Halakhic Introduction

Who needs Halakhah?

ACTUALLY, WE ALL DO, FOR VARIOUS reasons. The most obvious is that it was the people of Israel collectively, rather than individuals as individuals, who were called into covenant with God, to honor God by living according to the Torah. This collective call meant that all Israel was responsible for the covenant fidelity of its individual members. A breach by anyone put the entire people in covenant jeopardy - the status of having broken the covenant - which triggers dire consequences.

The clearest illustration of this principle is found in Joshua 7, when Joshua and the people of Israel are unexpectedly repelled in their attempt to capture the city of Ai. Hashem had forbidden the people to take any spoils from the city, and the chapter opens by attributing their corporate defeat to an act of individual disobedience: “But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things; for Achan the son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of the devoted things; and the anger of the Lord burned against the people of Israel” (Joshua 7:1). Notice how the sin of one man, Achan, is portrayed as the entire people having broken faith with God – entering into covenant jeopardy. This is why, once Achan is singled out, the entire people must participate in the enforcement of the judicial decree against him (Joshua 7:25). Just as the people as a whole were required to obey, so it is the people as a whole who must deal with the consequences of disobedience.

Halakhah is our understanding of what we are holding ourselves and each other responsible to do in honoring God through Torah obedience. We simply cannot hold each other responsible without such a standard. So it is that we in our congregations need halakhic guidelines to function as kehillot kodesh - holy communities.

Secondly, we all need Halakhah because it provides wonderful freedom. We all remember what it was like when we were kids and we said to our mothers, “Ma, I don’t know what to do. I’m bored.” Halakhah gives us guidance as to what do to in every area of life. This comes as a special gift when we keenly want to know “What does it mean for me to glorify God in this situation?” In fact, this is arguably the key question in Jewish spiritual life. Halakhah builds upon the distilled wisdom of countless generations of our people who took seriously their obligations to God and Torah. Halakhah helps us to identify the shape of obedience, so that we might retrace with the stylus of our own lives patterns of holiness worn deep by generations of our forbearers. And when we do so as our gift of love to Hashem, it brings joy, not only to us, but also to Him.

Finally, we all need Halakhah because it not only binds us to a standard of holiness but also looses us from needless guilt and worry. A case in point: David was offended by something Isaac said. Isaac went and apologized to David, but David was not able to forgive - he was too hurt by the offense. Isaac felt terrible about what he had done, and so he returned to David, and apologized a second time. Again, David responded coldly. Now Isaac was desperate. What could he do? He decided to go to David a third time - with the same result.

Isaac then spoke of his dilemma to a friend knowledgeable in Halakhah. His friend told him: "Don't apologize again. Based  on Joseph's experience with his brothers, Halakhah sets the limit of three times in asking someone to forgive an offense - lest one forever be in thrall to a bitter person unable or unwilling to forgive." Great wisdom! And more than that, great freedom. By telling us not only what to do, but also by setting limits on what one must do, Halakhah has the power to set us free.

When Isaac heeded the voice of his friend and the wisdom of Halakhah, and stopped apologizing, he was free from David's inability to forgive and his own self-recrimination. They were both able to get on with their lives - and they are still friends today!

When we interpret and apply Halakhah with wisdom and love, it brings freedom rather than bondage. When we treat Halakhah as an extension of God's Law, a guideline for communal obedience and relationship, we experience the character it shares with Torah, "the perfect Law that gives liberty" (James 1:25).