On halacha and being human

Thirty years ago I once went to a non-kosher restaurant with my university friends. They all ordered their cheeseburgers or whatever it was and I sat there with the food in front of me. It smelled good and I was hungry but I didn’t touch it. They were very impressed that I was able to do this. They didn’t understand that it wasn’t even a temptation for me.

I think back to that incident now after studying a Talmudic discourse about sheep and cows. I’ll explain what I mean but be patient while I give a little introduction first.

People are used to thinking of halacha as referring to the huge corpus of Jewish law in all of its minute detail. When a Jew asks “What is the halacha?” he wants to know how he’s supposed to behave in one situation or another as far as Jewish law is concerned. This includes religious obligations or bans and directives as well as how to behave in specific life situations. Halacha makes up the framework for the judicial system. As in any system of law and order there are also repercussions for breaking the law. In addition to this many areas of halacha don’t belong to the jurisdiction of the court and nonetheless they are still important religious obligations which have a consequence on the spiritual plane. A person’s behavior has a profound effect on his relationship with God, self and other.

The root letters of the word are heh-lamed-chof, meaning to walk. Halacha is the way we walk and move through life in this world.

All of this is true and yet halacha is so much more than an instruction manual for how to live. Judaism is not a religion with its set of rites and rituals as every religion has its set of rites and rituals. Halacha informs the optimal meaning of being human.

Thus the painstaking analysis and clarifications by which the bottom-line halacha is arrived at is itself part of what it means to live halacha. A deeper meaning of life itself becomes revealed in the process.

For example, if a robber steals someone’s sheep by leading it out of the pen and the sheep eat the neighbor’s radishes, the robber is responsible for the loss of the radishes. He has effectively taken ownership of the sheep by leading it there. What if the robbers didn’t lead the sheep but only blocked the sheep’s way from all directions except for the radishes. Without touching the sheep, he has forced it to eat the neighbor’s crops.

We are considering this tactic as a way to force the sheep to eat because we are assuming that sheep cannot possibly have food placed right in front of them and not eat it. Thus the halacha is not only telling us about the robbers’ responsibility. It also informs us of the nature of sheep.

If that’s the case, what does that say by inference about human beings? If a human being has food placed right in front of him, does that mean he must eat it? My friends of 30 years ago apparently thought so. But I felt I had a choice. I’m not saying this in order to boast. Everyone has temptation of one sort or another. Non-kosher food was a no-brainer for me. I didn’t feel forced to eat it just because it was in front of me. I’m not sure I could “just say no” to quality kosher chocolate if I was craving it. I’m not sure I could just say “no” to complaining about someone to a third party if I felt unable to confront the person in question myself.

What sets human beings apart from animals, among other things is the ability to say “no.” Human beings don’t always succeed in saying “no” but in that case they are not acting like human beings.

Frankl’s emphasis on the spiritual dimension is to say we know that human beings can behave like animals but we also know that the human spirit is always present, hidden as it is at times. We can access it!


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