Actions vs Beliefs



A comment on my blog by Michael sparked off a series of emails between us about Modern Orthodoxy. He sent me a series of links about various aspects of MO. I printed one essay for Shabbat reading and read it on Saturday morning. It had been a while since I last read anything as stimulating as “Why Judaism Has Laws”, an essay by David Hazony.

From what I understand when talking about religion with various people around me, all of them non-Jews, some practicing Christians and some atheists, it is clear that for modern Western people the idea of fixed traditional laws is close to anathema. Isn’t independent thinking the ultimate proof that you are a grown-up and mature individual?

David Hazony provides a beautiful and insightful answer. He starts by reminding us that in Judaism results are more important than intentions. It thus follows that the best way to get results is action.

The discipline we need to be led into action is precisely the set of rules (of which even ritualistic laws are alos part and parcel) people would expect us to discard. It trains us to adopt moral habits as opposed to moral beliefs.

Hazony reminds us that American Jews are by far more generous than their non-Jewish neighbors, giving to both Jewish and non-Jewish causes, not because they are nicer but because they are mandated to give a tenth of their income to the needy.

In addition these laws prompt us to do things we might not otherwise do, such as comforting the bereaved or speaking fairly of others. Ultimately they will have an impact on our inner selves. By doing good we become better. By comforting mourners, we become more compassionate and aware of other people’s suffering. Giving charity makes us more charitable.

Hazony concludes by stressing our role in this world. “In Judaism (…) being good is about taking responsibility. It is about making sure we change things for the better. It is not about what we think or feel about things. It is about actually transforming our world.”

David Hazony’s essay can be fund on Azureonline.


10 thoughts on “Actions vs Beliefs

  1. What an incredible article! (I finally finished it after a couple of sittings.) It answers so many questions I’ve been asked but never had the ready words to respond to. It sheds so much light on why Judaism is structured the way it is. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. I’m pleased that people have so enjoyed this essay – I shamelessly like to advertise those sources which I have personally found gratifying. It might be noted that this article is heavily based on Rav Eliezer Berkovits, on whom Hazony is an expert. One of Berkovits’s most important books, God, Man, and History has recently been republished by Shalem Press; this book is the source of a large portion of Rav Berkovits’s philosophical thought on Judaism in general, often adumbrating what he writes about in greater detail elsewhere, and apparently it was a sort of “Bible” for Modern Orthodoxy some years back. Shalem has also published Essential Essays on Judaism, a collection of miscellaneous essays and book chapters by Berkovits. The introduction to that book, also by Hazony, covers some of the same ground as “Why Judaism Has Laws”: Eliezer Berkovits and the Revival of Jewish Moral Thought. Hazony and Shalem are in the process of editing and republishing Berkovits’s other books (which number 19 in total).

  3. Traditionally in Judaism there is a tension between tammei hamitzvot (the meaning behind the laws) and the requirement to obey the laws regardless. If you ignore the reasons behind the laws you can get a lifeless and heartless law. If you give the reasons too much emphasis then one is often tempted to violate the letter of the mitzvot in order to better implement its perceived spirit.

    Frankly, I know too many people who are machmir on kashrut and meikel on gezel to accept that rules per se are the path to correct action. There are times that I find following halacha results my doing things I believe to be wrong. The overwhelming majority of these times I trust in the collective wisdom of those who formulated halacha over my divinely granted instinct for right and wrong. But the end of this path is “I was only following orders halacha.” As always, we must find the middle path.

  4. Thank you for sharing the article, it’s so interesting. What I like about Judaism that it has many laws that oblige us to do things, even though we ourselves don’t benefit from them. For example, accompanying the deceased to the grave is a big mitzva, because we know we do something for a person that won’t be able to do anything back for us. It’s the prototype of chesed, of being less selfcentered in such a selfish world.

  5. Larry,

    I think this is part of what Rambam is aiming at in Shemonah Perakim – the man who keeps the moral laws because G-d said so is deficient, because the purpose of those moral laws is for us to be inculcated with them into the very fiber of our being. On the other hand, the “ritual” laws, however one explains them (Rambam: they are very utilitarian, helping on achieve the Golden Mean; Sefer haHinuch and R’ Hirsch: they are symbolic and educational), they have no purpose save that G-d commanded them, and had He not commanded them, there’d be nothing wrong with them.

    R’ Saadia Gaon, in like wise, says that with the “ritual” laws, there may be an intellectual justification for them which makes sense, but even after we’ve found the ta’am, it isn’t so compelling that we’d have established it ourselves had G-d not done so. For example, eating matzah on Pesah reminds us that we were slaves, but however laudatory this is, would we have created this law ourselves had G-d not?

    Rav Berkovits in his God, Man, and History, notes that the Muslim theologians had two schools of thought: either reason has no validity at all whatsoever in the face of revelation, or alternatively, reason preempts revelation and revelation merely got us the information sooner. Rav Berkovits says both views miss the point: on the one hand, there is nothing to say that G-d couldn’t be evil, and so we mustn’t throw out reason; on the other hand, the point of revelation may not be so much to tell us what we didn’t know, but rather, to make it a binding imperative: even if murder and theft are obviously wrong, we are liable to violate them for our own personal gratification, with disingenuous justification if we can so muster. Kant proved that it is logical to be moral, but who says we are obligated to be logical? The answer: revelation.

    Rabbi Leo Adler takes a different tack in his The Biblical View of Man. He notes that Greek philosophy tremendously overestimated the power of reason, and assumed that knowing what is good will automatically lead to doing good; Christianity, on the other hand, says that man is doomed to sin. Judaism, he says, lies in between: man has a G-dly nature and knows what is good and is capable of doing good, BUT, he has a powerful yetzer hara which can overpower his intellect and compel him to justify (often subconsciously) whatever it is that will sensually gratify him. The key insight of the Torah then, he says, is not that it provides man anything he didn’t know in the philosophical or metaphysical realm (as the Jewish philosophers would have it), but rather, that it provided key psychological and insights into man’s nature, and what it would take pedagogically to reform his nature. He notes that Hovot haLevavot asks: given reason, what is the purpose of revelation? Hovot answers that the generation of Sinai was simply intellectually weak and needed revelation as a crutch. Besides the weak answer, Rabbi Adler notes that the very asking of the question indicates the pernicious effect of Greek philosophy, and he suggests this is why Hazal said what they said about it.

    It will be seen that Berkovits and Adler say different things, that are however very simple to make mutually complementary. It might be noted that Adler grew up in Hirschian early-20th century Germany and later learned in the Mussar-ish Mir yeshiva, and Berkovits learned under Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg, Mussar-gadol turned Hirschian, and both had philosophy degrees from German universities.

    An aside: it is interesting to note that according to the reading of Shemonah Perakim by Professor Lawrence Kaplan, Rambam himself sanctions violation of the Torah in favor of the ta’am. Rambam says that if one truly serves Hashem, then he ought to do everything l’shem shamayim, even if it is an averah from some aspect. Kaplan notes that Rambam advocates listening to music to cure melancholy, and yet Rambam in one of his responsa, categorically forbids listening to any and all music, as an unequivocal prohibition with no exceptions, even for the melancholy. Unless Rambam changed his mind, we can only assume that he means that even though listening to music is forbidden, the melancholy should do so anyway. Tzarich iyun. But if all this is correct, it is anyway all part and parcel of Rambam’s extremely utilitarian view of ta’amei mitzvot in Shemonah Perakim, which is hardly accepted by very many at all.

    As for being machmir on kashrut on meikil on money, Rav Hirsch said that one could write a treatise on the damage done by people learning only Orah Hayim of the Shulhan Aruch. More, he had an expression, “Glatt kosher? Glatt yosher!” If one truly believes in G-d, and truly believes in His commandments, then one putting kashrut over ethics is either lying or doesn’t know what G-d really wants; if anything, His true purpose in the world (as He says to Avraham) is tzedaka and mishpat; no matter how you explain it, kashrut and such are adjuncts to this. Indispensable adjuncts, but adjuncts all the same – G-d did not create the world for the sake of kashrut or matzah on Pesah!

    You say, “There are times that I find following halacha results my doing things I believe to be wrong. The overwhelming majority of these times I trust in the collective wisdom of those who formulated halacha over my divinely granted instinct for right and wrong. But the end of this path is “I was only following orders halacha.” As always, we must find the middle path.”

    I sympathize with this sentiment. The Torah says to follow the judges to the left and right, and the Bavli comments, “Even if they say left is right and right is left”. But the Yerushalmi says, “Could you think that if they say left is right and right is left, then you are to follow them? No! Only if they say right is right and left is left do you follow them!” The commentators usually resolve this contradiction by saying that if you are totally and completely sure of yourself, follow the Yerushalmi; if you are only equivocally and hesitantly sure, follow the Bavli. But where is the line between the two? What if I am absolutely positively sure that despite the Torah’s prohibition, homosexuality or some such is permissible? I do not know. All I know is: if we honestly believe the Torah is m’Sinai, and that G-d is truly the Commander, then any of our dissonances and disagreements will be l’shem shamayim, and we will be doing what we are doing not for ourselves, but rather because we believe it is right even according to G-d, and hopefully, if we are wrong, G-d will have mercy. The hidden things are for G-d, but the revealed for us. We can only do the best we can, and hope for His mercy for all else. Obviously, for all this, one must learn all he can – if a certain law seems morally disagreeable, then he ought to do everything he can to learn the sources; maybe he’ll find a reasonable justification, or maybe he’ll find an alternative legal ruling by another commentator. If one cannot cannot such an explanation or alternative ruling, and so his only choice is to either violate the law or follow it even though it seems wrong, when does he do which? I do not know – אין לנו על מי להשען אלא על אבינו שבשמיים – we have no one on whom to rely save our Father in Heaven.

  6. How could I forget??!! Rav Hirsch, on the subject which Rav Berkovits and Rav Adler deal with, says the following:

    Truly, man can indeed conceive of the need for social morality. Murder and theft and such and of course obviously wrong to most. But this is often only utilitarianly and for political expediency. But for the sake of true morality, for the sake of man’s tzelem elokim, only revelation can tell you this. (We might see this as an adumbration for what Rav Adler says.) Moreover, our reason can only tell us the basics – murder is wrong, but what of abortion? It takes revelation to grant us the full details. (Rav Saadia Gaon says exactly the same.)

    Rav Hirsch there makes another fascinating point: with the hukkim, we are liable to study them and then not do them – I’ve studied the Shulhan Aruch on the subject of kashrut, but will I remember to be machmir in practice? On the other hand, with mishpatim, we are liable to keep them in practice, but neglect to study their laws – how many of us (myself included) have studied Hoshen Mishpat to see what is permissible with money?

    In the same location, Rav Hirsch also discusses limudei hol in the context of Torah im Derech Eretz, and the imperative to violate any law of the Torah to save a life, save the Big Three. He makes a fascinating hiddush:
    murder = epitome of bein adam l’havero
    idolatry = epitome of bein adam lamakom
    sexual immorality = epitome of bein adam L’ATZMO – true, you are hurting no one: no one but yourself! This is a fascinating insight which I first saw in Rabbi Benjamin Blech’s Understanding Judaism, in the name of the Vilna Gaon.

    Rav Hirsch there also discusses how the insights of the Torah into life and human nature are NOT for Jews only, but for all humanity – this is the law which if a MAN keeps he shall live.

    All this in his comment to Vayikra 18:4-5, found at See for many more articles on Rav Hirsch.

  7. Rabbi Adler too extends the Torah to be educational for all mankind, as noted by his translator. There is a midrash that the snake injected poison into Eve, but that Sinai took it away, and another that G-d created the yetzer hara and the Torah as its antidote. The original midrashim speak of Jews, but Rabbi Adler extends their lesson to apply to all of humanity. Rabbi Hertz in his famous Humash does the same, in his essay on “The Fall” in the back of Genesis. This basic idea of extending the Torah to all mankind would be a golden thread in Rav Hirsch’s writings, as can be seen from his comment to Vayikra 18:4-5; I could adduce hundreds of sources in Rav Hirsch had I the time.

    Okay, I think I’ve said enough by now – if I write more, I’ll be guilty of stealing this blog!

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