The Greatness and the Present Setback of Halachic Living
Taken from a chapter in Jewish Law as Rebellion. A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage. Urim Publications, 2018
There is little doubt that Halacha greatly complicates life for the religious Jew. There is no other religion that requires so much dedication and includes so much emphasis on detail. There is hardly a nook or cranny of a Jew’s life in which Halacha does not make its demands. Many halachic volumes and responsa have been written about minor issues, seemingly blowing them out of all proportion.
The exact amount of matzah that must be eaten on the Pesach Seder night is a case in point. The law requires the consumption of a ke-zayit (a unit of volume approximately equal to the size of an olive) to fulfill one’s obligation. But what is the size of an olive? For hundreds of years, halachic scholars have debated this question, even including what is the weight of an olive. Is today’s olive equal in size to the olive from the time of the Bible or of the Talmud? Many opinions have been suggested, and to this day a substantial number of religious Jews will adhere to one and reject others, believing that only a larger measurement will ensure that one has completely fulfilled one’s obligation according to all opinions.
The same is true about the lulav and etrog. How tall must a lulav be? How green do the leaves have to be so that they are not considered dry? What if the etrog is not completely spotless? Is it still religiously valid? What is the correct size? What happens when its pitom, which biologists call its “stigma” (a flowered blossom protruding at the top), has been partially damaged? Thousands of questions like these are found in the Talmud and in the writings of later authorities.
To this day, the religious Jew takes delight in these debates and, in fact, discusses them as if his life depends on it. To an outsider this looks altogether ludicrous, and the dismissal of it all as “hair-splitting” is well known. One wonders what people would say if they were told that their Christmas tree has to be of a certain measurement, with a particular number of leaves and ornaments. What if there were to be major differences of opinion among the authorities on whether the leaves must be fully green or may include some spots that are a bit yellow? And what if God forbid one ornament is missing or damaged?
What is behind this obsessive way in which Halacha deals with all these issues? What has this to do with religion? Isn’t religion the realm of the soul, of deep emotions and beliefs?
In Devarim, we find a verse that directly deals with our problem:
“Safeguard the month of the early ripening [Nissan] and bring the Pesach offering unto the Lord your God, for in the month of the early ripening the Lord your God took you out of Egypt at night” (Devarim 16:1.).
According to Jewish tradition, this verse instructs the people of Israel to ensure that Pesach, which commemorates one the most important events in Jewish history, will always be celebrated in the spring. Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, the great Italian commentator in the 15-16th centuries, comments on this verse in a most original way:
“Guard with constant care that Nissan will fall in the spring by means of the ibbur, the aligning of the lunar and solar months through calculations, so that the lunar and solar years are equal.”
A careful reading of Sforno’s comment seems to reveal a most daring thesis, which directly deals with our question. Since the lunar year has fewer days than the solar year, and since the Jewish year is, to a great extent, based on the lunar year, it is necessary, after a few lunar years, to add an extra month – Adar Sheini, around March – to make sure that Nissan (and therefore Pesach) will fall in the spring and not in the winter.
In that case, alludes Rabbi Sforno, there is a most important question: Why does the Jewish calendar not simply follow a solar year? If, in any case, we must make sure that Pesach falls in the spring, what is the purpose of consistently following lunar years, if eventually one has to align these with the solar years?
His answer is most telling: so as to complicate life and live in amazement. In order to make sure that the month of Nissan and the festival of Pesach will always fall in the spring, one has to make difficult astronomical calculations. The Torah deliberately complicated the Jewish year by modeling it on a lunar year, so that Nissan would not automatically fall in the spring, and so that the Sages would have to make complicated calculations. Sure, it would have been much easier to follow the lunar year. But that would have come with a serious religious setback. “A smooth sea never made a skillful mariner,” says the English proverb.
Judaism wants to make the Sages and the Jewish community constantly aware that they live in the presence of God, and to accomplish that goal life must be complicated and an ongoing challenge! Only through constant occupation with the divine commandments and their minutiae, and only by confronting the obstacles to implementing these commandments, can one be cognizant of God’s presence.
Religion’s main task is to disturb. To make sure that in our day-to-day life, and on a very pragmatic level, we do not take anything for granted. It is through challenges and complications that we are constantly surprised. These give birth to wonder, which then reminds us of God’s presence. It is not philosophical contemplation that brings God closer to man. God is not an intellectual issue but the ultimate reality of life. Only in the deed, in the down-to-earth and heart-rending existence of daily life, which asks for sweat and blood, does one escape superficiality and enter awareness and attentiveness. By studying astronomy, encountering major complexities, and using scientific instruments for the purpose of ensuring that Pesach falls in the spring, the Sages were forced to find solutions, which then made them aware of the sheer uniqueness of this world. Their total commitment to a biblical commandment, including the need to investigate, discuss and implement it, gave them a sense of the mystery of life. Through the constant wonder that accompanied them in their search and ultimate resolution, they became aware of the living God.
This idea runs contrary to our way of thinking. If anything, Western civilization looks for ways to make life less complicated. Many of our scientific inventions are founded on this premise. And no doubt this is of great importance. Man’s life should be less complicated. It would grant him more time to enjoy life, to investigate elements of spirituality, and to search for deep, sacred beauty.
But in these matters it is ongoing effort that is required. Were that not to be the case, one would fall into devastating boredom, which, after all, is the result of no longer noticing the uniqueness of our lives. This has disastrous consequences for the human spirit. It will slowly die. To live means to stay alert, to take notice. When it comes to the spirit, man should never live an effortless and uncomplicated life.
Scientific research has often revealed parts of our universe that can stir the heart of man in ways that were not possible in earlier times. Scientists dedicate their lives to the minutest properties of our physical world. They are fascinated with and often even carried away by the behavior of cells, the habits of insects and the peculiarities of the DNA code. God is in the details, goes the saying.
So, too, halachic authorities look for the smallest details so as to make man sensitive to every fine point of his life. By making us careful about how much matzah to eat, what size lulav to use, and to what extent our etrog should be spotless, they create a subconscious awareness in us of every dimension of life. Everything is put under a microscope in order to ensure that we never take anything as a given. (A.J.Heschel) Halacha is an anti-boredom device. It is the microscopic search for God.
Indeed, Judaism’s main purpose is to complicate life so as to create a psychological environment that makes the Jew constantly aware of living in the presence of God and enjoying it to the fullest. This is in no way an eccentric observation; it is consistent with the very purpose of religious life.
Religion is a protest against taking life for granted. There are no insignificant phenomena or deeds in this world, and it is through Judaism’s demands and far-reaching interference in our daily life that we are made aware of God as our steadfast Companion.
This is clearly the meaning of the famous talmudic statement by Rabbi Chanania ben Akashia (Tractate Makkot 23b.) when he said: “The Holy One blessed be He desired to make Israel worthy, therefore He gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundance, as it is said: ‘God desires for the sake of His righteousness that the Torah be expanded and strengthened.’” (Isaiah 42:21.).
But all this comes at a heavy price: One of the great challenges confronting Judaism today is the problem of behaviorism. This habitual performance is the result of getting used to the way Judaism informs man to respond to all aspects of life, which should be nothing less than extraordinary, but for many of us it no longer is.
The observance of Halacha for the sake of observance can easily lead to “hair splitting,” when man becomes a robot, is obsessed with detail, and can no longer see the forest for the trees. This, in turn, drives him to fanatic behavior.
Halachic living has become self-defeating for many of us. It actually encourages what it wishes to prevent: observing Halacha by rote, and failing to see the extraordinary. New ways must be found to prevent this phenomenon. We must teach Halacha as a musical symphony in which all students see opportunities to discover their inner selves. Halacha teachers must stand in front of their classes as a conductor stands before his orchestra and draws it out of its confinement, moving it beyond itself. They must show their students how to pull the ineffable out of the dry halacha and turn it into an encounter with God, the Source of all mystery, turning the world into a place of utter amazement where one lives in a constant state of awe and surprise. This will be possible only when we take a new look at ourselves and ask who we are and why we live. But as long as the real man is crushed, hiding behind his own superficiality, no halacha will accomplish its goal. We live on the fringes of this world and have lost contact with our inner selves. Halacha then becomes an external entity, cut off from its living roots.
No halacha can be taught in a vacuum. It can be transmitted only when all of life is present. We must ensure that we can see all of life reflected in one detail of the halacha, infused with all the colors life offers us. This is impossible when the codes of Jewish law are taught as self-contained works. They are just the outer shells of the music behind the notes. Just as musical notes are useless unless you play your own music with these notes, so studying the codes is a meaningless undertaking unless with these notes we hear and play the music that cries out from our inner selves.
Sure, it is the duty of halachic authorities to find solutions to difficult problems and make Jewish life as easy as possible by advocating lenient rulings. But never at the expense of making life boring. It is their duty to make life enjoyable and uplifting. But that can only come about by making people to live in amazement and wonder.
In a play on Nietzsche’s observation that “anyone who has looked deeply into the world may guess how much wisdom lies in the superficiality of men” (Freidrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (NY: Dover Publications, 1997) p. 45.), I would suggest that one of the great tragedies of today’s halachic man is his obliviousness to how much profundity his halachic superficiality hides.
To paraphrase Abraham Joshua Heschel:
Halacha is of no importance unless it is of supreme importance.
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— Nathan Lopes Cardozo