Roundtable Extra: Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law
Though typically translated as “Jewish law,” the term halakhah is not an easy match for what is usually thought of as law. This is because the rabbinic legal system has rarely wielded the political power to enforce its many detailed rules, nor has it ever been the law of any state. Even more idiosyncratically, the talmudic rabbis claim that the study of halakhah is a holy endeavor that brings a person closer to God—a claim no country makes of its law.
In “Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law,” author Chaim Saiman traces how generations of rabbis have used concepts forged in talmudic disputation to do the work that other societies assign not only to philosophy, political theory, theology, and ethics but also to art, drama, and literature.
Here’s an excerpt:
“The Torah places great emphasis on recognizing God as the creator of the universe who chose the Jewish people from among the nations and commanded them to live in accord with specific laws. The talmudic rabbis agreed, but held the laws of the Bible cannot be practiced until they are translated into more particular and detailed categories. Thus to observe Shabbat, one must know precisely when it begins, when it ends, and what “observing” entails. These and many other laws constitute the backbone of halakhah, a term commonly translated as Jewish law.
A nascent version of this legalism likely prompted the critiques ascribed to Jesus and Paul against the Pharisees, the forebears of the Mishnah’s authors. Jesus argued that the Pharisees’ exclusive focus on the precise details of religious practice led them to mistake the legal trees for the spiritual forest. This idea was out into sharper focus in the writings of the apostle Paul who famously noted that “while the letter [of the law] kills, the Spirit gives life.”
It might seem a bit blasphemous to open a discussion about Jewish law with Jesus, but even a quick glance at the Mishnah reveals that Jesus seems to have correctly diagnosed how the rabbinic tradition tends to refract the human experience through a legal-analytical prism.
Like all disciplines, the legal perspective illuminates some facets while crowding out others. Law is particularly useful for establishing the standards of compliance. When the Torah mandates that persons purify themselves via immersion in a pool of water (mikveh), the Mishnah offers ten chapters on what is meant by immerse, what qualifies as a pool, what defines in, and what halakhah deems water, while scarcely a word is devoted to explaining the spiritual transformation immersion is held to accomplish.
Notwithstanding all the changes over the past two millennia, the heirs of Jesus and the talmudic rabbis continue to debate the proper role of legal thought in religious life. For example, today, the motivation to do the right thing is often expressed as “values,” “morals,” or “ethical obligations.” Contemporary Christians see religious imperatives as stemming from “moral theology,” “church doctrine,” “religious teachings,” “vocations” or the “Christian calling.” Halakhic Jews by contrast, assume that religious commitments reside in a distinctly legal framework. Visiting the sick, honoring one’s parents, giving charity and returning lost objects may also be matters of morality, but they are at first halakhic-legal obligations that carry defined properties and regulations.
Over time, Jesus’s complaints have produced three types of responses. One argues that we should not conflate Judaism with the Talmud, and points to how different elements of the tradition such as the Bible, aggadah, the mystical tradition, and midrashic exegesis complement the narrow legalism of halakhah. A second approach argues that, at most, the Talmud tells us what the select Talmudic rabbis thought, but that this might be quite different from how Jews have actually believed and lived out their religious commitments.
While there is truth in these responses, they concede that insofar as the subject is halakhah, Jesus was basically right. The argument is over the relative importance of halakhah to to Judaism as a whole.
A third response also concedes Jesus’s claim but celebrates it as a point of pride. While other religions give primacy to fuzzy notions of spirituality that are based on the subjective feelings of the individual believer, halakhah is armed with precise, divinely mandated legal categories that afford a rigorous and defined religious experience.
This book assumes that halakhah is central to the identity of the rabbis and has played a significant role in creating and transmitting Jewish identity. Jesus however, missed a crucial point. Precisely because halakhah loomed so large in the rabbinic consciousness, it became the medium through which the rabbis engaged not only narrow questions of the legal Letter, but also broad matters of religious Spirit. Thus concepts forged within halakhah’s regulatory framework to do the work that other societies assign to philosophy, political theory, theology, and ethics, and even to art, drama, and literature.
Halakhah can fulfill these multiple roles on account of two distinctive features: First, since at least the Mishnah, halakhah has not been the law of any state, nor has it been fully in charge of Jewish life; in short, it has not functioned as “law” as we typically understand the term. Second, the rabbis promoted the ideal of talmud Torah, a surprising claim that studying legal details is a religiously significant act that brings humans closer to God. These factors set halakhah within a social and theological framework that sees law not only as a collection of bureaucratic commands imposed by an external agent, even if that agent is God, but as a
language of wisdom that explores values, shapes thought, and guides
behavior—through legal instruction.”