period did not require Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach to return the valuable jewel to a non-Jew (the Halacha later changed).  The law required him to return a lost object to its owner only in the event that the owner was a fellow Jew.  Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach was not prohibited from returning a lost object to a non-Jew, but he was under no legal obligation to do so.  His decision to return the jewel was on the basis of his moral conscience.  Thus, implicit in this midrash is the distinction between legality and morality – an action which is legal or permissible is not necessarily moral.  The Torah demands morality (“You shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord”), and not just observance of the strict letter of the law.  There is a Talmudic source (Baba Metzia 30b) in which Rabbi Yochanon shockingly says that Jerusalem was destroyed because legal judgments were rendered according to the laws of the Torah!  In explanation of his shocking statement, the Talmudic source says that legal judgments were based upon the strict letter of the law, and did not go beyond the strict letter of the law.

For Nachmanides the essence of Torah is not Halacha (law) but the Aggadic (spiritual), meta-Halachic (non-legal) demands of holiness (between a person and God) and morality (between a person and one’s fellow human being), which require going beyond the strict letter of the law.  Nachmanides does not reject the law as binding; rather, his position is that law represents only a minimum standard of behavior, and the Torah requires going beyond the minimum of a life according to law.  For Nachmanides, the essence of a religious life, which includes law as an important element, is one of holiness and morality.  Moreover, in light of such a position as that of Nachmanides the Christian polemic portraying Judaism as a religion of law is clearly a misconception (as the essence of a religious life for Nachmanides is not law but morality and holiness).

In light of the position of Nachmanides (which was shared by many other great thinkers in the Jewish tradition such as Maimonides) that the essence of Judaism is Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings) rather than Halacha (law), it is possible to understand Elie Wiesel’s statement regarding his father and grandfather.  In my view, his statement that “both loved stories” symbolizes that both shared the same basic commitment to the moral and spiritual ideals embodied in the Aggadic (moral and spiritual) teachings of Judaism, which constitute the very essence of Torah.

Parenthetically, it may be objected that Elie Wiesel’s father was very likely attracted to secular rather than traditional Jewish sources.  Nevertheless, even if so, Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher of the 12th century) was likewise attracted to non-Jewish sources of moral, intellectual and spiritual guidance in drawing from the Greek and Arabic-Islamic cultures.

The term Torah, the central concept of the Jewish tradition, comes from a root word in Hebrew, which literally means instruction or guidance, and has several meanings.  In the most specific sense the term Torah refers to the 5 Books of Moses, and in a broader sense refers to Judaism and the entire Jewish tradition.  In the broadest sense, though, Torah means any moral or spiritual teaching and guidance.  In the broadest sense then Torah is wisdom, which is not necessarily particular to the Jewish people or Jewish tradition, but universal to all human beings.  There is an ancient Talmudic teaching (Pirkei Avot 6, 6) in which the term Torah is used in this broad sense in speaking of 48 ways to acquire Torah.  Most of the 48 ways listed in the teaching are not matters that are particular to the Jewish people or Jewish tradition but universal to all human beings, such as study, attentive listening, articulate speech, intuitive understanding and so on.  It is clear that the Talmudic teaching is speaking here about 48 ways to acquire wisdom – Torah in the broadest sense.  In this sense Torah is seen as encompassing all human wisdom, and from a theological point of view Torah is regarded in the Jewish tradition as reflecting the Divine will and Divine wisdom.

It is the meaning of the term Torah in the broadest sense as wisdom that provides the basis for Maimonides’ universal conception of Torah, which is reflected in the opening book of his law code – the Book of Knowledge, which is (from Maimonides’ point of view) not only the first but most important of the 14 books that constitute his law code.  The term knowledge that Maimonides uses as the name of the opening book of his law code in medieval Hebrew means rational knowledge including philosophy and natural sciences (astronomy, physics, biology as well as psychology).  For Maimonides, the distinction between religious and secular studies is a false distinction because Torah (Judaism) encompasses all wisdom and knowledge.  Thus for Maimonides not only is there no contradiction between science and religion, but science as part of rational knowledge is the very essence of Judaism and religion, as science allows us to understand the natural world that reveals the wisdom of God as the source of nature.

Therefore, if Elie Wiesel’s father was indeed attracted to secular rather than traditional Jewish sources of guidance, he was nonetheless studying Torah in the broadest sense of the concept – and, his father in studying philosophy and science would have been fulfilling the very essence of Torah in Maimonides’ universal conception of Torah.  By the way, there is Biblical precedent for the concept of universal wisdom as a legitimate source of moral and spiritual guidance independent of Divine revelation in the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible (the Book of Proverbs, the Book of Job, the Book of Ecclesiastes and various Psalms).  In the wisdom literature, which is universal in nature, there is very little reference to acts of worship or ritual, and very little reference to the historical aspect of Biblical theology – with strikingly little or no reference to the exodus from Egypt or the election of the people Israel.

According to Elie Wiesel’s description of his father’s secular outlook and orientation, it is likely that his father was not observant of Halacha (law) – in distinction to the traditional, religious outlook of his grandfather that in all likelihood did express itself in an observant lifestyle.  In my understanding of Elie Wiesel’s statement that “both loved stories”, the emphasis is not upon their differing lifestyles flowing from their different philosophic (and theological) outlooks, but upon their common moral and spiritual commitment that serves to unite them as members of the Jewish people – in a much deeper spiritual and religious sense than their both merely being born into the Jewish people and sharing a common culture and history.

Please visit my internet site – Orthoprax Judaism – a site devoted to Jewish studies in a democratic spirit of pluralism, mutual respect and tolerance:

About the Author
Jeffrey Radon is a teacher of Jewish studies and the author of the internet site - - a site devoted to Jewish studies in a democratic spirit. He studied over 10 years in yeshivot in Israel. He has a teaching degree as a teacher of Jewish studies from Achva (brotherhood) College, a small secular teachers' college in Israel, and a master's degree in Jewish philosophy (from Bar Illan University in Israel). He also has a master's degree in educational psychology (from the Israeli branch of Northeastern University in the United States), as well as certification as a marriage counselor and mediator.
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