Shiur #1: Before Sinai: Jewish Values and Jewish Laws - Introduction

  • Rav Dr. Judah Goldberg


Our rabbis often use case studies to introduce certain ideas and challenges.  In that spirit, let us open with a few character descriptions to illustrate the range of problems this series will address.


Case #1:  The Ahistorical Jew


Suppose you have an acquaintance who lives a typical, observant Jewish lifestyle.  She observes Shabbat and the holidays meticulously, sends her children to Jewish day schools and is extremely careful about the laws of kashrut.  Moreover, she has deliberately nurtured a rich spirituality, more so than many of her Orthodox neighbors.  Her Judaism is exemplary, except for one peculiarity:  She feels no connection to the larger Jewish community.


She donates generously to the local yeshiva but throws away envelopes that arrive from Jewish social organizations.  When assimilation comes up in conversation, she quips that we are probably better off without all of those “borderline Jews,” who contribute nothing to the service of Heaven, anyway.  She tends to pray in solitude, claiming that the organized rituals of synagogue life hamper genuine spirituality.


Well-read and articulate, she once published a thought piece suggesting that Judaism flourished not despite the Exile but because of it, as authentic religious experience was stripped of distracting nationalistic and political elements.  Personally, she feels Divine connection when visiting the Land of Israel, but she has no patience for Zionism as an ideology, eschewing all talk of Jewish history and Jewish destiny.  Moreover, while not denying historical events, she brushes off the Holocaust as a cultural icon overly invoked by modern Israel but otherwise carrying little personal or collective meaning. 


She scorns her friends who have gotten involved in social action efforts supporting Jewish communities abroad, laughing that “they act as if you should recite a blessing over fighting anti-Semitism!”  You quietly chuckle, uncomfortable with her attitude but unsure of how to respond.  What can you say?


Case #2:  Who Needs Israel?


Now imagine a similar scenario, except this second acquaintance harbors a different idiosyncrasy:  He has absolutely no regard for the Land of Israel.


He never visits, does not donate money to its causes and turns the TV channel when developments in Israel appear on the nightly news.  He tends to think of Israeli concerns and needs as a nuisance to Diaspora Jews and cannot fathom why anyone would want to make aliya.  When the rest of his congregation solemnly stands for the prayer on behalf of the State of Israel, he barely shifts in his seat as he continues to noisily murmur Rashi’s comments to parashat ha-shavua.  He likes to call his vibrant, bustling Orthodox community “the real Jerusalem” and brags about the retirement home he bought in Florida while some of his friends were pursuing real estate in Israel.   


However, when a visiting Israeli he occasionally pokes fun at once told him that his Yiddishkeit is “incomplete,” he reacted strongly, more confused than hurt.  Your acquaintance turns to you for explanation, exclaiming that he is much “frummer” than that “self-proclaimed Real Jew!”  How do you respond?


Case #3:  Halakhically Rich, Morally Bankrupt


Finally, consider one more character. Like the first two, he is halakhically punctilious, but this one has a total lack of natural empathy.  He speaks sharply, often offends and rarely consoles.  He donates charity exactly as specified by halakha—always to the rabbi’s fund, so as to avoid any inconveniences—but then refuses even to speak to a needy supplicant once his allotment has been allocated. 


Worse, as a businessman he is aggressive, argumentative and spiteful.   He haggles excessively, rarely follows through on the terms of his own hard-won bargains and frequently threatens even his own close associates with lawsuits.  He habitually parks his car in handicapped spots for “just a few minutes” and has been known to pepper his conversations with racist, ethnic and chauvinist slurs. 


Though many in the community quietly avoid him, he has gained a certain following among youngsters, who are drawn to his starkness, his certitude and his self-touted absolute faithfulness to “halakha.”  He vocally campaigns for creating a legion of “Mishna Berura Jews” and has developed a daily learning program that your own adolescent son is excited to join.  While your child is enamored, you have some concerns about this individual.  How would you articulate them?


The Problem


What do all three of these caricatures have in common?  They each display attitudes and behaviors that would make any Jew, observant or not, deeply uncomfortable, but at the same time we struggle to formulate exactly why their stances are so objectionable.  Sure, we could appeal to basic, universal decency or quote Biblical verses about the Jewish nation and the Land of Israel, but how do we make the case that each of their flaws cuts to the heart of Judaism?  After all, we all sometimes slip on points of etiquette and could be more generally mindful of certain Biblical passages.  What makes their failures seemingly more fundamental?


Contrasting each of these individuals’ inadequacies with their commitment to halakha further sharpens the problem.  Each of them takes pride in his or her total halakhic observance and willingness to submit to the clear demands of Jewish law.  Perhaps they are the type who easily modify their conduct when they encounter a new halakha or when they realize that the leniency they rely upon is weaker than they had thought.  Were we able to cite “chapter and verse”—or, in this case, siman and se’if of the Shulchan Arukh—that concretely requires identification with Jewish history, or concern for the Land of Israel, or spontaneous generosity, we might be able to influence them.


But this is exactly where we falter.  These principles are seemingly self-evident and core to even the most liberal, non-Orthodox conceptions of Judaism, but when we “leaf through and leaf through” (Avot 5:32) our libraries of halakha, we come up short-handed.  This is not to say that we cannot find any relevant material; rather, the point is that the scarce, broad directives that we muster seem woefully inadequate to capture how deeply rooted we feel in these concepts—these Jewish values.



The Concept of Jewish Values


There was a time, apparently, when Jewish values did not need much backing or evidence.  They were so ingrained and interwoven with the fabric of Jewish living that a simple “pas nisht” (Yiddish for “not proper”) served as a more powerful retort than Chazal’s strongest admonishment.  Jewish culture, for centuries inseparable from Jewish observance, reflected a composite of laws and values that generations passed down from one to another as a rich, intricate tradition.  The lay person seldom stopped to ask exactly which commandment “being a mentsch” is subsumed under, or why Jews should protect each other, because he likely didn’t question the source for tashlikh or the size of his grandfather’s kiddush cup either.  The teachings of the schoolroom and the lessons of the Shabbat table blended into each other without undue attention to boundaries and territory, and together they charted the path for Jewish living.


Two phenomena, I believe, disrupted this organic relationship to Jewish values, one circumstantial and tragic and the other ideological and possibly welcome.  The first is the upheaval, destruction and resurgence of Ashkenazi Jewry through the cataclysmic events of the twentieth century.  With God’s grace, Orthodoxy survived the trials of the last century, but not without sustaining a severe rent in the fabric of life whose repair has been anything but seamless.[1]


In his seminal article “Rupture and Reconstruction:  The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,”[2] Dr. Hayim Soloveitchik carefully and insightfully documents what this practically has meant for Orthodox communities, whether “modern” or charedi.  Briefly, Dr. Soloveitchik describes the transition from a “mimetic tradition,” which is learned by imitation, to a religious lifestyle grounded in texts.  Whereas for centuries the communities of Central and Eastern Europe “were traditional, taking their values and code of conduct as a given, acting unselfconsciously, unaware that life could be lived differently,” in the post-war world,


Alternatives now exist, and adherence is voluntary. A traditional society has been transformed into an orthodox one and religious conduct is less the product of social custom than of conscious, reflective behavior. . . . A way of life has become a regula, and behavior, once governed by habit, is now governed by rule.


What, though, substitutes as the source of knowledge if the intuitive way of life has disappeared?  According to Dr. Soloveitchik, the answer is Jewish texts.  While homes teach a way of doing things, texts contain rules and have thus become the source of supreme authority in the contemporary Jewish world.


In many ways this transition has resulted in a strengthening of Jewish practice.  Stringency is in vogue, and several dormant halakhot have been “rediscovered.”  Other dimensions of Jewish life, however, have suffered—specifically those that have never been reducible to a text.  Imbibed custom, on the one hand, and unspoken values, on the other, have fallen between the cracks, as they cannot compete with the power of “halakha” when examined through the lens of legal texts.  As the locus of education has shifted from the home to the school and book learning has replaced acculturation, Jewish values suddenly find themselves straining to be heard.


An Ideological Shift


At the same time that historical events were eroding the force of organic Jewish practice, a school of thought was emerging that reasserted the centrality of classic Jewish texts on purely ideological grounds.  The founding figure of this movement was the legendary Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, commonly known as the Gra (an acronym).  To quote again from Dr. Soloveitchik,


The GRA, while far from the first to subject the corpus of Jewish practice to textual scrutiny, did it on an unprecedented scale and with unprecedented rigor. No one before him (and quite possibly, no one since) has so often and relentlessly drawn the conclusion of jettisoning practices that did not square with the canonized texts. (n. 20)


Whereas centuries of Ashkenazi learning had added layers upon layers to the rabbinic corpus, incorporating accepted practice and proposing new novellae to fill gaps in the last novellae, the Gra cut through it all in a grand quest for authenticity.  The integrity of Torah learning lay not in today’s unbridled creativity but in tracing the halakha back to the moment of Revelation, accessible to us only through the primary texts of Tannaitic and Talmudic literature.


Out of the Gra’s influence grew the world of Lithuanian Torah study, whose indelible mark is still felt all around us.  The primacy of Talmud, whether in yeshiva study halls or in Daf Yomi circles, is largely attributable to the Gra.  But the influence of his outlook reached far beyond the realm of classic Torah study.  The implications of his fundamental principle—that authentic Judaism lies in the record of Torah she-be’al peh (the Oral Law)—were further developed and expanded by the heirs to his intellectual legacy, in particular the Brisker dynasty.


The Gra’s students applied his postulates to the worlds of Tanakh study and machshava (Jewish philosophy).  In place of the mystical speculations of Hasidic works, they imported the Gra’s restraint and fidelity to these other domains, insisting that halakhic concepts and categories are the only legitimate tools that we have for any kind of spiritual inquiry.  According to the Gra’s heirs (though not necessarily according to the Gra himself), what the corpus of halakha does not address—whether the reasons for the commandments or the inner structure of the Heavens—is not only unknown but fundamentally unknowable.


A New Halakhic Epistemology


It was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (known as “the Rav” to those in his sphere of influence) in particular who turned the Gra’s thesis from a method of study into a formal statement about epistemology (the nature of knowledge).  Knowledge and understanding, whether in regard to law, spirituality, custom, theology, politics or values, belongs exclusively to the tradition of the Oral Law.  To a degree he was simply articulating a worldview that he attributed to and inherited from his predecessors.  Thus, in eulogizing his uncle Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveitchik, the Rav said the following about his relation to the sociopolitical affairs of the mid-twentieth century:


The very phrase, “the political outlook” of R. Yitzchak Ze’ev, is an oxymoron.  He reflected upon society and its devices from the perch of halakha without using any other analytic methods.  His conceptions and positions were cast into halakhic principles and categories and were set in the mold and terminology of halakha.  He did not recognize sociopolitical categories.  He saw the trials, tribulations, and challenges of this period, drenched in blood and torn of destiny, through a halakhic prism. (“Ma Dodekh Mi-dod,” in Divrei Hagut Ve-ha’arakha, 89)


While the Rav approached politics somewhat differently, as we will mention, he did share this outlook with regard to Jewish practice and philosophy.  According to the Rav, the rabbinic corpus is the sole source of spiritual knowledge and itself requires no justifications.  Regarding customs, he disdained attempts to formulate new rituals and characteristically tried to anchor traditional ones in established halakhic categories.  Regarding philosophy, he critiqued medieval Jewish philosophy as both outdated and foreign:


We know that the most central concepts of medieval Jewish philosophy are rooted in ancient Greek and medieval Arabic thought and are not of Jewish origin at all.  It is impossible to reconstruct a unique Jewish world perspective out of alien material. (The Halakhic Mind, 100)


Furthermore, he was emphatic about the alternative:  “To this end there is only a single source from which a Jewish philosophical Weltanschauung could emerge; the objective order—the Halakha” (101).[3]  Thus he closes The Halakhic Mind with this extraordinary vision:  “Out of the sources of Halakha, a new world view awaits formulation” (102).


In a World of Texts, Whence Jewish Values?


On this backdrop we return to the subject of Jewish values.  While wonderful for learning and critical for anchoring Judaism in the modern world, what space does the Gra’s revolution provide for unspoken, intuitive Jewish values?  And when his reframing of knowledge is paired with the sociological shift towards a text tradition, organically absorbed values are left doubly cursed.  Furthermore, if we embrace the Rav’s vision for an epistemology of Judaism, can we ground and reformulate these values in and through the revealed word?


We can illustrate the problem further and also hint at its solution by returning to the Rav’s description of his uncle.  According to the Rav, Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev’s intellectual rigor explains his response to the State of Israel:


They said of him that he opposed the State of Israel.  This statement is incorrect. . . . [Rather], what could be said of him is that the State did not find a place within his halakhic system of thought and his hierarchy of halakhic values.  He could not find a way to translate the concept of secular political sovereignty into halakhic values and categories. (89)


In other words, Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev did not oppose the founding of a secular State; he simply could not make sense of it within the world of the Talmud and the Rambam.  “The Halakhic Man was disappointed and withdrew to his own world” (90).  While others unquestioningly rejoiced, aware of the shortcomings of the State but still intuitively buoyed by any Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev’s program simply couldn’t integrate this input.  And while few match Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev, either in erudition or in intellectual discipline, the sentiment that what doesn’t easily fit into halakhic frameworks is not really “Jewish” certainly dominates today in the world of Lithuanian-style yeshivot and the communities connected to them. 


Jewish Values “Out of the Sources of Halakha”


But the Rav didn’t stop there.  In his eulogy he mentioned a counterpoint, implicitly defending his own Zionism:


However, there are those who say that the halakha, that includes everything, encompasses everything and penetrates everything; that is interested in each and every tittle of creation, from the tree that buds in one’s courtyard to a satellite that orbits the earth, from the hidden workings of the soul to the remote constellations, from the private affairs of husband and wife to the grandeur of all humanity; does not withdraw from any event, even one that rebels against it and spites it.[4] (90-1)


The Rav embraced the conservatism of Brisk but infused it with an optimism and a creativity that greatly expanded its boundaries.  In some sense he achieved a synthesis of intellectual rigidity with a broad and aspiring spirit, demonstrating that epistemological rigor need not lead to practical narrowness.  Whether in his readings of Tanakh[5] or his relation to existential religious experience, the Rav plumbed the halakhic tradition for its full range of treasures and applied its thinking and categories to uncharted territories.[6] 


Thus, from the Rav we inherit both a mandate and a challenge.  The mission is to ground previously unarticulated values—specifically those that are underrepresented in codified law—in “the sources of Halakha,” not only to demonstrate their epistemological legitimacy but also to refine and enrich them in the larger context of Jewish tradition.  Indeed, the Rav will lead the way, as the insights he garnered in support of Zionism will actually provide the basic framework for this study.[7]  It is my hope that this study will stay loyal to the Rav’s vision and legacy, dutifully working within the parameters of our received tradition while gingerly trying to further uncover its full range and scope: “Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things from your Torah” (Tehillim 119:18).


[1] My comments here are admittedly limited to the Ashkenazi experience.  The impact of twentieth century events on traditional Sephardi ways of life—in particular, the consequences of the expulsion of Sephardi Jews from Arab countries and their resettlement in close proximity to Ashkenazim—requires its own, separate treatment.   

[2] Tradition 28:4 (Summer 1994), 64-130. Available at

[3] Admittedly, the Rav’s use of the term “Halakha” is somewhat vague.  Clearly, he does not refer to statements of law exclusively, but more broadly to the full range of the received tradition (also see mori ve-rabbi Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, “Does Judaism Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakhah,” Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Living [Jersey City, 2004], 51-2).  How widely to cast our net, though, is not clear.  In outlining his own vision for a proper inquiry into “the mystery of the God-man relation as reflected in the Jewish religious consciousness from both traditional and modern aspects,” for instance, the Rav writes,


It would be necessary that we first gather all objectified data at our disposal:  passages in the Holy Writ pertaining to divinity and divine attributes; the norms regulating the God-man contact such as the norm of love and fear of God; moments of tension between God and man, as in the case of Job; many halakhic problems where certain attitudes of man towards Divinity have found their expression. (90-1)


So far the Rav has essentially referenced Torah she-bikhtav and Torah she-be’al peh, Scripture and commandments, which unquestionably constitute the main body of data for halakhic epistemology.  But he continues, “All forms of cult, liturgy, prayer, Jewish mysticism, rational philosophy, religious movements, etc.”  Is the Rav suggesting that all of these phenomena have independent epistemic standing?  If so, on what basis?  In contrast, if their legitimacy lies in their reflection of the aforementioned Torah she-bikhtav and Torah she-be’al peh, then what do they add?  In any case, it seems that a certain unresolved tension will likely persist between maintaining both epistemological rigor and an inclusive attitude towards the scope of Jewish tradition. 

[4] Also see Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Community, Covenant and Commitment (Jersey City, 2005), 201-4 (I am indebted to Rav Reuven Ziegler for this reference).  Admittedly, regarding Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev the Rav continues, “All this also my uncle knew.  However, a different feeling pervaded him.  He feared that ongoing conflict with the secular state would lead to concessions and accommodation by the framework of ideals [halakha] to that of reality.”  Rather than read this as a pragmatic decision, I take this to mean that Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev would agree to the Rav’s fundamental conception of halakha but was not as ambitious or optimistic about its ability to respond to and integrate disparate phenomena.

[5] This is evident from a simple comparison of Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev’s Chiddushei Maran Riz Ha-Levi al Ha-Torah (Jerusalem, 2003) and the Rav’s published writings on Tanakh.

[6] There is no shortage of secondary literature on the Rav’s thought and writings.  For two salient appraisals of this particular aspect of his intellectual personality (by mori ve-rabbi Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and mori ve-rabbi Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein, the Rav’s son-in-law and grandson, respectively), see Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik:  Man of Halacha, Man of Faith, ed. Rav Menachem Genack (Hoboken, 1998), 45-87.

[7] See, primarily, Kol Dodi Dofek: Listen—My Beloved Knocks, trans. David Z. Gordon, (New York, 2006), 51-89 and The Rav Speaks:  Five Addresses on Israel, History, and the Jewish People, trans. A. H. Rabinowitz (New York, 2002), 127-152.  We will return to these texts in future shi’urim.