Culture, Religion

Halakha and Beyond: A Response to Rabbi Gil Student

This is a guest post by Rabbi Shai Held, who is Co-Founder, Rosh Yeshiva, and Chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar. Here, he responds to a post on Hirhurim that reviewed the anthology Jewish Theology in Our Time, including R. Held’s essay “Living and Dreaming with God”. Jewschool is proud to host this conversation, as we hosted parts of the Green/Landes debate a few months ago.
In dismissing the essays collected in Elliot Cosgrove’s Jewish Theology in Our Time, Gil Student attacks my essay in particular, “Living and Dreaming with God,” as purportedly lacking in traditional content. He implies that I am at once ignorant of, and indifferent to, traditional Jewish theological sources. But his treatment of my essay only reveals his own confusions and his indulgence in ungenerous, caricatured readings.

Student correctly notes that my essay begins with a discussion of the centrality of gratitude in Jewish piety and theology, but he then adds, oddly, that I “fail to locate the obligation for this gratitude which others attribute to Natural Law” [sic]. Student’s footnote refers the reader to a sichah given by R. Chaim Shmuelevitz, Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir, in 1972, in which the latter speaks of a “propensity to gratitude [that is] firmly rooted in human nature.” Student does not evince any awareness that natural law is a technical term in philosophy, nor does he seem to know that R. Shmuelevitz’ passing remark is not self-evidently an instance thereof.1 Be that as it may, Student seems to think that a sichah by a twentieth-century Haredi Rosh Yeshiva is somehow intrinsically authoritative and thus sufficient to refute what I’ve written (which, as I shall show, has abundant precedent in the history of Jewish thought). Strange, at any rate, that an ostensible defender of tradition dismisses me for not engaging with a twentieth-century chiddush.
Student then notes that Rav Saadia Gaon and Rabbeinu Bahya “see obedience as the proper display of gratitude to one’s Creator.”2 Well, yes, to some extent. As do I, by the way. But the whole point of my essay is to argue that obedience is not enough, and that HaKadosh Barukh Hu requires much more of us than mere obedience; He actually demands that we engage in the process of self-cultivation (or, in Rav Soloveitchik’s terms, self-creation) to work on our middot such that we become true b’nai Torah rather than mere obedient servants. My emphasis was and is that the highest form of self-cultivation according to Chazal is the attempt to become a ba’al chesed. As I note there, the life of chesed is not a substitute for shemirat hamitzvot so much as the culmination of it. One should note how discordant it is for Student to invoke Hovot HaLevavot as a prooftext for the idea that what God fundamentally requires is simple obedience; the title alone of Rabbeinu Bahya’s classic sefer, not to mention its actual teachings, point in the opposite direction. The whole premise of Rabbeinu Bayha’s work, indeed the very reason he takes up a pen in the first place, is that he sees a Judaism interested solely in Halakha and obedience as both religiously impoverished and false to the sources of tradition.3 Indeed, R. Bahya explicitly argues in the very sha’ar to which Student points that serving God out of intellectual awareness represents a higher form of devotion than serving God merely because the Torah says so.
In any event, it is crucial to understand that, contra Student, for many Jewish thinkers what comes first is not an obligation to feel grateful, but a sense of gratitude that opens us to the possibility of obligation in the first place. Student might want to familiarize himself with Rav Eliyahu Dessler’s Kuntres HaHesed, for example, in which Rav Dessler suggests that all avodat Hashem is rooted in our sense of gratitude to God.4 In different ways and with different points of emphasis, the theology of gratitude is central to Rav Saadia Gaon, Rambam, Rabbeinu Bahya, Rav Dessler, among many others– and none of them invokes natural law in this (many would argue: in any) context. Amazingly, Student is so committed to the view that my essay lacks a commitment to tradition that he never mentions that my comments about gratitude are actually based on a close reading of the Moreh (3:53). Presumably, the Rambam is a traditional enough thinker for Student.
In the end, it seems, Student is offended that I regard the ultimate implication of our profound gratitude to God as the mandate to walk in God’s ways rather than the mere obligation to obey (again, that “rather than” is what all Jewish thought should strive to overcome. The two are not only compatible, but ideally also conducive and reinforcing of one-another). All I can say here is that the overwhelming majority of Jewish thinkers have always insisted that avodat Hashem consists of far more than obedience. On the contrary, Jewish thinkers (with the possible exception of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a highly idiosyncratic interpreter of Judaism, and parts of Brisk) have always wanted us to be more than passive subjects of Halakha; they asked us to fashion ourselves and in our lives in terms guided by, but not limited, to Halakhah. One could multiply examples endlessly. Most famously, recall Ramban’s warnings about becoming a “naval birshut haTorah” and his insistence that “Veasita hayashar vehatov” mandates going beyond the letter of the law (lifnim mishurat hadin).5 Similarly, recall (yes) Rabbeinu Bahya’s preoccupation with what kind of person a ben Torah should be; with what his inner life, rather than just his external actions, should look like. And of course, remember the Rambam’s concern with turning Jews into philosophers engaged with metaphysical truths6, with helping them achieve at least a degree of intellectual perfection. For the Rambam, Halakha is simply not the be all and end all of religious life. To be sure, observance of Mitzvot is obligatory, but it is ultimately of instrumental value. We would be remiss not to mention Rav Soloveitchik’s insistence that Halakhic man understands teshuvah as a process of creating a new self7; and that the Rav wants each of us to be a gavra rather than a cheftza8, an active agent who shapes his own destiny.9 Is any of this about mere obedience? On the contrary, every bar bei rav knows that it is precisely about going beyond mere obedience. (Again: saying that Torah is about more than obedience does not mean that it is not also about obedience.)
While we’re on this topic, I should point out that reading Moreh 3:53 combined with 1:54, one can make a good case that the Rambam is saying something very similar to what I argue in the essay: God’s creation of the world is an act of absolute chesed and so we, too, are called to live lives of chesed. If Student’s charge is that I see chesed as ultimately higher than mere obedience, then I am guilty as charged—but then so is pretty much the whole history of Jewish thought. Read Rav Dessler—what does he regard as the highest manifestation of our gratitude? Not mere obedience, but life as a noten rather than a notel, a giver rather than a taker: in other words, a ba’al chesed.10 In fact, Rav Dessler avers, what it means to be created in the image of God is precisely to have the capacity to be merciful and to be kind and generous.11
My essay does contain one sentence that I did not formulate quite carefully enough—though the very next sentence eliminates Student’s misreading of it. I say that “Halakhah is not enough” (note again: rare indeed is the Jewish thinker who would ever have said otherwise), and then suggest that Judaism requires us to clothe the naked, visit the sick, etc. Now, agav shitfa demilta, I make this sound as though I’m suggesting that Halakha itself does not require these things—an absurdity on its face. In the very next sentence, though, I write that, “We are asked to become like God by being creatures of Hesed, love manifested as kindness.” Obviously, this is what I meant when I wrote that Halakha is not enough: it is not enough just to perform the Mitzvot, whether those between us and God or those between us and other people. In both cases, we are to strive to act out of love. At the risk of belaboring the point, the notion that Torah asks us not just to perform our duties but also to cultivate ourselves pervades the whole history of Jewish religious writing: again, note Rav Soloveitchik’s concern with self-creation; the Musar movement’s focus on character-building; the Rambam’s persistent concern with virtue12; and R. Bahya’s preoccupation with the duties of the heart rather than (merely) those of the limbs. With all due respect to Student, there is just no chiddush in the form of what I argue here.13
Student seems scandalized by my “dramatic” assertion that Halakha is not enough. I would remind him that Rav Amital z’tl, was famous for saying, again and again, that “Lo hakol Halakha”—not everything is Halakha! Let’s look at Rav Amital’s words closely, and keep in mind that they are based squarely on the teachings of Rav Kook. Now, Ramban had famously worried that no system of law could encompass every dimension of every human situation, and thus insisted that Torah needed to add general directives such as “You shall be Holy” and “And you shall do the right and the good.” But Rav Kook went much farther, arguing that many obligations were not included in the Halakha precisely because they should ideally flow from freedom, as a manifestation of love of kindness. As Rav Amital put it, according to Rav Kook’s view, “The ideal is to keep the Torah as the patriarchs did, that is, out of a free, inner cognitive awareness, and not because it is a heavenly command.”14 Put differently, we might say that whereas for Ramban Halakha cannot encompass every situation, for Rav Kook it should not, because Torah wants to leave ample room for human freedom and self-motivation. Rav Amital analyzes Rav Kook’s position as follows: “Moral obligations that we are accustomed to define as a way of piety (middat hasidut) and beyond the requirement of the law, are thus the essence of the Torah.”15 Nor do Rav Kook and Rav Amital stop there; rather, they contend, the proportion of moral obligation motivated by inner assent is vastly greater than the proportion technically mandated by Halakha.”16 But perhaps Rav Amital’s and Rav Kook’s views here can be dismissed as idiosyncratic? Consider the Maharal, who tells us that even though lending to the poor, for example, is an obligation, one should ideally do it out of one’s own free will and desire.17
What I argued in my original essay is that Jewish theology and spirituality begin with a sense of gratitude for the utterly unearned gifts of life and consciousness, and that this gratitude elicits a yearning to “walk in God’s ways”—which Chazal understand as mandating not just concrete actions but also the cultivation of virtuous character traits. I wrote that Judaism requires Halakhic observance, but that it also asks for more than that—namely, a life of compassion for those who are vulnerable.18 Here, in response to Student, I bring out a variety of voices that assume that Torah’s demands are far more encompassing than any list of Halakhot could convey—Ramban, Rambam, Maharal, Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Kook, and Rav Amital are, I trust, a sufficient catalogue of traditional figures upon whom to rely. And I show further that, if anything, Maharal, Rav Kook, and Rav Amital say things that are far more radical than anything found in my essay—I talked about Halakha not being our only obligation; they express ambivalence about a vision of Torah based solely on obligation (let alone obedience) in the first place. In at least one crucial sense, anyway, Judaism is anti-Kantian—that is, it refuses to dichotomize between duty and inclination, but asks us to serve God both because we have to and because we want to.
One final word: Student identifies me simply as a “Conservative Rabbi and educator,” and as anyone who has read Student knows, for him this is sufficient grounds not to take my arguments seriously—and evidently, it also constitutes license to interpret me in ways that are ungenerous at best, and simply inaccurate at worst. But Student well knows that I do not identify with any denomination—I am interested in Torah and Mitzvot, not in denominations—and that the two institutions I have spent much of the last decade building, first Kehilat Hadar and now Mechon Hadar, have no denominational affiliation. Rather than assume, as so many contemporary denominational partisans do, that one cannot learn anything of value from someone outside one’s own group, would we not all be better served by taking seriously Rambam’s insistence that we ought to “listen to the truth from whoever says it”? At very least, do the ethics of book reviewing not require the reviewer to accurately convey the author’s own self-affiliation?
1 If Student wishes to invoke the category of natural law, he ought to begin by explaining what he means, since “natural law” is a notoriously elusive term, used very differently by different thinkers, and sometimes differently in different contexts by the same thinker. Moreover, Student ought to be reminded that the question of whether Jewish theology even recognizes a concept of natural law is a vexed and controversial one—one cannot merely assume it without explaining what it means and defending its Jewish provenance. Else one is guilty of indifference to (or ignorance of) the history of Jewish philosophical sources. Vekhol haposel bemumo posel. For the most articulate contemporary advocate of a Jewish natural law theory, see the voluminous writings of Rabbi David Novak. A useful place to begin is his Natural Law in Judaism. Novak builds a great deal of his theory on his understanding of Rambam’s approach to these questions. For a very different interpretation of the Rambam, see Marvin Fox, “Maimonides and Aquinas on Natural Law,” in Interpreting Maimonides, 124-151. Although it might threaten his point, Student would also do well to note the Catholic provenance of a great deal of natural law theory. A useful collection of essays on this theme is Robert George, ed., Natural Law Theory.
2 It is worth pointing out that, as any student of medieval Jewish thought knows, one ought to be very careful about simply bundling Rav Saadia and Rabbeinu Bahya together. Although the latter cites the former reverentially and often, he also differs from him in a multiplicity of fundamental ways. The most accessible discussion of the relationship between R. Saadia and R. Bahya is Eliezer Schweid, HaFilosofim HaGedolim Shelanu, pp. 60-71.
3 In the introduction to the sefer, R. Bahya complains bitterly that the science of the duties of the heart has been completely neglected in Jewish writing, and he aims to remedy this massive problem. R. Bahya is clear that there can be no proper observance of Halakha without (seemingly prior) attention to self-cultivation and the inner life. “If there is any shortcoming” in the observance of the duties of the heart, he writes, “no duties of the limbs can be properly fulfilled.” (In the Hyamson translation, this is at p. 21)
4 Mikhtav MeEliyahu, vol. I, p. 32.
5 See Ramban to Vayikra 19:2 and Devarim 6:8: “Even with what is not commanded, be careful to do the right and the good in God’s eyes.” Cf. Rashi to BK 100a.
6 See esp. MT, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah, chs. 1-4, and compare Rambam’s philosophical spin on “Lo am ha’aretz hasid” in his Hakdamah LePeirush HaMishnayot, 42-43. Note also Rambam’s withering assessment of ostensible talmidei chakhamim who know a lot about Halakha but nothing at all about philosophy: “Although they consider themselves sages in Israel, [they] are in fact the most ignorant, and more seriously astray than beasts” (“Treatise on Resurrection,” in Halkin and Hartman, 212). One might say without exaggeration that one of Rambam’s greatest anxieties was that you could simultaneously be in some sense a ba’al halakha and in another, more fundamental sense, an out-and-out pagan.
7 Cf. Ish HaHalakha Galui VeNistar, p. 92ff.
8 See, for example, “Shelichut,” in Yemei Zikaron, p. 23
9 See “Kol Dodi Dofek,” in Divrei Hagut VeHa’arakhah.
10 Mikhtav MeEliyahu, I, pp. 32-51.
11 Mikhtav MeEliyahu, I, p. 32. In a similar vein, Rav Dessler says quite movingly that in doing chesed we not only benefit another person through kindness, but also actually experience unity with God through unity with His chesed. Cf. Vol I, p. 221. In contrast to intellectual comprehension of God, which obviously has its limits, becoming like God through the middah of chesed has no limit; we can always climb farther. Vol. IV, pp. 49-50.
12 Strikingly, the Rambam requires us to do teshuvah not just for sinful acts but also for evil character traits. See MT, Hilkhot Teshuvah 7:4. For Rambam, it seems, the cultivation of virtue simply is the meaning of walking in God’s ways. For a useful discussion along these lines, see R. Walter Wurzburger, “The Centrality of Virtue Ethics in Maimonides,” in Of Scholars, Savants, and their Texts. The discerning reader will note two strands here: one, a mandate to cultivate virtue, and two, an obligation to go beyond the letter of the law. Strikingly, Rambam makes the connection between them explicit, in that the virtuous person will be motivated to do more than the law technically requires. See, most illustratively, MT, Avadim 9:8. And Cf. Deot 1:5.
13 It would be interesting and potentially quite fruitful to explore which Jewish thinkers would think that going beyond a list of concrete obligations constitutes going beyond Halakha (Rav Amital, for example), and which would think that going beyond any such list is itself a Halakhic obligation (Rav Soloveitchik, arguably). We would undoubtedly learn a lot by probing the issue and trying to articulate what is at stake for each thinker in answering this question, whether implicitly or explicitly. In any event, for none of these thinkers are our obligations to God exhaustively defined by obedience. Torah always demands more.
14 See Rav Yehuda Amital, “Mashma’utah Shel Mishnat HaRav Kook LeDoreinu,” in Yovel Orot, p. 339. Compare Rav Kook’s own words in Iggerot HaRA’aYaH, vol. 1, p. 97. And see the whole Iggeret to Zeidel, pp. 92-101.
15 Rav Amital, Ibid.
16 Rav Kook, Iggerot HaRA’aYaH, I, p. 97, and Rav Amital, “Mashma’utah,” pp. 339-340. For a useful collection of Rav Amital’s views on this issue, see Moshe Maya, A World Built, Destroyed, and Rebuilt (Hebrew), pp. 98-104. Cf. the following: “We need to know that Halakha is only an entryway, a gate through which God gives us a certain message; a great deal of the laws of man were intended such that they would be fulfilled out of an inner awareness (hakarah penimit)… In the laws of virtue (hilkhot middot), no Shulkhan Arukh in the world could help. If the heart is not repaired, no paragraph (se’if) will help… The purpose of the Torah is that a person should observe the Torah the way the patriarchs did, out of an inner awareness.” Rav Amital, “Devarim Shebehovah Vehovot Shebehakarah.”
17 See Maharal. Gur Aryeh to Shemot 20:22. And cf. also Maharal’s very intriguing comments in Netivot Olam, Netiv Gemilut Hasadim, ch. 1
18 See, most famously, Sifre Devarim, Ekev 49, and BT, Sotah 14a.

6 thoughts on “Halakha and Beyond: A Response to Rabbi Gil Student

  1. al gayvadik atmosphere, that’s sure. I can’t believe this guy Held uses such a name, either he chose the pen name, or he had a particularly self important yichus. “held” means a “hero” in yiddish.

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