For an outsider, Jewish law (Halachah) can be a daunting discipline, but the beauty of Halachah is that it transforms the ordinary into the spiritual. Conversation, eating, sex, family, and even sunrise and sunset become opportunities for the sacred, and in any given moment, one can draw the Divine down to earth.
But the discipline of Halachah is so intense that it’s easy for someone to fixate on the rules and lose sight of the goals. The Talmud calls this type of person a “pious fool” and offers as an example a man who refuses to help a drowning woman because it’s immodest to hold her. In the name of following Halachah, these so-called pious men forget about the basics of morality.
Halachah is intended as a way to bring us close to God, but that can only work when we put God first. When we forget God, Halachah can be a heartless discipline. The rabbis of the Talmud saw clearly how Halachah could be misused by the smug and small-minded, and reminded us to always put God first.
I write this now because too often pious fools make headlines in the Jewish press. They imagine they follow the ways of great rabbis, but the opposite is true. The greatest of rabbis always put God first. In 1802, Rav Chaim of Volozhin grappled with the case of a woman whose husband was presumed dead, but there was a dearth of evidence to permit her to remarry. Rav Chaim boldly disputes precedents and permitted her to remarry. He explains that he did so because, “I have thought together with my Creator, and saw it was my obligation to use all my might to find a solution for agunot. May God save me from mistakes.” Rav Chaim recognized that to follow Halachah, one must look to serve God and alleviate the suffering of a bereaved widow.
No anecdote can make this point better than one told by Rabbi Abraham Twersky about two great rabbinic leaders: “On the return from a convention in which many Torah sages participated, the train made stops in several towns, whose Jewish communities came out to greet the gedolim. The Chafetz Chaim, however, in his profound humility, never went on the train platform to meet the people. Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin, although he was a young man, boldly approached the elderly sage. ‘Why aren’t you going out to meet the people?’ he asked. The Chafetz Chaim answered, ‘Why should I go out? What is it that they want to see? I don’t have horns on my head. It is because they have this idea about me that I am a tzaddik (righteous), and if I go out to them, I am making a statement about myself that I am someone special.’ Rav Meir Shapiro asked, ‘And what is wrong with making such a statement?’ The Chafetz Chaim said, ‘What do you mean ‘what is wrong?’ It is ga’avah (arrogance).’ Rav Meir Shapiro said, ‘And if it is ga’avah, so what?’ The Chafetz Chaim said, ‘Ga’avah is a terrible aveirah (sin).’ Rav Meir Shapiro said, ‘And what happens if one does an aveirah?’
“The Chafetz Chaim said, ‘Why, for an aveirah one will be punished in Gehenom (hell).’ Rav Meir Shapiro said, ‘Throngs of Jews will have pleasure from seeing you. Aren’t you willing to accept some punishment in order to give Jews pleasure?’
“From then on, every time the train pulled into a station, the Chafetz Chaim was the first one on the platform to meet the people.”
This attitude needs to inform every aspect of our halachic observances. We need to think about morality and spirituality before, during and after opening the Shulchan Aruch. If Halachah is to have any meaning, it must lead us closer to God, to love our fellow Jew and to serve humanity. Simply put, we must love God more than Halachah.