Why Keep Halacha?

 

The question of why should one keep Halacha seems like it would have a relatively easy answer.  To the one who believes with complete faith that the Torah is a document given to the Jews directly from God, the answer would simply be “because God said so!”  Conversely, to the person who does not believe in the Torah and Sinai narrative, the question would seem to be useless.  He would simply answer “why keep a random string of commandments, when I do not believe it was God who commanded them?”

However I think that the answer on both sides is a bit more nuanced than that.  Even if one fully believes in the story at Sinai does that really translate into him or her accepting to keep every single Mitzvah, Rabbinical commandment, and Minhag with their tedious details?  And if one does not necessarily believe in the Torah, does this mean that there is no point in Halachic observance whatsoever?

When it comes to any single commandments there are always those who try and search out the underpinning reasons and rational for every detail of the Mitzvah.  It seems that our tradition is split when it comes to the question of “should one search out the reason for a specific Mitzvah?  On the one hand, we can learn more and better connect to an individual Mitzvah if we study its background and reasons intensely.  On the other hand, if one decides that the reason for a specific Mitzvah do not apply to them, they have an easy rational to cease their adherence to that commandment.

This discussion brings us to a fascinating Midrash in Parsha Ki Tatze

What is the meaning of, for they shall be a chaplet of grace unto thy head?  R. Phinehas son of Hama said, Wherever you go, pious deeds will accompany you.  WHEN YOU BUILD A NEW HOUSE THEN YOU SHALL MAKE A PARAPET FOR YOUR ROOF (Deuteronomy 6:9); if you have put on a new garment, the precepts accompany you, as it is said, YOU WILL NOT MINGLE STUFF (Deuteronomy 22:11); if you have gone to cut the hair of your head, the precepts accompany you, as it is said, YOU WILL NOT ROUND THE CORNERS OF YOUR HEAD (Leviticus 19:27); if you have a field and you have gone to plow therein, the precepts accompany you, as it is said, YOU WILL NOT PLOW WITH A DONKEY AND AN ASS TOGETHER (Deuteronomy 22:10); if you are about to sow it, the precepts accompany you, as it is said, YOU WILL NOT SOW YOUR VINYARD WITH TWO TYPES OF SEEDS (Deuteronomy 22:9); and if you reap it, the precepts accompany you, as it is said, WHEN YOU REAP YOUR HARVEST AND FORGOT A SHEAF IN YOUR FIELD (Deuteronomy 24:19).  God said, Even if you are not engaged on any particular work but merely journeying on the road, the precepts accompany you.  Whence is this?  For it is said, IF A BIRD’S NEST CHANCE TO BE BEFORE THEE IN THE WAY (Deuteronomy 24).

Reading this Midrash, it seems as if each individual commandment has no specific purpose in its exact details.  The Mitzvot are there so that any time or place that we happen to find ourselves we have laws and commandments to accompany us.  A Mitzvah is not a magical ceremony in which we do so to change God’s mind, rather the Mitzvot are there so we can connect to a Higher Source of Power in everything we do.  We do not need to sit around in a Beit Midrash or Beit Kennest all day to connect to God, nor do we need to exile ourselves to the wilderness and sit alone for days in our thoughts.  As the Midrash states, every unique event and time throughout your life brings about a different Mitzvah, each with its own specific details, for us to focus on.

So what if I do not believe that each Mitzvah was given to us directly from God?  Why would I keep the Mitzvot?  And even if I do believe that God commanded a specific Mitzvah, do I really think that God cares about the precise details?

To answer the second question first, I really don’t think that God cares about the exact detail, however I believe that God cares that we care.  In the end, it makes no difference if we daven at the exact right minute or if our Eruv lies an inch off; however when we fill our lives with these details it allows us to connect to God in a way that would be impossible otherwise.  As for the person who is skeptical regarding the origin of the Torah there is still great value in the details of the Mitzvot.  Assuming one still believes in God (A big assumption I know! perhaps I’ll discuss atheism in a future week), one would still want a way to be able to connect and tap into that higher power.  In our history we have been able to create a rich tradition filled with commandment all for the single purpose of connecting to God.  We don’t need to keep the Mitzvot because we believe they are God’s word, we can keep the Mitzvot because they allow us to be connected to God.

Using this logic, there are other ways to connect to God, and none that are Objectively correct.  As long as one is not harming anyone with his or her religious observance it is a reasonable way to tap in to a higher source.  As for me however, I chose to stick to the route that has worked for my ancestors for thousands of years.  Even if the Torah was a document completely compiled by human beings, it should make no difference.

Imagine a son who spends years writing a song for his father.  Every time that son wants to make the father happy he goes and sings that song to his dad.  From the dad’s point of view the song is beautiful, not because he commanded his son to write and sing it, but simply because out of his son’s love for his father, he went out of his way to create something special that he can use to connect to his father.  Even if the Torah is not God’s direct word, there is still value in us holding strong to its commandments.

 

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3 thoughts on “Why Keep Halacha?

  1. “We don’t need to keep the Mitzvot because we believe they are God’s word, we can keep the Mitzvot because they allow us to be connected to God”.

    Although I understand what you are saying in this regard… I think that what you mean is “We do not need to keep the Mitzvot because we believe they are Gd’s word; rather, we keep them because they make us BELIEVE we are connected to Gd.” Although this is a little more nuanced, it is more consistent with the rest of your claims.

    In that vein– what makes Judaism special then? If, we say, that these Mitzvot are not from Gd… but nevertheless make him happy, so to speak, then what stops us from making up our own means to connect to Gd? Perhaps for me, connecting to Gd is going out into nature and feeling one with his creations. In that sense, I do not need a specific Mitzvah of the Eruv (to use your example) in order to connect with Him. If you claim that the Eruv has more of these “details” implemented into its action, and it is these details that make the Mitzvot special, then I can say that I can come up with an elaborate list of rules in regard to how I should go out into nature and appreciate it such that I connect with Gd. Say, I come up with my own prayer every time I see a sunflower versus a lily. Say, every I come up with a system in which I must hike a certain distance a day such that I fulfill my “Chiuv” of doing my “nature mitvah”. Once you claim that it is the details that matter, I can add details to almost any action I do over the course of the day. What makes the Mitzvot in the Torah special, then?

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    1. On the one hand I agree that if a person comes up with an entirely new set of rituals and that set of rituals helps them feel closer to God then they should go for it. However as Jews we have a few thousand years of history practicing certain rituals and learning certain texts. Part of living a life filled with God is being a part of a community or an environment that is complimentary to a person’s service to God. We already have communities of Jews set up across the world – whereas I do not know of many hiking religions (although I do love hiking!)

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