The Art of Halakha

When I was 18 I remember reading a passage in Halakhic Man by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in which he describes the concept of the “science of Halakha.” He describes how Halakha can explain the realities of the world in the same way that physics can. If something is Halakhically true, it is physically true in our tangible world as well. So when Halakhic Man sees a beautiful, bubbling spring his reaction is not to reflect on the beauty of the river, but rather to try and determine if the river qualifies as a Mikvah. My rabbi, who was a student and personal assistant to Rabbi Soloveitchik, likes to say: “When it comes to Halakha, sometimes you just have to believe you are in Mister Rogers (the ‘60s children’s television program) and his Land of Make-Believe.”

Something about this passage did not sit well with me. I felt like Halakha should acknowledge the beauty of the world we live in, not try and supplant it. The idea of denying the beauty of the spring in favor of the Mikvah calculation perturbed me from a religious point of view.

A good illustration of the “science of Halakha” issue is the topic of Beliot, absorption of flavors of meat and dairy into foods and utensils. The concern with cooking meat in an oven after having cooked dairy in that same oven (or vice versa) is that the taste from the meat might somehow permeate in the walls of the oven and then enter the dairy food. In fact, contemporary rabbis apply this to microwaves as well, despite that they do not generate heat. I was recently explaining this idea to my roommate, a science student and researcher, and he was quite confused. It is quite difficult to be compelled by Halakhot that seem to be based on incorrect pseudo-science that even a trained scientist does not understand. According to the science approach, in the realm of Halakha, the meat molecules really do enter the dairy, despite what modern chemistry and physics might have to say.

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s method is great for those who want to have a systematic construct and live within strict bounds, rules, and axioms, perhaps without asking too many “why” questions. For people who find meaning in that, I have no objections. However, that is not my personality. My mind is, in many ways, artistically inclined. I like reading, writing, music, and art—things that expand my imagination and creative thinking. For Halakha to be most salient to my life, I must conceive of it in similar terms. If the Shulkhan Arukh is a textbook of simple facts-of-reality, then I am hardly inspired to be meticulous about Beliot. I am inspired both by the Halakhot themselves and by the creative process, history, ideas, and values behind the Halakhot.

Instead of conceiving of Halakha as a science let’s start understanding it as art. Halakha does not describe a Jewish Land of Make-Believe, but rather interprets the world in front of us through the lenses of God and our people. Instead of just teaching about the mechanics of a pseudo-science, let’s also discuss the way these concepts provide a radical interpretation to our society. Instead of presenting how the Rabbis came to their conclusions through supposedly steadfast logic, show me how they were artists, carefully crafting together ideas and sources in using Halakha to interpret, not describe, the Human experience. I will quicker compare the Talmud and commentaries to a Beethoven Symphony or Michelangelo painting than a mathematic equation (an equation R. Soloveitchik made). I cringe at the term “Halakhic system” because my fascination with Halakha flows not from its fastidiousness but rather from its chaotic nature.

I am not the first nor will I be the last to take issue with the Halakhic Man model. The Hasidic tradition, emphasizing spirituality and Kabbalistic ideas, which are very artistic in their own right, stands in stark opposition to this model. The rising popularity of Neo-Hasidut might reflect a sense of jadedness with the current model. Rabbi David Hartman also critiques this model extensively, notably in A Living Covenant, describing Halakha as a means to understanding and fixing the world, and not an ends in its own right. Halakha is inherently not objective, argues R. Hartman, because we, humans, are always just as much a part of the process as the Halakhot themselves.

Lest anyone think that this discussion is ivory-tower philosophy, let me assure you that the implications are very real. As R. Hartman often emphasized, conceiving of Halakah as a living entity instead of cold facts enables us to take a more fluid position to Halakhic issues without comprising the law. Relevant to Pride Month, one extremely pressing example is the question of Halakha and homosexuality. I understand the Torah’s proscription of homosexuality not as a statement of object moral fact, but as a commentary on ancient Near Eastern sexual ethics. I will not enter the Land of Make-Believe in order to exclude people from the community. This point should at least help frame the conversation about LGBT Jews living observant lives in an observant community. Debates over women’s roles also often revolve around similar ideas. Examples of the ramifications of this philosophical debate abound.

The Rabbis tell us to teach a child “al pi darko,” according to his/her natural inclinations. Some people are inspired by black and white facts and figures. For the rest of us, let us start teaching the art of Halakha as well.

About the Author
Daniel is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and resides in Washington Heights, Manhattan. He graduated from the Honors Program at Yeshiva University where he studied Psychology and Jewish Studies and served as the Managing Editor and Senior Opinions Editor of The Commentator.