The Danger with ‘Only’ Halacha

Part 2 of a 5-part essay:

The Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu

Aggada and Halacha

It is crucial to comprehend that halachic Judaism can survive only if it is constantly reviewed and consciously connected to Avraham Avinu’s Bet Midrash, a challenge that has become a major problem in today’s Jewish religious community. In order to understand this, we must take notice of the relationship between the worlds of Halacha and Aggada, the latter of which consists of non-halachic teachings of the Jewish tradition as found in the Talmud and Midrash. What is the difference between these two components of the Jewish tradition?

Halacha can inform people how to behave in any particular situation, but it cannot provide insight into the quality of their behavior, or convey a sense of spiritual change as a result of the performance of Halacha. Aggada is there to allow entry of the unseen into the visible world; to go beyond the realms of the definable, perceivable, and demonstrable. It helps us begin to comprehend the infinite through the use of finite acts. It is a religious metaphor that enables us to form mental images of the indescribable*. It thaws the frozen world of Halacha and reveals the divine flow behind it.

It is here that we understand the crucial importance of the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu, through which the entire aggadic world was created and from which it draws its spirit. While Halacha is explained as the system of codes and regulations that govern life, the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu enables a person to formulate a weltanschauung, giving them the ability to function on an existential and philosophical level, rather than solely on a concrete one. Although Halacha is quite flexible in its very nature, the world of Aggada deals with a person’s entire situation, which transcends the inherent limitations of every legal system. The Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu, as represented by the world of Aggada, ensures that Judaism remains fresh. It is very different from theology or catechisms that are found in other religions, in which the truth, through the introduction of dogma, has once and for all been finalized.

Aggada results from the existential struggles of the great people of faith, in which matters are tested, discussed, thought over, and reformulated, with the knowledge that no final conclusions have ever been or could ever be reached. After all, the early Sages of Israel realized that any effort to do so would fail because creeds and dogmas can only be indications of poor attempts to convey what could not be adequately expressed. To argue that there are definite fundamentals of faith is to undermine authentic religious faith. Similarly, people may argue that musical notes are the fundamentals of music. They are not – they are only directions for the musician to follow, showing the way, but never das ding an sich (the thing unto itself). Dogmas can never become walls; they can only function as windows into a world beyond definitions.

The Problem of Pan-Halacha

It is here that we encounter a major crisis in today’s Judaism. Over the years, the distance between Aggada and Halacha – the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu and the Bet Midrash of Moshe Rabbeinu – has been growing, and we are now encountering an independent halachic world that has turned its back on the world of Avraham Avinu, thereby showing signs of disintegration. This is evident by the fact that nearly everything has become a halachic issue, a type of pan-Halacha. Today’s Judaism has become overly halacha-ized, rejecting nearly any dimension in which the human spirit requires more than just a practical response to its problems and challenges. It has finalized faith positions.

For Halacha to remain healthy and authentic, it must draw its essence from of the world of faith, as represented by Aggada and beyond. Specifically, it is crucial that in the case of religious belief, matters should remain fluid and not become static. The quest for God needs to be open-ended so that the human soul has the opportunity to find its way through trial and discovery. The very fact that today we encounter a serious endeavor to see Halacha as the only expression of Judaism, and that some halachic authorities constantly attempt to bring the hashkafa (religious philosophy) of Judaism back to finalized dogmas, is a clear indication that those very authorities try to Halacha-ize issues of faith. But doing so robs Judaism of its vital flowing life force. We need to understand that Halacha is the practical upshot of un-finalized beliefs, a practical way of living while remaining in theological suspense. That is the only way to prevent Judaism from turning into a religion that either becomes paralyzed in awe of a rigid tradition or evaporates into a utopian reverie. This dynamism can only come about when Jewish beliefs consist of a fluid liquid that Halacha then transforms into a solid substance. Halacha needs to chill the heated steel of exalted ideas and turn them into pragmatic deeds without allowing the inner heat to cool off entirely. Jewish beliefs are like arrows, flying in all directions, wavering as though shot into the air from a slackened bowstring; Halacha, on the other hand, is straight and unswerving.

The fact that solving this problem is not considered crucial to the future of Judaism is more than worrisome. Even a plant that continues to survive after its roots are cut will eventually wither and die.

We do not suggest dismantling the Judaism of Halacha. Such a move would be suicidal. But we maintain that allowing Judaism to develop into a dry legal system, in which the spirit takes a back seat, will result in rigidity to such an extent that its very purpose will be completely undermined.]

To be continued…

Reprinted with author’s permission from Times of Israel