Home » David Werdiger, Religion and Jewish Thought

The Humanity of Halacha

September 5, 2009 – 9:03 pm33 Comments

halachaBy David Werdiger

Trying to have a meaningful discussion about some of the positive (or negative) aspects of halacha on Galus Australis or similar forums sometimes feels a bit like debating the joys of lamb versus beef with a vegetarian. The huge gulf between underlying beliefs means there is insufficient common ground for debate. So for all my new heretic friends (and I don’t mean that as an insult), please take the following comments with a ‘suspension of unbelief’.

It’s interesting to consider the meaning of the word ‘halacha’. There are plenty of words for ‘law’ in Hebrew: chok, mishpat and din are all used in both biblical and contemporary contexts to describe different types of laws. On the other hand, the word ‘halacha’ derives from the root word meaning ‘to go’. Rather than a set of laws, a prescriptive ‘do this, don’t do that’, the word is indicative of a path, or a way of life. This sets halacha apart from other legal systems.

“And you shall not deviate from the word that they [the judges] will tell you, right or left” (Devarim 17). This verse spells out the delegation of authority to the judiciary. About this, the Midrash comments: “[abide by the judges] even if they tell you that right is left, and that left is right”. Could this be saying that even if the judges get it clearly wrong, you must still comply with their rulings? Yes, says the Ramban, such is the importance of a central and united judiciary. If individuals could decide matters of halacha for themselves, he says, then that will lead to many disagreements and ultimately the Torah will turn into a multitude of different streams of practice (yes, it does sound a bit like the way things are in contemporary times). What distinguishes our rabbinic judiciary is that they have a direct line of tradition from God to Moshe, and from Moshe through an unbroken chain of succession.

Let’s consider in more depth the nature of this delegation of authority from God to the judiciary.

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b) relates a situation where a question was asked about the ritual impurity of the ‘oven of Achinai’. After Rav Eliezer disagreed with the view of the Sages about the matter, he invoked all kinds of supernatural events to ‘prove’ the veracity of his position. However at the end of this exchange, a heavenly voice proclaimed: “Lo baShamayim hi” (Devarim 30) – “It [the Torah] is not in heaven”. Even though the Torah is God-given, its rules cannot be decided by miraculous signs. The policy of ‘majority rules’ is sacrosanct, so the halacha in this case was established like the Sages and not like Rav Eliezer, despite all the signs from heaven that he was able to invoke to in support of his opinion.

The discussion concludes with a fascinating postscript. Rav Nasan found Eliyahu the prophet and asked him what the Almighty was doing at that moment when the heavenly proofs were rejected and the halacha was established like the majority opinion. Eliyahu responded that God smiled (as it were) and said: “My children have defeated me.”

This positions the judiciary (assuming it abides by the rules given to it) as a higher authority than God Himself. God gave us the Torah, and then handed over its ‘operation’ to us.

As an example: before the establishment by Hillel of the calendar we now use, each month was officially declared by the Sanhedrin when two witnesses arrived to confirm that they had seen a sliver of new moon. Thus the Sanhedrin – and not God per se – would effectively be the ones to determine what day of the month it is, and therefore when the Jewish holidays occurred.

The view that the human judiciary have absolute authority over interpretations of Torah is explained by Chassidic Masters, who uncovered a view of the world where the physical world we live in is mirrored by spiritual ‘worlds’. We are not talking about other planets or universes, as we might understand the term, but rather existences or perspectives that transcend ours. The Zohar and other classical texts describe complex structures or dimensions that connect the infinite God to the physical, finite world He created by many layers, and the linkage of various attributes.

In this world view, our actions in the performance (or non-performance) of halacha have huge ramifications to the very nature of the spiritual structures, and to the connection between our soul and God.

How you view halacha depends entirely on your perspective. Without God, halacha looks like a set of dry, arcane, overly prescriptive laws. Some people might go as far to call such a system a tyranny. With God, halacha and its observance connects the physical and spiritual worlds, and is the thread that links our souls to God Himself.

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  • Michael says:

    If individuals could decide matters of halacha for themselves, he says, then that will lead to many disagreements and ultimately the Torah will turn into a multitude of different streams of practice

    I think this shows the inadequacy of the ideal of the single set of authorities that get to decide the halacha. Even within Orthodox Judaism there is a huge range of streams that rule directly against each other. In a way, such a system is unavoidable no matter how much one might try to keep up the idealisation. For instance, every rabbi in a way decides halacha for themselves (using the halachic authorities they consider authoritative) and then the people end up deciding halacha for themselves by choosing which rabbis they follow, which rabbis they build communities around.

    So it’s a bit of a thorny issue. It was taken into account in the Talmudic era with the coexistence of, say, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai — but after that, the fiction of a single “judiciary” may have done more harm than good to community life and the ability of communities to interact with each other.

  • ariel says:

    The last two paragraphs of this article say it all.

  • Chaim says:

    Interestingly R. Eliezer was right (although he was punished with excommunication for this event).

    The sages received their ruling through divine inspiration (as the wording of R. Eliezer that the heavenly voice should act as a proof) and each person receives this divine inspiration according to the level of his soul with a certain bias. This divine inspiration only helps guide the sages.

    Y. Yehoshua and the other sages retorted that they were able to come to terms rationally only with the lesser revelation and while not denying the superiority of the heavenly voice, they could not simply accept it logically.

    The final legal rulings had to be decided rationally using Talmudic logic. If the divine inspiration and rational Talmudic analysis conflict – we follow rational Talmudic analysis and the majority rules in Halacha…

    p.s. a good text: http://www.kolmenachem.com/itemdetail.asp?ItemID=12

  • Almoni says:

    1) I suspect we’d have a very different post-biblical Judaism if the sages had all been women.

    2) so if we all have different pathways, then the perspectives of the modernizers of nineteenth century who set in place the path to Conservative and Reform Judaism are just as valid as those of the sages.

    3) who is God, anyway? One of great modern conundrums, from the determinist, to well, something that’s pretty much irrelevant. If you see God as an invention, and the Bible as well, a powerful but not divine document, then your whole theory of existence and knowledge is different.

    4) Then comes, by which moral code to we live? For traditional Judaism, it’s the tradition, community, as a path to sanctity, something akin to tribal life. For others, there’s lots of other things that are equally, if not more important in the struggle with modernity based on historical-religious experience of emerging consciousness and awareness (my take on Mordechai Kaplan).

    5) As long as we don’t interfere with each other, I don’t see a problem. I see the problem, when Orthodoxy, and particularly renascent, self-referential and well-funded orthodoxy claims to be the only authentic pathway and aggressively takes this stance.

  • ariel says:

    I think the main issue is precisely that no rabbi today has the authority or G-dly revelation to truly decide halachah. Ideally each Jew should have enough knowledge of Torah (including Talmud and an understanding of how halacha works) in order to make their own educated conclusions as to what the intent of the mitzvah is.

    Unfortunately, today most of us don’t have this knowledge and instead of trying to achieve it (myself included), we decide what we think the halacha should be based on our own sense of comfort and then seek out opinions which validate our conclusions. This is the trend called “shop-a-posek” which has developed recently and especially since Internet communications, where many opinions are available.

    So we seek out the opinion of someone who has far more knowledge than us. Hopefully that rabbi will give us some background explanations and tell us a few of the opinions of the great halachists and only then say what he follows and why he recommends that particular decision.

  • Chaim says:

    Almoni: If you don’t believe in G-d, then the bible is just an interesting historical document and the article is irrelevant to you except to educate how orthodox Jews decide the laws. Everything is purely subjective. There are orthodox responses to all your questions – but you need to start from a common starting point to reach an agreement. There is authentic Judaism based on thousands of years of tradition. If people want to start a new religion by changing and denying previous laws and customs they can but call it by a new name…….

    Ariel: In history,when people where far more knowledgeable their was always someone to ask because not every halacha in every situation was obvious. Many had to be derived from similar halachos. People always went to Moshe, Yehoshua, the judges, kings, sanhedrin……. But you are right that people shop and some unscrupulous rabbis “sell” their advice.

  • cyberjew says:

    Hello all.

    Shkoyakh on an interesting and thought-provoking piece. However, I have a genetic condition that seems to always make me disagree. (I think it’s called yiddishkitis.)

    First the annoying comments. I’ll put them in brackets so that anyone who wants can skip them easily:

    [I would like to point out that the pasuq from Devarim (lo tasur min hadavar asher yaggidu lekha yamin usmol) in the sense that you are citing it is ultimately interpreted by the gemara to apply only to a zaqen mamre (a rebellious legal arbiter). If someone who knows better relies on a the decision of a bet din that is mistaken on a point of halakhah, they alone are punished or bring a korban – meaning that every individual has a responsibility to act according to what they know to be the law, and if they do not they are held legally responsible. The other annoying comment is that I think that you have totally misinterpreted the story of tanur shel akhnai, but you are in very good company. If anything, the story (when read in context) is a critique of what John Stuart Mill called “the tyranny of the masses” – though the story affirms the validity of the majority position, it also portrays (in the continuation, which no-one ever seems to quote) the extent to which R’ Eli’ezer is persecuted and alienated from his peers. He’s a terribly tragic character.)]

    Now, the real point: I take issue with your comment that halakhah “without G-d” is dry. Really, it bothers me. I think that anyone who truly learns and tries to understand Torah will gain insights that are truly enlightening. Unfortunately, most fields of specialised knowledge are initially inaccessable, but with a bit of effort that changes. So political philosophy, law, science, history – all the things that many of us hated when we were in high school – reveal their treasures the more you delve into them. The same goes for Torah.

    I don’t know what you mean by “without G-d”, but based on your above paragraphs I assume that you mean “without a kabbalistic/khasidish view of mitzvot.” That’s very nice when you are davening, lighting shabbos candles and even shaking around your lulav and esrog. But what about picking pecans out of your salad on shabbos? How on earth does one experience mystical bliss when pondering the wisdom of borer/sorting on shabbos?

    I think that mitzvot have substantial reasons – including borer – and learning khasidus isn’t going to help you find them. Learning gemara and halakhah – the dry stuff – will help you find them. And then you can work out what shabbos is about (which you can also work out from humash, if you learn it properly). And that is not dry, it is substantial and has real implications for humans.

  • Michael says:

    Cyberjew, based on David’s first paragraph I think he just meant halacha to a person who does not accept halacha as coming from God.

    In which case it’s probably a matter of opinion but at least the laws concerning humans and God (bein adam vehamakom) would be more likely to be considered dry, since to a person with this opinion they are simply made up. I reckon the laws concerning human relations (bein adam vechavero) will be a lot less dry to someone who doesn’t believe in their divine origin — although they might have another reaction to some of them (eg. disagreeing or proclaiming them as immoral).

  • cyberjew says:


    I agree that it’s easier to grasp the meaning of “don’t kill” and “don’t steal” than it is to grasp why one should shake plants on a certain date. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t substantial reasons for halakhot that most people would define as “beyn adam la-maqom.”

    For example, take borer/sorting on shabbos: If you remove good things from a mixed pile of food and rubbish, you leave behind a pile of rubbish and are probably just eating; if you remove bad stuff you are leaving behind a nice pile of food, presumably for sale or for further preparation (grain to turn into bread, or something like this). Here, the ineffective method of getting work done is permitted in order to allow normal eating on Shabbos (that is the usual definition of shinnuy). So the most famous din of sorting (which is only one of 5 interpretations brought in the Talmud, 3 of which are widely accepted as authoritative), which is also often cited as one of our most ridiculous and esoteric cultural norms, actually makes sense. It is simply a way of preventing efficient work on Shabbos.

    And yes, it is generally understood to be “beyn adam la-maqom.” However, if you look at the 10 Commandments as they appear in Devarim, you’ll find an interesting thing: the Torah actually gives you a reason for not working on Shabbos, and it involves the welfare of humans. It says, “Keep the Sabbath […] So that your servant may rest like you […] and remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt […] therefore G-d commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” This mitzvah “beyn adam la-maqom” has very real social and ethical implications.

    So what does “beyn adam la-maqom” mean, if it doesn’t mean that this mitzvah is meaningless for agnostics and atheists? It means that transgressing this mitzvah has no direct (I want to stress the word “direct”) human victim. The terms come up in the context of teshuvah/repentance, and are employed to distinguish transgressions that require one to apologise to another person in order to atone for them from those that do not require this.

    But we can also distinguish between “meaningless” and “dry”: Whilst I think that I’ve given a pretty good example of how a law that is traditionally thought of as rather arcane actually makes sense, that doesn’t mean that it is exciting. That’s a matter of taste. Suffice it to say that there is a midrash that says: “One who knows aggadah (the narrative content of Torah, and homiletics) but not halakhah has no wisdom (hokhmah); One who knows halakhah but not aggadah has no fear of sin.” If one wants to understand Torah, identify its concerns and access its insights, one must study law. Law can be fascinating and enlightening, and it is deeply bound up in ethics and in a wonderfully broad vision of what a society should look like. If you find it dry, that’s a pity.

    One more comment: The concept of a G-d-given Torah can be and has been interpreted in many ways. I suspect that David and I would disagree on the meaning of this statement, and i prefer not to open up this discussion.

    I think that’s it for me for now.

    I hope you’re all having a good week so far. And an enlightening and introspective Elul. If you’re into that kinda thing.

    May good karma flood the world like lukewarm camomile tea.


  • Cyberjew,

    If you take God out of Halacha, you can admire it as a legal system, and for the values and themes it espouses, but it stops there. After that, you are free to pick and choose what you like based on the societal values of the day.

    “Don’t kill?” that only means people who have “quality of life” or people our society considers a race who deserves to survive. “Borer/sorting” will quickly get sorted down to the bottom of the pile. “Kosher?” well, that was only there because pigs were dirty and full of disease.

    With God, the divine associated with every aspect of Halacha, even the stuff we can’t understand using the tools we have.

    As an aside, I disagree with your saying that Shabbat is bein adam l’chavero. The primary reason for Shabbat is as a reminder that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. That is expressed in Yitro. I like to point out that the seven-day week we have is the only non-naturally occurring calendar element.

  • I don’t think that CyberJew said that Shabbat was bein adam l’chavero; I think that he was simply suggesting that it possesses an ethical human element. Besides, what makes you think that the primary reason for Shabbat is the one expressed in Parshat Yitro? Why isn’t the primary reason the one stressed in Parshat Va’Etchanan? It would seem to me that they are both primary reasons. In fact, both reasons are even given, side by side, in the Friday night Qiddush.

    I’m not really a good one to speak up here, because the whole reason that I ended up abandoning mitzvot in the first place was because I stopped believing in God. Or, at least, because I stopped trying to believe. Having spoken over the years with people like CyberJew, and having read a fairly diverse variety of theological opinions, I have come to realise that there are other avenues through which people come to identify, and the path that I was rejecting was merely one of several. I cannot speak for CyberJew (nor want to), but I’ve met some people who live in accordance with halakha and who don’t believe in God at all. That might not have worked for me, but I appreciate that it does work for some.

  • Almoni says:


    nibil obstat

  • ariel says:

    Ahhh Simon, you refer to the “halachic atheist”. I’m certain that there are many of them around, especially in places like B’nei Braq and Me’ah She’arim.

    The question then becomes: are they really adhering to halacha?
    What about the first of the Ten Utterances? “I am Y-H-V-H your G-d…”

    I was by a farbrengen (to use the colloquial statement) the other night where the rabbi told a story of a young lady who went to a Shabbat dinner at a very observant, “non-Chassidic” home, as it was described. When she told them that she admires Chabad because of their enthusiasm and simcha in performing mitzvot the host promptly replied: “Show me where it says in Shulchan Aruch that you have to be happy and enthusiastic?”
    The rabbi said that he told the young lady that she should ask her host if he fulfils the mitzvah of reading the Shma, because it pretty much says “you shall love your G-d with all your heart and all your soul“.

    Not to suggest the gentleman in the story doesn’t believe in G-d, but I’m just pointing out the particular reference in the Shma is another halachah that the “halachic atheist” is not keeping…

  • That’s all well and good, but who of us with a brain is capable of believing something only because they are told to? I think that any believing (and thinking) Jew will tell you that they have additional reasons for placing their faith in God. The Baal HaTanya went to great lengths to justify the Torah’s declaration that you should love God (love, in general terms, being considered an emotion that cannot be invoked by command), but the same caveats can be raised for mandating an awareness of God’s existence in the first place.

    I liked your story, by the way, but only because it’s a story that you told about a story that a Rabbi told, which was about a story that a lady told him, relating a statement made by another party. Ah, the glory of nested narratives.

  • Joy and Love are two very different emotions. Although he could also have drawn on “because you didn’t not serve God with joy and a good heart …” (Devarim, somewhere). In any event, it’s a fantastic story, and resonates well with a Chabadnik like myself.

    The whole issue of the command to believe in God is a very complex one, and whether or not it is a command, or a preamble/prerequisite to the commandments is a matter of dispute. The Baal HaTanya’s approach to the command to love God is less justification, and more an explanation of how the Torah can mandate an emotion.

    Simon – how about a historical study of the “story within a story” … what is the minimum nesting requirement for a good Chassidic tale? ;)

  • cyberjew says:

    Hello people.

    Firstly, allow me to voice my assent to Simon’s peyrush of my statement on Shabbos as including an ethical and social concern. He hit the nail on the head. All I was doing was showing that even “mitzvot beyn adam la-maqom” have ethical implications and reflect a concern for human beings.

    David – Look, I know some frum atheists and agnostics (though the latter term encompasses a massive range of attitudes). A good friend of mine is one of these chaps, a real talmid hakham and a frim guy – and an atheist (although, after talking to him at length about this, I think he’s more of a non-theist. Doesn’t really matter though). But I’m not coming to advocate or judge such a position, I’m just offering a different take from yours. Consider it a makhloykes leshem shomayim.

    I don’t consider myself an atheist or an agnostic (not in the conventional sense anyway). Nor do I consider myself a pure rationalist – although I do believe that we must be faithful to our reason. I believe that the heavenly Torah is black fire on white fire, and that it preceded creation and that the world was created out of it. But I think it’s safe to say that I don’t believe those things in exactly the same way as you do.

    Also, I don’t believe that academic study of Torah is sufficient in and of itself to really fulfil the mitzvah of Talmud Torah in a meaningful sense. But I do believe that without grasping the PSHAT – without grasping the basic, human vision of a given din or narrative – you’ll never get to the sod (and yes, getting to the sod also makes you see the pshat more clearly – as the Vilna Gaon states in his perush on Mishlé).

    Talking about spiritual pipelines is nice, but it’s not informative and it doesn’t render the bulk of Torah meaningful. It also reflects certain laziness in some parts of our community: Everyone loves to talk about souls, spiritual pipelines, and if you’re lucky even sfiros and hishtalshelus. But who wants to sit and learn shas and poskim? Oh, that’s for the “snags”. I’m sorry, but much of this “spiritual” discourse is lazy and intellectually dishonest. You will never understand “the humanity of halakhah” unless you sit on your tukhes and learn, explaining each law and each narrative according to its terminology, its context, and its style. That’s not a “spiritual” process. But the more you learn, the more it falls into place and you get a broad picture of Torah and an insight into its vision. And that can be very powerfully spiritual.

  • Beautifully said. And I have nothing further to offer except to ask you to please write an article in which you explain your conception and rationalisation of this ‘uncreated Torah’. It sounds very Islamic when I say it like that, but I suspect you know what I mean.

    There’s a Chabad Rabbi whose name escapes me (Ya’akov Breuer?), who wrote a collection of short articles, one of which I particularly enjoyed. He stated that, while one might think that the Torah features numerous laws involving oxen and pits, etc, because people keep oxen and people dig pits, the reality is that oxen and pits only exist in the first place because they are in the Torah. The Torah, in other words, is the only reality (the Torah, the Jewish people and God being one entity, according to Sefer HaZohar), and our world is but a manifestation of it. I am assuming that this does not represent your perspective, although I might be wrong.

  • Michael says:

    Cyberjew — are you saying that your interpretation of borer should be meaningful even to someone who doesn’t believe in God?

    David — it can go the other way just as well. Don’t like Palestinians? Invoke the Amalekites Don’t like secular Jews? Invoke the Rambam’s din on celebrating instead of mourning when they die — or don’t (as most halachic Jews).

    Simon — Shabbat is certainly portrayed as being for the benefit of people in the pshat of the Torah, but I think you’d have to agree that the details themselves (39 melachot, muktze etc) are very far removed from this. The underlying halachic question for most disputes is not whether this will enhance the enjoyment of Shabbat — it’s a concern but not the main one.

  • Oy gevalt. Aside from having heard Manis Friedman’s name a thousand times, I don’t really know anything about him. I think I can safely say that what he said does not constitute “Chabad theology”. There are certainly plenty of people who think that way, but the only Lubavitchers I’ve ever met who’ve espoused those sorts of views have been baalei teshuva (generally idiot baalei teshuva, but I don’t know if that’s PC) from America. I’ve never heard an authoritative Chabad Rabbi (or even a Chabad Jew in general, with an IQ higher than 3) say anything that malicious.

    In fact, the only Jews in general whom I’ve ever really heard say such things about the Palestinians have been settlers in Hebron, whose families had been there for “untold generations”, but who all spoke English with a New York accent – for mystical reasons, one presumes.

  • Oh, and that business about Shabbat was me clarifying CyberJew’s statement. That wasn’t my opinion. Nonetheless, I do agree with what you’re saying, and I suspect that he might too. Saying that there’s an ethical dimension to Shabbat does not invalidate the fact that there is a major supernal dimension as well.

  • ariel says:

    Also, Manis Friedman claims to have been taken out of context. He says that he meant that Israel should give the impression that it is willing to destroy the Palestinians alla Amalek, which would ensure that they would never have to actually do it.

    A mashal comes to mind from the movie “The Karate Kid” where Mr Miyagi asks Daniel why he’s learning karate. Daniel answers: “So I won’t have to fight”. I find this profound.

    None of this should be taken as a defence of what Manis Friedman or any other Jew says about equating the Palestinians with Amalek. I’m just conveying the whole story.

    As Simon says, this is not Chabad theology. In fact I encourage you to read

  • ariel says:

    …this amazing account of a conversation between the Lubavitcher and Sadigura Rebbes in 1980

  • Cyberjew,

    We are closer in views than you think. I don’t purport to put the spiritual aspects of Halacha above the practical, and certainly agree with you regarding people who think they can just learn chassidus and not nigleh. It’s like icing and a cake – you can’t just subsist on icing, rather it makes the cake a lot more exciting.

    As an aside, a comment posted on another topic here is very relevant to this post. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef proclaimed that Moshiach will rule Sephardic-style. Whichever way Moshiach does rule, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef implies that as a nation, we will return back to the days of a unified Beis Din/Sanhedrin and away from the multitude of different practices and customs. Talk about culture shock!

  • cyberjew says:

    Michael and Simon – I agree that there’s an element of the transcendent in Shabbat, and an entire chunk of biblical accounts of Shabbat describe a complete created world in an ideal state of worshipful rest.

    But I firmly believe that all 39 melakhot make perfect sense (yes, Michael: I believe they can and should even make sense to a committed atheist). Just read the mishnah which enumerates them in perek klal gadol in massekhet shabbat: The mishnah is a snapshot of the entire industrial machine of a society. (Rashi reads the miqdash-focused account of the melakhot back into the mishnah, but that’s not the pshat – rather he’s taking into account a range of baraytot and midrashim into accoun in his interpretation.) The melakhot are clearly divided into food production, the production of goods, and the transfer of goods. It’s very clear. The legal language takes on a life of its own at a certain point, but all the melakhot make perfect sense, and their application throughout history also makes sense if you just try to work out what’s going on.

    The positive, transcendent quality of shabbat lies primarily (1) in the creation of an “ideal” society (i.e. one without exploitation and slavery – so it’s a profound interpersonal or societal experience) for one day a week, and (2) in the positive commandments of shabbat – to engage in prayer, Torah, and generally delight in Shabbat and the world (‘oneg shabbat, kevod shabbat – I even saw one source (forgot where) which says it’s a mitzvah to go for a nice walk on shabbat – who knew, the shabbos shpatzir is actually a mitzah!).

    Also, I am just using Shabbos as an example – I believe the same holds true of mitzvot in general.

    The thing is, I think that it’s very difficult to skip the intellectual effort and gain profound spiritual insights into Torah. It takes time and effort, and many people want to skip straight to souls and hidden universes without trying to get Shabbat and kashrut (Simon – leave my kashrut shtick alone for now!!!). Any discipline requires effort if you really want to get it. You can’t gain a knowledge of mathematics, physics, linguistics or law from davening hard. Same goes for Torah (although I believe that davening hard helps, but isn’t sufficient).

    Anyway, may you all be happy and joyous.

    (PS: Michael, just a piece of anecdotal evidence about mitzvot making sense even to an atheist: my aforementioned frum atheist friend (who is a professor of biblical studies, incidentally) keeps Shabbat strictly (and to the best of my knowledge has never broken it in his life), keeps kashrut, was for a long time baalkoyre in his shul and I recently discovered that he will not shave with a razor. He believes that mitzvot make sense, and he is passionate about Torah as a cultural and societal system. We disagree on some things, but I think his grasp of Torah is much deeper than most frum yidn. In an interview with a newspaper, a journalist asked him why he keeps Shabbos, and he said, “How can I break Shabbat? It would be like tearing out a part of myself.”)

  • cyberjew says:

    Oh and sorry for the typos. I should’ve read it before submitting it.

  • Chaim says:

    CyberJew – you are a peculiar one…

    I note you seem to intimate but not fully express your difference of opinion with those that believe in G-d and divine origin of Torah…

    I would also appreciate an article from you putting forth your belief or non belief system……. so we mere mortals can understand. Gulus??

  • Chaim says:


    I hope you were not involved given your passion for Halacha…



  • cyberjew says:

    Er, that’s a pretty strange story. Maybe the dispute was over whether or not it’s muttar to kill people?

    Chaim, it’s just sometimes a bit difficult to explain in on-line discussions exactly what one makes of aggadic statements that quite clearly mean something beyond the mere words or images they employ. Try explaining hishtalshelus and various kinds of klippah to people who aren’t familiar with the concepts in a discussion like this. Or the belief (expressed beautifully in Sha’ar ha-Yihud ve-ha-Emunah) that the entire universe is made of Hebrew letters. It would be off the topic, and probably quite frustrating for you to limit yourself to a forum like this that means that you’ll be leaving things out by necessity, just trying to summarise fairly complex and subtle ideas. So I’m not trying to be mysterious, I’m just trying to keep it as relevant as possible.

    And I do plan to write an article at some point – I’m just going through a pretty busy period and won’t get to it for a bit.

  • Stuart says:

    Re David Werdiger’s comment “… the seven-day week we have is the only non-naturally occurring calendar element …”:

    See article at http://www.biblestudy.org/godsrest/mysterious-seven-day-cycle-in-plants-animals-man-1.html
    which refers to Franz Halberg’s research on evidence of innate biological 7-day-cycle rhythms

  • Michael says:

    Simon: The Manis example was only to show that Orthodox Jews also operate by their own social conventions, having their own moral compass and then seeking out halachic concepts to back them up. And I think the fact that he is not mainstream actually supports my argument: he is not mainstream because within the social milieu of the Orthodox world, his arguments are not in line with what most people believe. If most had the same opinion of Palestinians then he would be mainstream.

    Cyberjew: If you think there’s a rational reason for keeping Shabbat then I would like to hear it — at the moment I think you quoted an atheist who DOES keep it without getting into the details. I’m interested to hear an argument that doesn’t mention God on why a person should not tie a knot on Shabbat (and why they should be executed for doing so at a time when the Sanhedrin was sitting, or receive karet today).

    Also if there is a rational reason for doing something you would expect people from all backgrounds to embrace it.

  • ariel says:

    Michael your claim about Manis Friedman that “If most had the same opinion of Palestinians then he would be mainstream” reminds me of the Yiddish saying, “If my aunt had beitzim she’d be my uncle”.

  • Although, in this context, “If my grandmother had wheels she’d be Abbas.”

    No, I don’t suppose that did make sense. As you were.

  • I just had to post this classical joke.

    Two guys have been learning the Talmud together for 20 years. One of them is going to make a bar mitzvah so he says to the other one, “I am making a bar mitzvah and I would like you to come.”

    “I’m sorry, I can’t.”

    “But I really want you to come.”

    “You don’t understand. I just can’t come.”

    “But why can’t you come?”

    “I’m not Jewish.”

    “What do you mean? We have been learning together for 20 years.”

    “I enjoy the intellectual stimulation.”

    “But we learned that a gentile that keep shabbos is ‘chayav misah.’ ”

    “I never kept the shabbat. Every time I was ready to leave my house, I put a key in my pocket.”

    “But we have an eruv here.”

    “I don’t hold from that eruv!”

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