Book Review

Halakha: The Rabbinic Idea of Law by Chaim N. Saimon – Review

Halakha: The Rabbinic Idea of Law
Chaim N. Saimon
Princeton University Press, 2018
Hardcover, 296 pp., $29.95

Chaim Saimon, a law professor at Villanova University, has written a book exploring different aspects of the Halakhic system which not only observant Jews focus upon as they engender to fulfill the Commandment of Torah study, but that provides significant subject matter for Judaic Studies curricula in day schools, and adult education classes in synagogues and Jewish Community Centers. Mishna, Halakhic and Aggadic sections of Talmud, Midrash, Rishonim, Acharonim, as well as responsa literature are logically and chronologically presented, with the texture and foci of these sources being compared with comparable bodies of secular law. While Saimon points out that the diaspora experience has rendered certain parts of Halakha moot, the establishment of the State of Israel renews the debate regarding the degree to which these religious principles can be incorporated into the legal structure of a modern country.

Viewing Saimon’s book through the lens of a Jewish educator, several specific issues jump out:

First, it seems to me that students would benefit from an introductory time line, based upon Halakhaor other comparable works, that would offer a means by which the development of the sources of Jewish tradition can be traced, linked to one another, and thereby better understood. Fleshing out Sugyot with reference to their historical impact, particularly when, as Saimon often comments, many of the Talmudic discussions had no practical relevance to the lives that Jews at the time were living, could serve as an important perspective on the overall educational experience that day school students are undergoing.

Second, the author addresses on a number of occasions how the Talmud in particular attempts to not only define regulatory law, but also, during the course of doing so, explores, albeit often indirectly, philosophical, theological, and psychological themes as well. In my experience, a teacher of Tora SheB’Al Peh (the Oral Tradition,) when presenting a relatively esoteric topic, is often asked by his/her students, “Why are we studying this material?” Saimon provides numerous examples and approaches that transform subject matter into relevant and even spiritually-inspiring ideas. While the book Halakha does not contain enough examples on a single topic by which to construct an entire day school course, the methodologies exemplified could offer additional ideas regarding how to interest students on a deeper level in the texts being studied. It seems to me that it is more important than ever to attempt to demonstrate to students that what they are studying as part of their respective Judaic studies curriculums is not only intellectually challenging, but can be of inordinate assistance in their quest to form personal identities and commitments at this stage of their lives.


Along these same lines, Saimon repeatedly states that many of the Sugyot (topics) in the Talmud do not seem to be susceptible to extracting great ideas from them. It has long been my view that instead of teaching a particular Masechet (tractate,) or for that matter, book of TaNaCh (bible) or Machshava (Jewish thought,) from beginning to end—there seems never to be enough time within the school year to complete an entire book unless one rushes through—perhaps one could leave a longer- lasting impression upon one’s students if the teacher would choose from the “get-go” only those topics and subject matter which lend themselves most readily to great ideas that per force can inform a student’s life in a significant manner. (See my essay “A New and Potent Curriculum for the Jewish Day School”  I suppose that this broaches upon the “Sinai—Oker Harim” debate (“Sinai”—the individual who knows a great deal about many things; “Oker Harim”—the one who has sophisticated analytic skills but has not been exposed to all that much variety of materials), but I maintain that if we are concerned about encouraging as many students as we can to live lives devoted to Tora and Mitzvot even well-beyond graduation, we have to think somewhat “outside the box.”

Third, the author notes that often Aggadic sections in the Talmud provide much more room for speculation concerning the major spiritual issues that beset the student than the portions devoted to Halacha. I recall on numerous occasions when my teachers would skip the Aggada, because they felt that there was not “enough” to say about it. In light of my previous comments, it seems to me that such a strategy would constitute an egregious mistake, at least for the type of students for whom humanistic ideas are important at this stage of their lives. While I am not advocating devoting a Talmud class entirely to Aggada, as in so many things that are pertinent to the Talmud, and particularly when teaching a heterogenous class, balance is important. Giving Aggada short shrift might result in “turning off” students who otherwise might have remained “in the Parasha.”

Fourth, Saimon describes how responsa literature, while paralleling secular case law, often contains so much more on a spiritual plane. Furthermore, he devotes an entire chapter entitled “State of Halakha and Halakha of State.” I recall many years ago that R. Moshe Tendler advocated studying responsa in day schools that dealt with life in the land of Israel in order to keep Israeli life an important dimension of students’ thoughts, even as the Halakhic matters would also then be discussed and explored. Particularly now that Mishpat Ivri (Jewish law that is proposed to be incorporated within the Israeli legal system) has become so much greater and more relevant an issue, it would appear that this would be a particularly good time to launch such an initiative in day schools and synagogues.

I think that every educator involved in presenting Jewish studies to their students would very much benefit from reading Chaim Saimon’s Halakhaand adapting at least some of his ideas to their classroom presentations.


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