Few matters are as misunderstood as Judaism’s “obsession with the law.” In the life of a religious Jew, not a moment goes by that he is not reminded of his obligations as stated in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law). While later authorities have sometimes disagreed with certain decisions laid out in this legal code, and have even ruled differently, Halacha is still at the center of Jewish life and is relentless in its demands. Nearly every moment in the life of a Jew is codified, sometimes touching on seemingly absurd details, such as the way he has to tie his shoe, or how many grams of matza he must eat on the first night of Pesach. (1)
Judaism has never had a finalized or dogmatic belief system like we find in the Church. Not even Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith were fully accepted by later thinkers. Throughout the centuries and to this very day, there has been an ongoing debate about what the Jew is obligated to believe. Halacha, on the other hand, is far more normative and standardized. Moses Mendelssohn’s famous observation, “The spirit of Judaism is freedom in doctrine and conformity in action,” is most illuminating. Judaism is basically a religion, without an authorized theology, in which the correct deed is much more valued than any of its beliefs.
Since the earliest days, this “obsession with law” has often been attacked, even ridiculed, by Christian thinkers as well as by some of the most sophisticated philosophers in modern times. Benedictus Spinoza, Emanuel Kant and many others have accused Judaism of extreme behaviorism, in which man loses his freedom and is imprisoned in a web of laws that make his life miserable and devoid of any simcha (joy). How, after all, could such a system be conducive to the kind of life we all long to live? Where is its spirituality?
Even more surprising is the fact that Jews throw a party every time another member of their community is literally coerced to comply with all these laws. The bat-mitzvah girl and the bar-mitzvah boy are both forced into this covenant-of-the-law when they respectively turn twelve and thirteen years old. While up to that moment they are not obligated by any of these laws—except for educational reasons—and are therefore able to still enjoy their freedom, all of this changes overnight when they reach the age of twelve or thirteen. Instead of a party, one would expect a gathering of heavy-hearted people where these children mourn and are offered consolation, similar to when people have just lost a dear one. After all, losing one’s freedom is not much different from losing life itself.
Yet, religious Jews throw a party, dance and sing and are as happy as they can be when one of its members reaches the age of twelve or thirteen. Nothing better can happen to them then when their children enter this covenant of duties. Jews have an inborn love for the law. Anyone who has ever studied in a yeshiva cannot forget the joy that permeates the study hall when a student manages to discover a new law, or even invent one when no law was known to exist. While Orthodox Jews sometimes seem to be more in love with the law than with God, demonstrating that they do not see the forest for the trees, one cannot help but be flabbergasted by the fact that they would almost give up their lives for one little law that seems, in the eyes of others, to be of no importance, and even ridiculous.
What is the mystery behind this devotion?
Religious Jews carry a secret that few people have understood. For them, freedom can be earned only by great discipline. One needs to conquer it every moment of one’s life and work hard to maintain it. Freedom is the will to be responsible. It is a mental state, not just a physical condition. Its primary requirement is to live for something that is worth dying for. A life without a mission is not worth being born into. In the words of Avraham Joshua Heschel, “the dignity of man stands in proportion to his obligations.”
There is no greater injustice than bringing children into the world without giving them a mission to live for. While most people today believe that one should not burden children with obligations, but rather allow them to make their own choices, Judaism teaches us that giving a child the feeling that he has a moral task to fulfill is giving him the option to experience immense joy. “Joy” says Spinoza, is man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection. Sorrow is man’s passage from a greater to a less perfection.” (Ethics,3,defs.2,3)
Most employees will complain when asked by the manager to take on a difficult task and will try to free themselves of the assignment. What they don’t realize is that by doing so they miss out on exactly what they are looking for—a compliment. A wise manager will know the art of assessing his employee’s abilities properly. By giving him a difficult task, he sends the strong message, “I believe in you.” Every challenge presented is, in fact, a vote of confidence: “I know you can do it.”
It is for the above reasons that religious Jews revel in their many obligations. They do not see these as a yoke, but rather as a tribute and praise to their greatness and unlimited potential. For them, they are not just 613 obligations (2) but above all else, they are 613 compliments. To them, the question is not why we have so many obligations; the question is why so few compliments. Only 613? It is this feeling that prompts them to look for many more, and they will sometimes use the most farfetched arguments to discover yet another law. They will debate back and forth just to discover one more compliment, as if searching for a diamond. And nothing motivates them more than enjoying this.
When their children reach the age of twelve or thirteen, parents are elated at the prospect that they too will now enter into the covenant of compliments. For that they will certainly throw a party, whatever the cost. It is their ultimate moment of joy. And even if the non-religious (Israeli or Diaspora) Jew no longer understands this truth, but still insists that his daughter celebrate her bat-mitzvah, or that his son celebrate his bar-mitzvah, that insistence indicates that deep down he still knows what it really means to be a Jew.
One of the greatest tragedies in the Jewish community today is that even many Orthodox Jews no longer realize the significance of what they celebrate or what they are committed to. A covenant of compliments: no greater freedom exists.
Reprinted with author’s permission from The Times of Israel