This is something I’ve written for a new Masorti project – 1,000 words on various subjects of Jewish importance. I got Halachah.
Halachah, law, is the sister of Agadah, lore. It is, in the words of Bialik, the skeleton which holds the space for our Jewish soul to inhabit. Without rhythms, rituals and boundaries less tangible markers of Jewish belief such as feeling, ethics and spirituality would, it is argued, slip away like so much sand. There is wisdom in that claim. As a Rabbi I’m always wary of oft-articulated sentence, ‘I feel Jewish, but …’ and then follows some variation on the notion, ‘… I don’t have much to do with Halachah.’ If a comedian who doesn’t tell jokes isn’t a much of a comedian, if a pianist who doesn’t practice isn’t much of a pianist then a Jew who doesn’t practice their Judaism …
Actually law is a poor translation of Halachah, etymologically the word is connected to the verb ‘to go.’ Halachah is way we go, as Jews. There is Halachah about how to put on shoes, how to use the toilet, what to do after a disturbing dream and so on. If the great Gospel critique of Judaism is that God only cares about what comes out of our mouth (our speech) and not what goes into our mouth (Kashrut), the Halachic response is – how could there be anything about which God does not care! The all-embracing nature of Halachah is a training in an embodied philosophy that everything counts. Not only does the Halachic person observe Halachah, but through this practice we become observant. We come to notice that which could otherwise drift by. Has the sun set yet, is that a bug in that lettuce, what should my relationship be with that poor person I might easily just step around?
Some elements of Halachah find explicit grounding in the written Torah. Blessing after a meal, for example, is commanded in a verse which makes its way into the Grace After Meals – vachalta vsavata uvrachta – ‘when you have eaten and are full, you shall bless.’ Some elements of Halachah have remarkably little grounding in Biblical verses. The protection of Shabbat is one of the Ten Commandments, but the wealth of detail we recognise as traditional modes of Shabbat observance is all but absent from the Pentateuch. There is no Biblical verse that commands lighting Shabbat candles for example. The Rabbis consider Shabbat a mountain of Halachah hanging by a Biblical hair. And some practices have no Biblical basis at all, or to be more exact, some practices require great ingenuity on behalf of the Rabbis of the Talmud to find any kind of Biblical connection or asmachata. No Jewish practice escapes rooting in a Biblical verse that ultimately connects it, and its observers, directly back to Sinai. And no Biblical verse makes it into Halachah without being extensively worked over by the Rabbinic hermeneutic endeavour. ‘Don’t seethe a kid in its mother’s milk,’ is hardly honoured in its literal sense, and the verse that demands the stoning of a ‘stubborn and rebellious child,’ once the Rabbis of the Talmud have exempted, limited, stretched and tugged, ends up having no practical murderous consequence at all. There is a dance between torah sh’bichtav – the written Torah (usually understood as the Pentateuch) – and the oral Torah – torah sh’baal peh – the sense of what Halachah must be almost regardless of what any Biblical text directly mandates. It’s not a competition – it’s not that one is more and one less important – the aim is unity. At some point everything has to fit. While on the face of the Talmudic page the challenges of apparent contradiction are often highly technical – how can Rabbi X say one thing on one page of the Talmud while stating something different in an apparently identical situation many pages later? – the underlying appeal to unity is, ultimately, theological, as I will argue below.
To understand the way a Mishnah creates a category (2nd century), which the Gemarah justifies (6th century), which Maimonides encodes as a law (12 th century), but in a way Joseph Caro reworks (17th century), all to arrive at a direct contemporary practical application – perhaps at the very cutting edge of 21st Century technology – is to become a link in the unfolding chain of tradition which is Rabbinic Judaism. That’s why every Masorti Jew should spend time at the Conservative Yeshiva; learning Halachah is less about the accumulation of facts and more about becoming an insider into a heritage which is our own. (End of commercial break)
Halachah is pulled in two different directions. On the one hand it is pulled into real life, today. The psak – direct response to a practical situation – is the point at which all theorising and complexity needs to be resolved into a ‘yes’ or ‘no;’ Is this chicken Kosher? Can this woman be called to read from the Torah? Should Israel engage in dialogue with leaders of Hamas? To continue to be applicable, and worthy of application, Halachah needs to (and does) encode within itself an openness and a dynamism - who can tell what challenges tomorrow brings?
On the other hand Halachah is drawn back into the mists of time. Ultimately every contemporary application of psak – whether gene therapy or hemlines – is about God caring and God revealing; making God’s care known to the people – us – who walk the path of Halachah. It’s a mysterious connection which can’t be directly pinned down – one can’t gaze directly even at the sun – but the connection, the Rabbinic Jew claims, nonetheless exists. The appeal to unity, which so motivates the Talmud, is only secondarily about solving complexities within Rabbinic hermeneutic – the human realm. Ultimately it is about the unity of God – understood as the place (in Hebrew hamakom) where human perceptions of brokenness, paradox and confusion are solved into peace, grace and justice. Indeed HaMakom is precisely the term the Talmud uses to refer to God. Ultimately Halachah, no less than Agadah, is about faith and a particularly Jewish vision of spirituality.
Jeremy Gordon is Rabbi of New London Synagogue
Rabbi Jeremy Gordon
New London Synagogue
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