Photo Credit:
Rav Dov Katz

In recent decades it has become increasingly popular in Orthodox circles to answer every question by appealing to halacha. Must I inform a cashier that she has undercharged me – what does halacha say? May I attend a homosexual wedding – what does halacha say? Must I return a lost item to a non-Jew – what does halacha say?

In other words, what matters in the minds of growing numbers of Orthodox Jews is “permitted” and “prohibited.” Right and wrong barely enter the discussion. Indeed, many believe that permitted equals right and prohibited equals wrong.


Yet no less an authority than the Gemara (Bava Metzia 30b) states that Yerushalayim was destroyed(!) because Jews rendered their judgments based on halacha, ignoring the Torah’s exhortation (Devarim 6:18) to go beyond the letter of the law. As Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik famously said, “Halacha is the floor, not the ceiling.” In other words, halacha represents the bare minimum a Jew must do. Indeed, according to the Ramban, the specific dos and don’ts of the Torah leave enough room for a Jew to lead a degenerate life. He can curse to his heart’s desire and gorge himself like a pig and truthfully claim that the Torah neverexplicitly prohibits these acts.

That’s why, the Ramban writes, the Torah contains a general admonition to “be holy” (Vayikra 19:2). To be holy means to take into account an entire realm of behavior not necessarily covered by the Torah’s detailed mitzvos or the specific injunctions of halacha. It means taking seriously such mandates as “you shall walk in God’s ways” and “you shall cleave unto God.” It means studying in depth what some have called the “fifth book of the Shulchan Aruch” – those unwritten rules and behaviors that a true student of Torah ought to perceive between the lines of the explicit.

Alas, some Jews seem to have forgotten this “other” component to Judaism. In 1945 Rav Dov Katz, a close student of the Alter of Slabodka, observed:

It is noticeable that all contemporary dealings with religious problems revolve around the commonly known mitzvos, such as Shabbos, kashrus, synagogues worship, etc. – as if the entire Torah consists only of these few principles and in them alone lies the salvation of Judaism in its entirety. No one protests against heretical views and false conceptions disseminated amongst the masses…. No one cries out against the breakdown of modesty and purity, both abroad and at home, against the desecration of the sanctity of Jewish family life, against the permissiveness that has become rife and that has exceeded all limits. No protests are raised against falsifying weights and measures, lying, cheating, deceit and forgery prevalent in business, against robbery and violence, usury, the withholding of wages and exploitation that fill every corner of the land. No one decries the hatred toward man, the widespread corruption of virtuous conduct, the stupidity and ignorance. No one deplores the disappearance of every vestige of the image of God from the human personality…. These matters, it seems, are not the function of Orthodoxy; they do not enter into the purview of Judaism.

Rav Katz (1901-1979) – whom Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky deems “one of the gedolei ha’mussar” – studied under both Rav Reuven Dov Dessler (father of the author of Michtav Me’Eliyahu) and the Alter of Slabodka and was very close with Rav Yitzchok Hutner, Rav Yechezkel Sarna, and the Ponevizher Rav, among others. He also wrote a highly regarded five-volume history of the mussar movement titled Tenu’as HaMussar.

In the introduction to this work, in which he summarizes the aims and ideals of the mussar movement, Rav Katz sharply criticizes Orthodoxy society’s sense of priorities. Why is it, he asks, that people scrutinize every line of Gemara and halacha but only dabble, at best, in Tanach, midrash, and mussar? How is it that we have reached the stage “where even the Written Torah [is] relegated to the status of a children’s and beginners’ text”?


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Elliot Resnick is the former chief editor of The Jewish Press and the author and editor of several books including, most recently, “Movers & Shakers, Vol. 3.”