Halakhah for Our Time: A Conservative Approach to Jewish Law

Why follow halakhah (Jewish law)? What is the rationale behind accepting  the Torah’s mitzvot?

Mishnah Kehati series

Many in Orthodoxy believe that God revealed His will to mankind in sentences clear and literal, and that the transmission of revelation, from Moses to today, is nearly infallible. As such any reasonable person should understand the immense need to follow God’s word as closely as possible.

For a wide variety of theological and historical reasons, most people reject the idea that God unambiguously speaks like a person, and reject the claim that God’s words were infallibly transmitted for thousands of years.

Most post-Talmudic forms of Jewish theology, including philosophical rationalism and Kabbalah (mysticism), hold that God is unlike man, that God is not anthropomorphic, and so a simple view of revelation is not tenable – as well as theologically unnecessary. And outside of strict Orthodoxy, we recognize that the Torah is maculate – it shows the signs of human editing over time.

As such, if one isn’t coming from an Orthodox background then it is reasonable to ask: why should we Jews still accept the Torah? Why view halakhah – our way of life – as normative?

The following answers are from Rabbi David Golinkin, “Halakhah for Our Time: A Conservative Approach to Jewish Law”, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

David-Golinkin
image from The Schechter Institutes, Jerusalem, Israel.

A. Theocentric reasons

1. We must observe the laws commandments because they are Divine in origin; they were given to us in the Torah at Mount Sinai by God Himself. And what about all the laws that were added by the rabbis throughout the ages? According to this approach, they too were given at Mount Sinai, as we read in the Palestinian Talmud “Even what a clever pupil will expound before his teacher has already been given to Moses at Sinai.”

2. Halakhah is the way that the Jewish people throughout the generations understood God’s revelations at Mount Sinai and observed it. A Jew who observes mitzvot fulfill’s God’s will as Klal Yisrael – the collective people of Israel – understood God’s will for 3,000 years.

3. The Torah and the mitzvot express the eternal brit [covenant] made between God and the Jewish people. As Moses states in Deuteronomy:

“It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today. Face to face the Lord spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire.”

This statement would not be surprising if it had been made to the people who had been present at the revelation at Mt. Sinai. But Moses is speaking to their children forty years later – and yet he says “us”, “every one of us”, “you” ! His point was that the covenant was not a one shot deal; it is renewed in every generation as Moses clearly explains at the end of Deuteronomy:

“I make this covenant not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”

4. The mitzvot lead us to holiness, sanctify our lives and bring us closer to God. This is the approach taught by the Tanna Issi ben Yehuda 1700 years ago: “With each new command, God adds holiness to the people of Israel. [Mekhilta, parashah 20] This approach is also reflected in the standard formula of blessings recited over mitzvot such as Shabbat and Hanukkah candles, lulav, tefillin and tallit: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us…”

B. Ethnocentric reasons

1. Halakhah is the cement that binds together the scattered “bricks” of the Jewish people. Without it, the Jewish people would have long ago disappeared. The mitzvot tie every Jew in the world together with every other Jew in the world, as we all perform the same mitzvot. When we put on tefillin in the morning, we know that a Jew in Morocco does the same. When we light candles on Hanukkah, we know that a Jew in Argentina does the same. When we give tzedakah, we know that a Jew in Australia does the same.

2. The mitzvot are the golden chain which binds us and our children to our ancestors, and to the history of our people. Without them we would lose our continuity and we would feel like orphans in history. When we observe Shabbat, we know that Moses our teacher did the same. When we keep kosher, we know that Rabbi Akiva of the second century did the same. When we visit the sick, we know that Rashi of the eleventh century did the same. When we comfort the mourner, we know that Maimonides of the 12th century did the same.

3. The greatest threat to the Jewish people is assimilation and intermarriage. For thousands of years the mitzvot have protected the Jewish people from these threats. The famous Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am said “More than the Jews have preserved the Sabbath, the Sabbath has preserved the Jews.” The same can be said of all mitzvot.

C. Anthropocentric reasons

1. Mitzvot are a means of self-discipline, of improving character and of making us better human beings. This idea sounds very modern, but it is not. It was first suggested by the Letter if Aristeas, one of the books of the Apocrypha, written by a Greek jew in the second century B.C.E. The author states: “The sacred commandments were given for the sake of righteousness to arouse pious thoughts, and to perfect one’s character.” [Letter of Aristeas, paragraph 144].

A similar suggestion was made three hundred years later by Rav, a Babylonian rabbi and a major contributor to the Talmud. He said: “The commandments were given only in order to refine and discipline the person who performs them.” [Bereshit Rabbah, 44:1 ed. Theodore Albreck, p.424]

2. We perform Mitzvot because they are enjoyable! They uplift the spirit and bring joy to the heart. This point of view has been popular from biblical times until today. The Psalmist wrote three thousand years ago: “The precepts of the Lord are just, making the heart rejoice.”

…There are many other possible responses to the question “Why observe the halakhah?” but in the final analysis the chief thing is not to expounds the Law but to do it. [Mishna, Avot 1:17]

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