When Jewish Law Is Taken Too Far
“Halacha” is often translated as “Jewish law.” But that is inadequate and misleading. Nowadays, we usually use the word law to mean jurisprudence. Halacha, however, is much more than this. It is the equivalent of the generic term “Torah.” It incorporates teachings as well as laws. It includes ethics, personal morality, ideas, and values, alongside method and ritual. It is a way of living, thinking, and experiencing.
To this day, many Christians like to say that Judaism is a religion of law, whereas they have a religion of love. Forgetting of course that the Torah itself talks about God loving us and our loving God, Christianity has laws, rules, customs, and rituals too. All religions and societies do. But we can, I think, all agree that law is important, even if the spirit matters as much — sometimes more.
A recent book, Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law by Chaim N. Saiman, is a great introduction to the complexities, varieties, attitudes, and range of rabbinic law and lore. It explores the various aspects and functions of Halacha, both practical and theoretical. And by the way, notice the different spellings of the Hebrew word Halacha in English transliterations.
The greatness of Halacha is that if you study it, you can easily determine priorities and discern nuances. For example, Halacha, in a way, is highly relative. It puts life above everything else. You may transgress all the laws of the Torah to save a life, except for murder, adultery, and idolatry. In addition, built into Halacha is a certain degree of flexibility that includes both strict and lenient interpretations and decisions — which implies that there are choices.
Both rabbis and lay people can also resolve issues of behavior and morality differently, according to circumstances and personal conditions. This is why many traditional responses often end with the exhortation to ask one’s rabbi when faced with a problem.
There are some drawbacks with Halacha, as there are with any system. There is the reductio ad absurdum — taking a perfectly understandable and logical law to the point where it borders on the ridiculous. For example, one can understand not plowing a field or reaping the harvest on Shabbat, and then applying this law to not mowing the lawn on Shabbat. But to apply these rules to not combing one’s hair for fear of reaping, etc. takes this too far. It is not surprising that many Orthodox people have become neurotically obsessive over minor details of Jewish law.
And there is always the danger of following the letter more than the spirit of the law — someone who even the Talmud calls a pious fool. And there is the inevitable misuse of power and authority — although one can find that in any system.
A dear friend of mine recently introduced me to some publications on Halacha from the Haredi world. Their law prevents one from making containers on Shabbat. If you open, say, a can of peas, you thereby create a vessel that could be used for storage. So, what you have to do is to make a hole in the can first, so that after you have removed all or some of the contents, it can’t be used as a storage container. The illustration given in the book is of a large kitchen knife piercing the tin lid. Now imagine a child on Shabbat looking at this and going to get a kitchen knife as illustrated to stab the lid, and then potentially slipping and causing serious injury. Clearly there are major issues of life and injury that take priority over punctilious correctness.
Another Haredi law gives instructions about what happens if you go into a bathroom on Shabbat and an automatic light comes on. And worse, if you leave, the light will go off on Shabbat. Does it make any sense to stay inside that toilet until Shabbat is over? Yet another deals with being careful not to shake your snowy clothes when you come inside or brush down your icy beard in case you infringe the law against melting snow on Shabbat.
There is a Biblical law against eating insects. But in principle and in the law, one can only be expected to be concerned with what the naked eye can see. We can’t carry microscopes around every time one wants to eat a salad. But nowadays, some books on Halacha urge something close to that.
The Torah and its laws assert important fundamentals and ideas that are of benefit to us all. But taken without a sense of priority or common sense, they can impose ludicrous burdens that may lead people to wonder what kind of person they are designed to produce.
The Torah is indeed a guide for living. But when our way of life is entirely guided by manuals, we lose all notion of common sense. Halacha then, instead of being a thing of beauty and inspiration, becomes a straitjacket. And as we all know, there is a connection between a straitjacket and mental imbalance.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He also studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, and went on to earn his PhD in philosophy. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.