Author: Yankie Schwartz
Publisher: Targum Press
In recent years, the attitude dubbed “orthopraxy”, the notion that holds that fulfillments of halakha is sufficient on its own terms without serving, or being subordinate to, any higher purpose , has become fashionable in some circles. Most famously advocated by the late distinguished Israeli scientist Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Orthopraxy – which has become accepted practically if not avowedly by many Orthodox Jews, both in the US and Israel – has found a number of other proponents as well, a disproportionate number of whom are among the intellectual elite.
If you want a demonstration of the effect that this thinking has had on many people, ask Orthodox Jews you know what their purpose in this world is. Don’t be surprised if a large number of them answer, “To learn Torah and do mitzvos.”
Without even criticizing many of their basic premises – that few beliefs are halakhically mandated, that there is sufficient variety among Jewish thinkers throughout time to provide historical support for your beliefs no matter what you believe, etc. – it is important to ask: Is that the vision that G-d and Chazal had in mind? What was their own thinking about the purpose of Jewish law and study?
Formulated this way, the answer is obvious. The goal of halakha, and for that matter all of Jewish religious life, is personality development. Chazal say so explicitly: “The purpose of Torah is repentance and good deeds.” The mitzvos are diverse and multifaceted, but are all designed in order to refine our character traits and make us better people. Interestingly, both Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, in his seminal essay “The Dialectic of the Halakha”‘, and Rabbi Dov Katz, in his introduction to his history of the Mussar movement, use the laws concerning the eved ivri, the Hebrew indentured servant, to show how ethical precepts are bound up with Jewish law. It is certainly correct that we should be learning Torah and doing mitzvos (though we should also be doing many other things that are probably not properly described as mitzvos – see, e.g., Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s wonderful essay, Does Judaism Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakha? in Leaves of Faith vol. 2), but that isn’t the point of our life. The point of life is to become a better people.
Unfortunately, the complexity and difficulty of observing all the mitzvos and rabbinic edicts leaves many of us with little patience to spend time understanding how observance of the minutiae of halakha enhances our character. Almost certainly, the explanation for this is not that to do so would take a large investment of time, but that our perspective is not trained on that aspect of halakha. The sad result of this neglect is that we do not properly benefit from much of the positive potential of Jewish religious life.
In his short book, Ponderables, Yankie Schwartz seeks to correct this distortion. It is written in the form of a series of short vignettes on themes relating to character-building, faith in G-d , and other topics that hopefully will help the reader orient his or her thinking to become more positive and open to religious growth. Yankie, an insurance consultant, is familiar with many of the challenges that face religious people in today’s workplace and his book is written in a way that can give them the emotional courage to deal with their challenges productively.