At the great climax of the Mount Sinai moment, the Israelites are gathered around the thunderous mountain, Moses is at the pinnacle, and God is about to make an offer of a set of guidelines, instructions, and prohibitions that will transform human life forever. Just before launching into the specific commandments of the Top Ten, however, God makes a general observation: “Here, O Israel, the laws and rules that I proclaim to you this day! Study them and observe them faithfully (Dt 5:1).”
Now, my wife is a lawyer, so I have a lifetime experience of observing lawyers close up. And I can tell you that she spends a good deal of time looking up laws so she can make arguments on behalf of the legal outcome she thinks is right. But she never pulls open a book of laws and statutes to study the laws for their own sake. She never recites the rules as a kind of spiritual mantra, or to center herself. She never joins with others to learn laws together as a community building or values deepening exercise.
Yet Jews do that with our laws all the time. In a brilliant book, Halakhah: The Rabbi Idea of Law, Chaim Saiman documents the many ways that halakhah (often translated in shorthand as “Jewish Law”) functions as much more than simply black-letter law (what you must do or refrain from doing. Halakhah invites meditative contemplation, study as a form of ritual discipline, as an exploration of theology and faith, or as a source of values and aggadah beyond any behavioral outcomes.
That rich perspective is rooted in our Torah verse: we are enjoined not only to observe, but also to study them. Study is itself a mitzvah and a value, separate from implementation as behavior.
Owning this sense of the many ways that halakhah grounds Jewish life offers a way to understand our pluralism differently too. In this light, whether or not Jews consider themselves bound by halakhic norms, if they are learning the sources, meditating on them, expounding insights and values from them, then they are engaged halakhically. So maybe the many Orthodox, traditional, and liberal approaches to Judaism can celebrate the ways that halakhah unites us, not on a behavioral level, but in the realms of meaning making, spiritual values, contemplation, and morality.
On the level of behavior, we may sometimes part ways. But in the realm of vision, purpose, shared narratives and frameworks, all Judaisms are halakhic. “Study them” and “observe them!”
Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is Vice President of American Jewish University in Los Angeles.
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