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Ancient Torah scroll

Does the study of halakhah lead to philosophic depth?  Or are the disciplines of halakhah and hashkafah utterly separate and distinct? These questions present a false choice. Failure to recognize the falseness of the choice is part of what ails Orthodoxy.  Let me explain briefly.

Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik persuaded our community that halakhah should be the source of hashkafah.  Unfortunately, he was less successful in conveying that it takes a developed philosophic sensibility to derive hashkafah from halakhah.  The result too often was a culture with an impoverished hashkafah, and  even worse, an incapacity to appreciate the contributions and integrity of those who understood the relationship between halakhah and hashkafah differently.


For example: The Rav brilliantly argued that a halakhah-generated hashkafah responds to tragedy by looking for imperatives rather than explanations.  The Jew asks what to do now, not why the past happened.  But the normative response to tragedy is meaningful only if one understands how tragedy might challenge faith.

Intense and conceptually rigorous study of halakhah can, but does not necessarily, lead to hashkafic depth.  A key pedagogic challenge for Orthodoxy is to teach Talmud and Halakhah in a way that nurtures philosophic sensibility as organic to the development of passionately committed Jews who care deeply about the depth, breadth, and rigor of their learning.

Here’s an example of how this could be done in the classroom.

Devarim 5:16 reads:

Honor your father and your mother

as Hashem your G-d commanded you

so that your days will be extended

and so that it will be good for you

on the ground which Hashem your G-d is giving you.

What is the meaning of “on the ground which Hashem your G-d is giving you?  Is there no reward for honoring parents outside Israel?  This topic is addressed in an essay (#245) by Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer in the journal Mevakshei Torah.  Among the sources he cites is the Midrash Tannaim to our verse:

When you are on the ground – there is extension of days and good is to be found;

But these are not found either in the golah/exile or in the toshavot/settlements.

Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman (as cited by Rabbi Sofer) defined these toshavot as follows:

Toshavot are places where the Jews settled “outside the Land”

such as Alexandria of Egypt and the City of Rome

Here we appear to have an early recognition of – and perhaps resistance to – the idea that a thriving Jewish community outside the Land of Israel is not fully in exile.  Teachers in the United States should seize the opportunity to discuss this issue with students.  Can we be “home” and “in Exile” at the same time, just on different axes?

Midrash Tannaim clearly held that honoring parents outside Israel does not generate extended life.  Rabbi Sofer, however, believes that a story on Chullin 110 furnishes conclusive evidence that the Babylonian Talmud held otherwise.

. . ., they brought in a man who would not honor his father and mother,

They prepared him for flogging.

[Rami] said:

Leave him be!

for we learned in a beraita:

“Every mitzvah that has its reward (written) next to it –

the courts Below are not commanded regarding it.

[Rav Chisda] said to him:

I see that you are very sharp!

[Rami] replied:

If you were in the territory of Rav Yehudah, I would show you my sharpness!

Why are “mitzvot that have their rewards written next to them” exempt from humanly administered punishment? Rashi (following Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael) explains that the Torah can be interpreted via implication: If the reward for such mitzvoth is X, it follows that the (only mandated) punishment for them is NOT X.   Since the exemption is derived from the reward, the exemption must apply wherever the reward applies.   Therefore, since the story takes place in Babylonia, the reward must apply even outside Israel.

However, this proof is not compelling.  On Chullin 142a and elsewhere, the Talmud seems to accept the position of Rabbi Yaakov that “extended days” refers to the World to Come, or to Resurrection Time, rather than to an extended life in the here-and-now.

It seems to me that this latter interpretation of the verse is also incompatible with Rami’s argument.  If the reward referred to in the verse is metaphysical, or eschatological, it seems likely that the excluded punishments are as well.  The verse would therefore poses no bar to here-and-now physical punishments.

Rabbi Yaakov’s interpretation is part of his broader position that “there is no reward for mitzvoth in this world”.  This position enables him to sideline the otherwise pressing issue of theodicy, of why bad things happen, especially to good people.

All our opening questions have thus led us to at least two major hashkafic issues – the status of Jewish life outside Israel, and the connection between virtue and success in this world.  It is the teacher’s choice whether these questions are seen as irrelevant or rather as essential, and if the latter, to convince students that properly approaching them requires learning the halakhic topic and texts that triggered them more deeply – and yet to recognize that this is not all that is required.

This, I submit, is what the Orthodox classroom should be like.  Our community will be much healthier to the extent that it absorbs and models this sensibility.