Photo Credit:
Rav Dov Katz

Rav Katz quotes the Chovos Halevavos (11th century) who in a similar fashion asks why so many books are written on the “duties of the limbs” – mitzvos like putting on tefillin – while barely any are written on the more important “duties of the heart” – mitzvos like fearing G-d and walking in His ways. The Chovos Halvavos relates:

One of the Sages was once asked a bizarre, hypothetical question, relating to the laws of divorce. He answered his questioner as follows: “You who ask concerning that which brings no harm if one does not know it, do you know all that you are obligated to know of commandments which may not be ignored or neglected such that you have time to think of strange questions which will further you neither in Torah nor in faith, and which will not help you overcome the faults of your personality? I swear that for 35 years, now, I have been working on what I need to know of the Torah’s commandments…and yet I have never had the time to think of the question which you have posed.”

According to Rav Katz, the mussar movement believed the essence of Judaism is not halacha but rather ethical and spiritual perfection. That’s why the Torah consists mostly of stories, not halachos.Even halacha, Rav Katz argues, is designed to perfect man’s character: “The final goal is not the act per se, but the intentions and thoughts that go with it, the tremor that the deed transmits to the soul, the personality change it effects.”


Some Jews understand this point, but unfortunately others don’t. In just the past year, a Modern Orthodox boy performed a comedy routine on national television with grossly inappropriate jokes; a chassidic singer was referred to in the media as the “Jewish Elvis”; and several prominent Litvish roshei yeshiva felt it necessary to urge their constituents not to cheat credit card companies with “manufactured spending” schemes.

Is this what the Torah had in mind when it urged us to be holy? Is this what the Torah had in mind when it urged us to walk modestly with our God? In Lithuania, Jews used to say, “A priest is frum, a Jew is ehrlich.” Is it ehrlich to cheat – even if halacha permits it in a particular circumstance? Is it ehrlich for a chassid to act in a manner that inspires comparisons with Elvis Presley (and Lady Gaga, too, incidentally)?

No one is perfect, and each of us may fail on occasion to live up to the Torah’s ideals. But we must at least know these ideals exist. Judaism is not Orthopraxy. It’s not just a religion of dos and don’ts, of permitted and prohibited. It’s also a religion of the right and the good.

Editor’s note: Rav Katz’s introduction to “Tenu’as HaMussar, which was out of print for 40 years, was republished in August by Elliot Resnick together with a biography of the author by his son, Rav Yehoshua Katz, ashkenazic rav of Ma’ale Adumim. The new volume is called “Perfection: The Torah Ideal” and is available at,, and select Judaica stores.


Previous articleJacob’s Destiny, Israel’s Name
Next articleIrony Of Ironies: Arab Countries Bearing Biblical Hebrew Names
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.”