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The Humanity of Halacha

By ReligionSeptember, 2009December 21st, 20235 min read

Trying to have a meaningful discussion about some of the positive (or negative) aspects of halacha on Galus Australis or similar forums sometimes feels a bit like debating the joys of lamb versus beef with a vegetarian. The huge gulf between underlying beliefs means there is insufficient common ground for debate. So for all my new heretic friends (and I don’t mean that as an insult), please take the following comments with a ‘suspension of unbelief’.

It’s interesting to consider the meaning of the word ‘halacha’. There are plenty of words for ‘law’ in Hebrew: chokmishpat and din are all used in both biblical and contemporary contexts to describe different types of laws. On the other hand, the word ‘halacha’ derives from the root word meaning ‘to go’. Rather than a set of laws, a prescriptive ‘do this, don’t do that’, the word is indicative of a path, or a way of life. This sets halacha apart from other legal systems.

“And you shall not deviate from the word that they [the judges] will tell you, right or left” (Devarim 17). This verse spells out the delegation of authority to the judiciary. About this, the Midrash comments: “[abide by the judges] even if they tell you that right is left, and that left is right”. Could this be saying that even if the judges get it clearly wrong, you must still comply with their rulings? Yes, says the Ramban, such is the importance of a central and united judiciary. If individuals could decide matters of halacha for themselves, he says, then that will lead to many disagreements and ultimately the Torah will turn into a multitude of different streams of practice (yes, it does sound a bit like the way things are in contemporary times). What distinguishes our rabbinic judiciary is that they have a direct line of tradition from God to Moshe, and from Moshe through an unbroken chain of succession.

Let’s consider in more depth the nature of this delegation of authority from God to the judiciary.

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b) relates a situation where a question was asked about the ritual impurity of the ‘oven of Achinai’. After Rav Eliezer disagreed with the view of the Sages about the matter, he invoked all kinds of supernatural events to ‘prove’ the veracity of his position. However at the end of this exchange, a heavenly voice proclaimed: “Lo baShamayim hi” (Devarim 30) – “It [the Torah] is not in heaven”. Even though the Torah is God-given, its rules cannot be decided by miraculous signs. The policy of ‘majority rules’ is sacrosanct, so the halacha in this case was established like the Sages and not like Rav Eliezer, despite all the signs from heaven that he was able to invoke to in support of his opinion.

The discussion concludes with a fascinating postscript. Rav Nasan found Eliyahu the prophet and asked him what the Almighty was doing at that moment when the heavenly proofs were rejected and the halacha was established like the majority opinion. Eliyahu responded that God smiled (as it were) and said: “My children have defeated me.”

This positions the judiciary (assuming it abides by the rules given to it) as a higher authority than God Himself. God gave us the Torah, and then handed over its ‘operation’ to us.

As an example: before the establishment by Hillel of the calendar we now use, each month was officially declared by the Sanhedrin when two witnesses arrived to confirm that they had seen a sliver of new moon. Thus the Sanhedrin – and not God per se – would effectively be the ones to determine what day of the month it is, and therefore when the Jewish holidays occurred.

The view that the human judiciary have absolute authority over interpretations of Torah is explained by Chassidic Masters, who uncovered a view of the world where the physical world we live in is mirrored by spiritual ‘worlds’. We are not talking about other planets or universes, as we might understand the term, but rather existences or perspectives that transcend ours. The Zohar and other classical texts describe complex structures or dimensions that connect the infinite God to the physical, finite world He created by many layers, and the linkage of various attributes.

In this world view, our actions in the performance (or non-performance) of halacha have huge ramifications to the very nature of the spiritual structures, and to the connection between our soul and God.

How you view halacha depends entirely on your perspective. Without God, halacha looks like a set of dry, arcane, overly prescriptive laws. Some people might go as far to call such a system a tyranny. With God, halacha and its observance connects the physical and spiritual worlds, and is the thread that links our souls to God Himself.

The article originally appeared on Galus Australis, and the article image is taken from there.

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