What is the point of the myriad commandments governing every aspect of a Jew’s life? Why does Judaism require action at all? Why do religious feeling and contemplation not suffice? Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the great twentieth-century theoretician of Jewish law (Halakhah) who died twenty-five years ago today, addressed these questions within the context of his own tradition—though his answers are relevant to people of all faiths.
On the one hand, explains Rabbi Soloveitchik, Judaism wants people to live full, natural lives, and the commandments pertaining to the physical side of existence—such as festive meals, conjugal relations, or offering first fruits—force people to involve themselves in the natural world. In this manner, one who follows the Halakhah can avoid the temptation of a purely ethereal, otherworldly spirituality, which leads to a dualistic affirmation of the spirit and rejection of the world.
On the other hand, Halakhah demands that one actively sanctify one’s physical existence. This sanctification is attained through the observance of mitzvot (commandments), which affect every facet of a person’s worldly existence, from the moment of awakening until the moment of falling asleep. These mitzvot sanctify not just one’s personality (by asserting control over one’s physical drives), but one’s very actions and physicality. By infusing every area of life with meaning and purpose, the individual avoids a divided existence. The all-encompassing demands of the mitzvot ensure that one will be conscious of God at all times. When one serves God by all means at one’s disposal, one consecrates one’s entire life to God, making one’s service of God integrated and complete.
What are the dangers of a religious posture that ignores the arena of one’s natural worldly existence, concentrating exclusively on religious feeling and contemplation? Rabbi Soloveitchik’s objections to such an approach can be grouped under five headings: This form of religiosity is otherworldly, unrealistic, purely subjective, overly individualistic, and undemocratic. Let us examine each objection in turn.
Instead of fleeing the impurity of the mundane world for a supernal region of pure spirit, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s “halakhic man” attempts to bring the sanctity and purity of the transcendent realm into the material world. Religiosity that does not concern itself with one’s physical activities, social interactions, and so on, withdraws from the outside world and is unable to sanctify it. It encourages man to view his physicality with contempt, as a barrier between his soul and its ultimate felicity. Judaism, by contrast, believes that the world is “very good,” and frowns upon monasticism.
Furthermore, an otherworldly religiosity leads one to adopt a quietistic mystical approach that looks inward while ignoring others’ suffering. Judaism finds this morally repugnant, and enjoins man to engage in mending the world.
Ideally, a strong active component in one’s religiosity will strengthen the internal component; at minimum, it will preserve religiosity at times when the internal component is lacking. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s disciple Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein explains:
With its pervasive psychological realism, Halakhah has recognized that ordinary mortals need to be jogged out of their spiritual lethargy, and that unless they are prodded to specific action, many will be quite content to neglect the religious life completely. Habitual observance ingrains moral and religious sensibility into the very fiber of the personality. It strengthens the inner power of spirit and, at a deeper level, human emotion is profoundly affected by the very process of externalization. … The most legalistic ritualism is better than no worship whatever; and the individual who, within Halakhah, lapses into a formalistic rut, would very likely be bereft of religious awareness completely were he without it. At the very least, ritual establishes a floor for religion; at most, it leads man to the scaling—and holding—of the loftiest spiritual heights.
The fact that it is more likely that actions will influence emotions than the reverse explains why Halakhah devotes its primary attention to actions. If religion does not provide man with an objective framework of action containing specific divine norms, it will—at best—be vague and transient. At worst, it will lead to the most horrible excesses.
Rabbi Soloveitchik believed that it is not only undesirable for one to try to escape one’s corporeality, it is also impossible. Any ideology based on the premise that a human can become a purely spiritual creature is doomed to failure. By focusing solely on the person’s contemplative-spiritual side, it fails to acknowledge the strength of his or her inner drives and passions. Seeking to do the impossible, it fails to do what is necessary, namely, to restrain and channel one’s drives and use them positively. Freedom from the authority of specific norms, and from a sense of coercion in following them, leads to moral anarchy and finally degeneracy. By becoming concrete, objective, and specific, religion becomes strong enough to affect one’s entire life, to withstand temptation, to endure regardless of the individual’s mood, and to survive from generation to generation.
A religion that focuses solely on inner experience may lead to an “extravagant religious individualism” that is not geared toward the formation of a community. And as Rabbi Soloveitchik notes in The Halakhic Mind, “the force and effectiveness of religion grows commensurately with increasing participation of the entire society in the religious drama.” Furthermore, an inner religion that is not expressed as a way of life attenuates one’s connection not only to one’s contemporary community, but also to one’s historical community.
A purely internal religiosity based on a deep feeling of the sublime, or a purely intellectual religiosity based on serene contemplation, is by definition available only to an elite of particularly gifted individuals. The average person is incapable of attaining the requisite state of mind, depth of experience, and detachment from materialism.
By emphasizing the centrality of clear-cut action, which can be accomplished by anyone, Judaism maintains a “democratic” and “exoteric” character. The Torah is the inheritance of all of Israel, not just a clique of spiritual adepts. One need not be privy to secret knowledge or mystical techniques in order to fulfill God’s commandments. The simplest individual can observe the mitzvot to the same extent as the spiritual genius—both eat matzah on Passover, honor their parents, are bound by the same restrictions, and so on.
Thus, in a normative religion such as Judaism, all individuals are equally able to approach God. A religion lacking this common basis of connection to God becomes stratified; as Rabbi Soloveitchik writes, it “gives rise to ecclesiastical tyranny, religious aristocracies, and charismatic personalities. And there is nothing that the Halakhah loathes and despises as much as the idea of cultic mediation or the choosing of individuals, on the basis of supernatural considerations, to be intercessors for the community.”
Of course, there are areas of Halakhah in which individuals of differing talents will achieve different levels. For example, the level of one’s love of God or prayer depends on one’s emotional depth and spiritual capacity. Likewise, through hard work and innate ability, one person may reach greater attainments in Torah study than will another.
This, asserts Rabbi Soloveitchik, is as it should be. Halakhah must give a person the ability to express his or her individuality in the service of God. It must give everyone the opportunity to strive for ever greater heights in divine worship. Yet the strong component of action in Jewish religiosity, emphasizing the simple performance of the commandment, maintains the underlying basis of equality of individuals.
The actional and imperative components of Judaism avoid the problems of a purely internal religiosity, shaping a this-worldly and realistic religion that strikes a balance between subjectivity and objectivity, between individualism and community-mindedness, and between elitism and democracy. The commandments concretize religiosity, ground it in real life, channel religious feeling, provide restraint against desire, and regulate one’s interactions with one’s surroundings. Halakhah combines action with feeling and thought to form a unified whole that engages the entirety of the human being. It begins as a discipline—of action, feeling, and thought—and only then turns into a sublime romance.
Reuven Ziegler is author of Majesty and Humility: The Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and chairman of the editorial board of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.