Halakhah as a Ground for Creating a Shared Spiritual Language

  • by: David Hartman

This article originally appeared in Tradition 16:1, 1976.

Zionism in the twentieth century has created a framework for Jewish political activism. It expresses the revolutionary thrust of the Jewish people to become politically autonomous and responsible. It reflects the will of the Jewish community to determine, as far as this is possible, its own historical destiny. Zionism has provided a cause around which Jews with different ideologies and lifestyles have forged a minimum basis for community. The yearning for liberation from exile, however these terms are understood, is a vital source of Jewish self-understanding and collective action.

Harav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, in his article “Kol Dodi Dofek,” utilizes traditional covenantal categories to illuminate the religious significance of a community forged by a common political destiny. R. Soloveitchik views the resurgence of Jewish political autonomy as an expression of berit goral, covenantal destiny. The attempt of a great halakhist to understand the Zionist revolution and the State of Israel in traditional, covenantal categories indicates, in itself, how deeply Israel’s political existence has permeated the spiritual consciousness of contemporary Jews. However, R. Soloveitchik is not satisfied merely with community-based upon berit goral, a common historical and political fate. He argues that the Jewish people should again strive to become, as they were in the past, a community of shared spiritual goals. His article reflects the hope that beyond shared political destiny, the soil of the Israeli reality may nurture a renewal of berit ye’ud, covenantal meaning.

One can appreciate the pathos of Soloveitchik’s yearning that berit goral be consummated with berit ye’ud. But, while the shared values of a Jewish society were quite clear during long periods of history, today, unfortunately, there is no consensus as to how the Jewish people should give expression to berit ye’ud. Given the contemporary breakdown of traditional Jewish society, is it possible to create a shared community of values? Or will the sense of Jewish community be limited to the struggle to maintain our political autonomy?

One may understandably question how any community of meaning is possible between Jews who subscribe to the normative structure of Halakhah, however, understood, and those who do not feel bound to organize their pattern of living by those norms. Furthermore, can those who seek to live within the halakhic framework understand and spiritually appreciate lifestyles whose values are not grounded in Revelation and traditional halakhic authority?

A strong current within contemporary religious education tends to negate the possibility of a shared dialogue with Jews who lack faith in God and belief in Revelation. There are, however, religious educators who are aware that we must meet upon the common ground of the larger society. Yet even among them we often hear the argument that, ideally, Judaism can best sustain itself and thrive in a climate of insulation. Modernity is forcibly imposed upon us; we cannot escape its impact and challenges.

One who sincerely believes in insulation and yet is forced to react to the modern world will often enter the confrontation in a spirit of polemicism. He will try to prove that what is different from the tradition is wrong or if recognized to be of value, that the tradition had it first and in a better form! Forced confrontation of this nature often leads to exaggerated spiritual arrogance.

The approach suggested in this essay is not that of a polemical confrontation with the modern world. On the contrary, we believe that the experiential and intellectual encounter with modern values and insights can help deepen and illuminate one’s commitment to the tradition.

It is not accidental that the first Aggadah that Maimonides chose to comment on was: “God only has in His world the four units of the Halakhah” (T.B. Berakhot 8a). A literal understanding of this Aggadic statement would suggest that Judaism’s approach is one of insulation from other intellectual disciplines. This Aggadah is a succinct statement of a worldview which would negate any attempt to construct a synthesis between philosophy and Halakhah. In fact, Leo Strauss utilizes this text to show that Judaism has no interest in philosophy. However, in order to undermine the mistaken notion that Halakhah is intellectually self-sufficient, Maimonides interprets this Aggadah as referring to an individual who has mastered both Halakhah and philosophy. The hasid who represents the ideal halakhic man is, according to Maimonides, an individual whose halakhic practice has been illuminated by general philosophic knowledge.

Maimonides was not satisfied merely with indicating that philosophy had autonomous value. In the Mishneh Torah he showed how the mitzvah of ahavat haShem, love of God, can only be realized to the extent that one appropriates intellectual disciplines that are not particular to the Jewish tradition.

This God, honored and revered, it is our duty to love and fear; as it is said “Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God” (Deut. 6:5), and it is further said “Thou shalt fear the Lord, thy God (Deut. 6:13).

And what is the way that will lead to the love of Him and the fear of Him? When a person contemplates His great and wondrous works and creatures and from them obtains a glimpse of His wisdom which is incomparable and infinite, he will straightway love Him, praise Him, glorify Him, and long with an exceeding longing to know His great Name; even as David said “My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God” (Ps. 42:3). And when he ponders these matters, he will recoil affrighted, and realize that he is a small creature, lowly and obscure, endowed with slight and slender intelligence, standing in the presence of Him who is perfect in knowledge.

It is known and certain that the love of God does not become closely knit in a man’s heart till he is continuously and thoroughly possessed by it and gives up everything else in the world for it; as God commanded us, “with all thy heart and with all thy soul” (Deut. 6:5). One only loves God with the knowledge with which one knows Him. According to the knowledge, will be the love. If the former be little or much, so will the latter be little or much. A person ought therefore to devote himself to the understanding and comprehension of those sciences and studies which will inform him concerning his Master, as far as it lies in human faculties to understand and comprehend — as indeed we have explained in the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah.

When Maimonides wanted to educate his student to the love of God, he included as part of the curriculum logic, mathematics, astronomy, physics, and metaphysics.