Is Judaism Too Dry?

There’s no deeper feeling than the awareness of a man that he has accepted upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, and there is no joy like the joy of one who lovingly bears this yoke of Torah and the Commandments.” – Yeshayahu Leibowitz

It seems more and more people today charge that Halakha (Jewish Law) is too dry, that it doesn’t have enough “soul” to it, or that it is a shame to limit Judaism to pedantic legal discussions.

Rather, someone may ask, shouldn’t it be more about how we feel about God, or about the values behind the law? It just seems so small minded to spend all of our time on the specifics of endlessly detailed rituals that don’t even make the world a better place! Why is it so important when a steak is kosher, or when a Sukkah (Tabernacle) is tall enough, or when it’s OK to turn the TV on?

In the end, wouldn’t it be better if Judaism was more spiritual, and less legal?

 These are good questions in my opinion, and I think they each deserve careful thought and consideration. Furthermore, I think it would be foolish to claim that we can answer them all with the certainty of a mathematical equation, even though, as Halakha observing Jews, we may try. And I really do believe there are many answers to each “Why” we have raised.

However, I do not want to write about any of the answers to these questions. Rather, I want to offer my side of the coin, since you’re talking about me when you mention to someone how odd it all is, that people place such emphasis on a legal system. Maybe my experience could serve as a kind of explanation for why we do what we do, or at least why I attempt to do what I believe I should be doing.

To me, Halakha is not dry or soulless. That is not the way it feels. It does not feel small minded, and though it is highly concerned with the smallest legal points, this is part of why keeping it is a rich spiritual experience.

Why do I feel this way?

Well, how could I not? It’s how I serve God.

I can’t tell you that I’m always excited about it, because I’m not. Keeping Halakha is hard, and trying to improve how I keep the mitzvot (commandments) is always a struggle. But I am committed to doing my best, and in my best moments, I love it completely.

What could be greater than serving God? My words of praise and thanks could never be enough, so I use the words of the Sages. My life could never be enough, but I may fill it with actions and moments that are devoted to serving Him.

These tiny details and pedantic discussions are my concern because I want -in my best moments- to serve God is the best way that I can. Not haphazardly, but with a commitment that researches even the smallest questions, and asks how long a wall should be, or what the best shade of color for an etrog (citron) would be. Halakha forever asks: How can we best fulfill what is required of us? And our Sages seek to answer just this question.

It may or may not improve the world when I light a candle, or say a blessing, but for many of us, the service of God is a world value in it of itself.

I cannot ask you to feel this way with us. That will have to be your decision. But now you know -to some of us at least- keeping the smallest elements of Jewish law is nothing less than the richest of experiences, where we may each take part in the best man can accomplish.

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10 Comments

Filed under Halakha

10 responses to “Is Judaism Too Dry?

  1. Ari

    Refreshing!

    To me, a significant aspect of this post is the omission of a single word: “because”. You express yourself eloquently, NOT saying that you do so * because * of how it makes you feel, but simply that doing so leaves you with a feeling of wealth and gratification. In my mind, this separates – elevates – you, up and away from those who seek an inspirational Judaism as primary motivation for observance.

    • Thanks! As always,you are by far too kind!

      • Le Newyorkais

        Yitzhak, I fully respect your feelings and beliefs, but it just ain’t so. Halakhism is the result of Judaism’s encounter with Roman (and Greek) law. when u read the Tanakh u can see they did not give a rat’s ass about Halakhism. yes, they ate matzos on Passover, but did they drei over how big a dose of matzah had to be? did it ever cross their minds that tying a string around a property made it private for the sake of carrying on Shabbat? What would King David have to say about pushing an elevator button on Shabbat?
        the short answer is nothing. Halakhism as the religion of Israel took hold only after the Rabbis (who do not even appear in Tanakh) wrested power from the Priests and prophets. the Rabbis claimed (and mostly received) the consensus to label their brand of Judaism as the ONLY legitimare brand of Judaism.
        by the way, the Rabbis never felt secure in their triumph. the endless bashing of the Priests in Talmud does not let up. the Rabbis r ALWAYS the hero of their own stories.

        • Rami

          Le Newtorkais:
          I am in the middle of studying for finals, so I will be brief. There are several flaws with your critique, beyond the coarse language you use.

          First off, how so-called “Halakhism” developed and became the offical religion of Israel is immaterial to how a Jew who accepts the system as authoritative feels. If the tradition which the Rabbis carried forth (or, as you would have it, created) helps the practitioner feel closer to his God, then why should a historical critique matter?

          Beyond that, you make some very overarching claims about Biblical and Talmudic literature which are problematic to say the least. The Bible and its author(s) may not have envisioned the Halachic corpus as we know it, but to say that dealing with the details was completely foreign to them is false. Take for example, the detailed instructions in regards to the Mishkan and the Korbanot.

          As for your statement that all this became “Judaism” only after the Rabbis wrestled power from the Priests and Prophets– you obviously are very influenced (assuming that you are basing your opinions on coherent scholarship and not frustration with your Jewish day school education) by contemporary American Talmud scholars, like Elisheva Fonrobert, who focus on the Rabbi’s creation of communal identity or, in regards to Roman legal influence, Shaye Cohen. Certainly your acceptance of their views is legitimate. However, it is worth keeping in mind– in the context of this discussion– that after the destruction of the Second Temple the Prophets and Preists are gone and the past in-fighting between Pharisees and Sadducees is no longer relevant.

          Without the Temple, the Sages are forced to fill a very real spiritual void and save the Nation of Israel from disappearing. If their “Halakhism” causes Jews to feel the way that Yitzy is describing— then they clearly have succeeded, despite your objections.

          • Le Newyorkais

            Thank u, Rami.
            Thank God the Rabbis got us away from animal sacrifice as a central pillar of Judaism. For this, I tip my hat to them.
            However, Rami, the conformism demanded by the Rabbis is suffocating. Not everyone has a “gemara kup,” and it does not float our boat to approach the Lord thru miniscule halakhism. It just does not.

            • Yitzchak Sprung

              First of all, I thank rami for replying to your earlier point.
              Secondly, I understand that not everyone has a Gemara kup, as you put it, but then again, not everyone has to learn Gemara all day.

              You are correct, however, that the law, like all legal systems, requires conformity. This has its pitfalls, but no legal system could be without it.

              • Le Newyorkais

                Yitz, the laws r 1 thing, but the humrot, and the burdensome interpretations r something entirely. when I was a kid, nominally modern orthodox, women wore pants, teenagers went to dances, no kol isha, no metzitza-peh, no rabbinical certification needed for cheese and bottled water, etc. that form of MO was tolerable, accommodating, even shul was fun. our rabbis, even the European-born, went to the beach early in the morning, before the shiksas, chas v’shalom, came over in their bikinis.
                Now THAT was Orthodoxy that did not take all the blessed pleasure out of life. u could do most things that your friends did. if I had to live then like today’s Yeshivish-style, Haredi-deferential, “orthodox,” I would have slit my wrists before 18.

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