Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Halacha is Not Enough

One of the reasons for the destruction of ancient Jerusalem was that fellow Jews held to the letter of the law. Furthermore, they tried to get whatever they could out of each other legally. As the Talmud states (Bava Metzia 30b), we were exiled because fellow Jews failed to raise their standard of behavior lifnim mishurat hadin - beyond the letter of the law. In other words, people wouldn't cut each other any slack. This is something that God cannot tolerate among His children for very long. Focusing on technical legalisms can destroy a society. Adherence to halacha (Jewish law) is extremely significant, but it cannot become the be all and end all. Something can be legally justifiable and not morally correct.

I know a man who helped bring a secular Jewish woman back to the faith. When they bumped into each other some time later, she told him that she was no longer ritually observant. Surprised, he asked her what had happened. She explained that shortly after becoming Orthodox, she was attending synagogue on Shabbat with her young child, who happens to be mentally handicapped. After the services were over, she walked outside with her son in her arms. A rabbi who passed by told her that there was no eruv in the neighborhood and that she could not lift her child. She was deeply offended by his lack of sensitivity. Was the rabbi halachically right in his observation? Yes. But was he morally right in his conduct? Absolutely not.

There is a famous rabbinic teaching which states "Derech Eretz Kadma La'Torah" - the commandment of good manners preceded the Torah. One interpretation of this phrase is that while the revelation of the Torah occurred at Mount Sinai after the Exodus, the obligation to act with courtesy and civility toward other people dates back to the dawn of humanity. Furthermore, the Ramban comments on the verse "You Shall Be Holy" (Leviticus 19:2) that it's possible to be a Naval Birshut HaTorah - a degenerate within the confines of the Torah. The letter of the law alone is not enough; the spirit of the law must also be considered. As Jews, we are supposed to strive for the highest standard of behavior. Doing what is right often means upholding the values of the Torah beyond its explicit laws, thus sanctifying ourselves and being a blessing to those with whom we come into contact.

Judging other Jews solely by how much they adhere to halacha will only tell you how much they observe halacha. However, reserving judgment solely for the ethical behavior of fellow Jews will tell you a great deal about their character. We can feel passionately one way or the other about halachic observance without regarding with contempt those who don't do so to our satisfaction. Bein Adam La'Makom (the relationship between man and God) is extremely significant, but one's level of ritual observance is the choice of the individual. On the other hand, Bein Adam La'Chaveiro (the relationship between man and other people) must follow a more universal ethical code.

While following halacha is certainly prudent, it does not magically make a Jew a good human being. So what is one to do? In This Is My God (first edition (1959), page 45), Herman Wouk provides some words of wisdom:

"The sensible thing is to use hard thinking to find the right way to live and then to live that way, whether many other people do or few do. If a Jew concludes to enter upon his heritage and make it part of his life, he does an obviously reasonable thing. The chances are that–at least today–he will seem a mighty freakish non-conformist in some neighborhoods; but that is changing too, and anyway, what does it matter? What matters is living with dignity, with decency, and without fear, in the way that best honors one's intelligence and one's birth."


  1. Great article, wish more could figure this aspect out. Shiloh

  2. Interesting story about the woman with the child. I agree the rabbi was insensitive, but I am always amazed at the stories like this that go, "I was observant until a rabbi" ... did whatever and then they become secular.

    There has to be more to it than that. How flimsy is their connection to their Jewish practice if a single comment or action by one person, even a rabbi, can make them leave?

    Maybe it was the proverbial "straw that broke the camel's back" but they had to have had strong reservations before that ultimate incident.

  3. Thanks, Shiloh.

    You make a fair point, Susan. This happened shortly after she became Orthodox, so my guess is that she was still in the process of "finding herself" religiously. Nevertheless, the rabbi's conduct still proves the point that halachic observance and interpersonal decency can be mutually exclusive (unfortunately).

  4. If one is strong in his faith and love for Hashem, he will not leave the faith and drop observance even though he hears an insensitive remark from another Jew. One has no bearing with the other. If it makes one feel better, the saying "Don't judge Judaism by the Jews" rings true in many cases. If one is strong, he should still keep the mitzvos because he's doing it for Hashem, not to please a Rabbi or any other Jew. One should always learn from mistakes and go from there, instead of bearing grudges, by dropping the mitzvos entirely. And if she did, she can always come back.

  5. Your article is of major importance! Well stated and I will link it to my blogs because it's the basics of judaism.

  6. Good points, Moriya. For better or for worse, the behavior of rabbis and other observant Jews can have a profound impact on impressionable people. But we should strive for faith that is strong enough to overcome the flawed behavior of other human beings.

    And thanks for the links, Lea.

  7. Very good article. This is probably the most important article ever written by a "blogger."The sensitivity or lack thereof has gone under the rug for too long. The arrogance of those who place technicalities above anything else is appalling. This is why our society has no mashiach as of yet. There are so many who want a more meaningful life but are cast aside by those (possibly even rabbi's) who are busy looking for the golden calf instead of kiruv. Yes, there are some who gave in to the materialism and couldn't be "happier", but that is vanity and G-d will judge them accordingly.

  8. Thanks for the kind words, Anonymous. There are many people who share your frustration.