Halakhah and Values
With only two portions left in this year’s Torah reading cycle, we begin a two-part conclusion to our learning this year. I will offer reflections on two overarching themes that have implicitly pervaded my writings and interpretations. This week, we will focus on the question of values and halakhah. Next week we will turn to the vision of Jewish community that could and should undergird our vision for Torah as manifested in the world we live in.
There is a striking passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi that uses a verse in our parashah to reflect on the character of the Torah and our role in defining it:
תלמוד ירושלמי (וילנא) פאה א:א דף ג עמוד א
אמר רבי מנא: "כי לא דבר רק הוא מכם" - ואם הוא רק, מכם הוא. למה? שאין אתם יגיעין בתורה.
Talmud Yerushalmi Peah 1:1, 3a
...Said R. Mana: “For it is not an empty thing for you (lit. from you)”—And if it is empty, then it is from you. Why? Because you do not toil in Torah.
This passage reflects awareness of the fact that the Torah often seems empty to people, but then exhorts them to look more deeply into the Torah in order to find what they thought was lacking. This feeling can manifest in a range of ways, each of which could be detailed and analyzed at length. In this essay, I want to focus on the ways in which our ethical and moral values can conflict with the Torah and create a feeling of such emptiness and how we can and must overcome that feeling. For many contemporary Jews, the Torah can sometimes seem a weighty system of expectations that do not align with a more general discourse of pursuing the good and doing what is right. This can easily slide into a feeling that the Torah is “empty” in a certain way, a set of authoritarian commands that operate independently of the moral and religious instincts we otherwise use to navigate life and strive towards righteousness. This is an untenable state of affairs, both philosophically and practically. Addressing it is one of the most urgent challenges of the day, both for our leaders and educators, as well as for each and every Jew aiming to build a lasting commitment to God and to the Torah.
We have likely all asked ourselves some of the following fundamental questions: What do the mitzvot aim to do? Is their ultimate aim obedience to authority or the quest for some sort of good, an independent end towards which they are the means? Do the Torah and the rabbinic tradition ordain something as normative because it is right—and therefore, anything that is wrong or evil cannot possibly be normative halakhah—or is something right because halakhah demands it? Does halakhah stand apart from human values such that obedience to it—even when it is apparently immoral—is the only way to lead a righteous life? Furthermore, are my ethical and religious instincts to be treated as fixed points, such that I always evaluate halakhah in light of them, and never the reverse? Or is the process of learning and living halakhah itself part of the refinement of my ethical and religious self?
Do we believe in a God who asks us to negate our ethical instincts simply to follow an inscrutable divine will? When God commands us to act, is it in spite of our religious and moral instincts, or is God somehow appealing to the “better angels of our nature”, inviting us to become the people we know we ought to be? And if God’s word and commands in no way challenge my initial ethical and religious instincts, in what sense is God transcendent? In what sense is such a God anything more than a projection of my own image onto an unfathomably large screen?
These are complex questions that warrant years of study; in the longer essay I modestly try to sketch out a general approach, building off of some of the other material I have examined this year. My thesis is straightforward and I will state it here in clear terms: To be content to remain in a dichotomous place where values and halakhah reside in only partially overlapping spheres is to be either religiously or ethically lapsed. This contention demands two corollary commitments:
Halakhah must ultimately be something we can explain to ourselves and to others with a straight face. It must never be a call to action that requires suspension of our commitment to ethical behavior and to non-negotiable values we hold dear.
We cannot be so self-righteous and morally self-satisfied that our values, our religious and ethical instincts remain completely unchanged from the time we begin the process of learning the halakhah of a given issue until our investigation has concluded. Our quest for understanding the meaning of various halakhot must leave its impact on us; we must emerge wiser from the process.
In my view, this approach is not only viable, it is necessary.
Submission to something greater than ourselves is the essence of any deep religious life. If we lack this, then our master is never far afield: we serve ourselves. But this dynamic goes off the rails when it turns into a rallying cry to abandon all notion of personal values in favor of obedience to the Torah and its Sages. When I seal off Torah from values, when I deny that divine notions of right and good have any meaningful relationship to human ones, some monstrous dynamics begin to come into play. If you reach a point where one’s values tell you that something ought to be a certain way but you also declare that God and our Sages clearly think otherwise, you are essentially saying that, in your terms, God and our Sages are either not truly religious or not fully moral. You have confessed total alienation from the way their discourse talks about things. In a deep way, you have declared the Torah to be רק, to be empty of the things you normally value most deeply.
This leads to impossible and corrosive choices. I either deny the goodness of the Torah or I reject the Torah in the name of goodness. I may be tempted to deny one of the very basic things the Torah tells us about itself: that it is intended to be a blueprint for life that is the envy of the world. Alternatively, the dynamic of alienation may lead me to simply throw out much of the wisdom of my tradition. These two forms of alienation—one that quashes the self and one that jettisons the tradition—are more closely related than might first appear to be the case. I submit to you the following question: Is there really that big a difference between proclaiming fealty to the rabbinic system despite its immorality and jettisoning its strictures because they are immoral? Or is the supposedly humble approach that demands negating any discussion of values actually just deep cynicism and alienation masquerading as piety? And how long before submissive obedience gives way to revolutionary rebellion? If we only obey God because of God’s authority—and not because of deep identification with the message God delivers—why would we expect our long term relationship with God to be any different than our relationship with Pharaoh and other tyrants, whose repressive regimes we escaped at the first opportunity?
It is this alienation that produces so many of the stale debates over authority that dominate halakhic discourse today. So many contemporary rabbis that seem to disagree over issues of policy and denominational red lines are in total agreement over their alienation from the substance of the tradition. They disagree only on questions of power and authority, with one waving the flag of אם הראשונים כבני אדם, אנו כחמורים/“If the early authorities were like men, then we are like donkeys” —this impotent generation cannot break free of the shackles of the past—and the others that of הלכתא כבתראי/“The halakhah follows the later authorities” —imagining themselves to have much keener moral and religious insight than their flawed predecessors. They play the game differently, but in a deep sense, to both of them it remains a game. We argue over how much power we have the right to wield, not over the right way to make the Torah a source of good and right in our world.
Our goal, when approaching halakhah, must be true learning. That begins with a certain degree of trust in the Torah and our Sages. It begins with a belief that, no matter how puzzling or difficult the topic, they have something to teach me. I trust God to want what is good and I trust the Sages to have been sufficiently human and sensitive to have something meaningful to say about our own struggles and problems. It begins with humility, in keeping with the Talmudic saying (Talmud Bavli Sotah 21b) that “words of Torah can only survive inside of someone who stands naked in front of them”—only one who strips away preconceptions before learning a text can truly understand what it has to teach. But the process also continues with the willingness to believe that enduring, true insights will always find their articulation somewhere in the deep reservoir of Torah. Our learning also includes the drive to seek beyond the conventional in rabbinic sources, to believe that when something seems complex to us, it likely is complex, and great and sensitive minds in the past likely struggled with this as well.
Each day we should ask ourselves, “How much do I identify with the Torah and with our Sages, with Hazal today?”, always aiming for greater and greater degrees of affinity. The point is not to agree with Hazal, since that falls into the trap of treating Hazal as a monolithic mass capable of holding only a single position. Rather, the question aims to prod us to find ourselves in their discourse and to let their insights and their wisdom shape who we are. The process of engaging halakhah then truly becomes one of self-discovery, as I both locate my own deepest convictions in the voices of my forbears, whether ancient, medieval or modern, and I, in turn, challenge my own preconceptions by truly encountering and being changed by their religious perspective.
This notion, that the deep and true wisdom of the world is all found embedded in Torah if we look hard enough, is encapsulated in a wonderful story preserved in the Talmud:
תלמוד בבלי תענית ט.
...אשכחיה רבי יוחנן לינוקיה דריש לקיש דיתיב ואמר אולת אדם תסלף דרכו ועל ה' יזעף לבו. יתיב רבי יוחנן וקא מתמה; אמר: מי איכא מידי דכתיבי בכתובי דלא רמיזי באורייתא? - אמר ליה: אטו הא מי לא רמיזי? והכתיב ויצא לבם ויחרדו איש אל אחיו לאמר מה זאת עשה אלהים לנו...
Talmud Bavli Ta’anit 9a
...R. Yohanan found Reish Lakish’s son sitting and saying: “The foolishness of a person perverts his way, and yet his heart rages against the Lord.” R. Yohanan sat and said in astonishment: “Is there anything in the ketuvim—the Writings—that is not already hinted at in the Torah?” He said to him: “Do you think this point is not hinted at? Doesn’t it say: “Their hearts sank and they trembled with one another, saying: ‘What has God done to us?”...
R. Yohanan finds the child of his former study partner, Reish Lakish, reciting a verse from Proverbs, one that bemoans the common condition of human beings, who are often the cause of their own troubles even as they blame those misfortunes on God. R. Yohanan, in what seems to be a quiz to test the mettle of this potential young scholar, challenges him to find a corresponding verse in the Torah that expresses this sentiment as well. Not missing a beat, the boy produces a verse from the Joseph narratives, a scene where the brothers blame God for the predicament they are in, even though the entire situation is quite plainly the result of their terrible behavior.
Not only is the plotline of this story entertaining and informative; the rhetoric is important as well. Pay close attention to R. Yohanan’s formulation: מי איכא מידי דכתיבי בכתובי דלא רמיזי באורייתא? Is there anything in the ketuvim—the Writings—that is not already hinted at in the Torah? What are the ketuvim? They are the closest thing to secular texts that we have in the canon. These are the texts that the earliest Rabbinic sources forbid reading on Shabbat because they are not considered “true learning”. We are thus talking here about texts that reflect religious yearnings, experiences and instincts that are nonetheless not explicitly and obviously divine communications. And what does R. Yohanan assert? It cannot be that the truths contained in these texts are not somewhere hinted at in our Torah. This is a deeper assumption about the interaction between revealed Torah and truth intuited by human beings. Far from being competing systems, these two are meant to integrate into a seamless whole.
This point is also reinforced by the comment of Ben Bag Bag at the end of chapter 5 of Mishnah Avot: הפוך בה והפוך בה דכולה בה ובה תחזי וסיב ובלה בה ומינה לא תזוע שאין לך מדה טובה הימנה. “Turn it over repeatedly, for everything is in it. Grow old in it and do not stray from it, because there is no greater mode of being than the study of Torah.” Consider the full ramifications of this line, so often rattled off as a platitude. What is the כל/“everything” that pre-exists the body of sources that one is supposed to turn over repeatedly in search of? If the body of halakhah exists to fill up the religious void inside us with values—or worse, to void those values we formerly considered to be at the core of our being—what could we possibly be looking for within? Isn’t it more sensible to say that this line is suggesting that all the great struggles that we constantly face, all the juggling of values and the never ending quest for the Godly and the good can all be found already in the words of Hazal?
We should be satisfied with nothing less than a genuine quest for meaning in halakhic sources and a serious engagement with reality so as to arrive at the best application of those earlier values. We thereby take ownership of both the content of halakhic sources and also of the reality of our lives and eliminate the gap between them. Rather than submitting, I try to be open to opinions I was not open to before while I insist that these must be applied correctly and thoughtfully to my current environment. The ultimate heresy is then allowing yourself to be content resting in a place where your values and halakhic conclusions diverge and contradict one another. Something must give: One must either revisit the obviousness of one’s values or one must learn more and discover the elements of the halakhic conversation that can give voice to one’s impulses in halakhic language.
In the longer essay, I offer a concrete example of what such an engagement with halakhah might look like, but, in truth, we have been engaging in this process all year. In example after example, case study after case study, we have tried to understand various halakhot on their own terms, identified their assumptions and probed them for wisdom. After internalizing the values of those texts, we cross-check them against our own instincts and starting assumptions. Sometimes we are led to revise our thinking, perhaps even in dramatic ways. And then, after meaningful learning, we investigate what still seems difficult and where the conversation still feels incomplete. Those instincts, those religious values that emerge from our own searching, prod us to go back to the reservoir of sources and to identify more perspectives, more articulations, thoughtful applications from other times and places that translate our not-fully-formed thoughts into the specialized and holy language of our sources.
Rather than racing to pit a seemingly immoral or incomprehensible law against my perfect intuitions and then spending all of my energy on questions of authority and obedience, I grow my own moral universe and give more nuance to the law’s application. Far from being a category fundamentally other than the good and the right, halakhah becomes a process that pushes me to uncover more good and right than I previously thought existed.
I invite us to seek a halakhah that is about חיוב/obligation, not ציות/obedience. Authority that stems from a claim of goodness, not authoritarianism. Respect for the content of our halakhot as opposed to mere slavish performance of them. Respect that flows from coming to understand the ideas and values behind the mitzvot and a corollary commitment to take them seriously as sources of meaning and purpose in our lives. Devotion to a God who endows us with moral and religious instincts and challenges us to develop them as completely as we can.
Rather than viewing halakhah as an obstacle to overcome or a bitter pill to swallow, we should see its sources as the holy garb in which our religious instincts are clothed, as the religious life force that courses through the body of our people, animating the complex decisions we must make on a daily basis. Rather than making sophisticated halakhic arguments that are concealments for abrogation or excuses to hide behind, let us talk about the actual values embedded within this extraordinarily rich discourse, bring halakhic content and meaning to bear on our lives, question our assumptions based on the wisdom of sage voices from the past and find a pathway for our lives encoded in its holy language. Let us, above all, treat the Torah as something profoundly full, and let us be able to say to ourselves with integrity that we toiled to discover within it all of the divine wisdom it contains.