It is sad but true that Christianity has a long history of denigrating first- and second-century Judaism as dry “legalism,” by which is meant an excessive and misguided emphasis on strict law to the exclusion of spirituality, on obedience to the minutiae of mitzvot rather than on having faith in God’s grace. The charge, first launched in the ancient world got an enormous boost from Immanuel Kant, who claimed Judaism lacks not only reason, but also worse, ethical content, in comparison with Christianity.
A helpful article in Time Magazine summarizes it this way:
For centuries, the discipline of Christian "Hebraics" consisted primarily of Christians cherry-picking Jewish texts to support the traditionally assumed contradiction between the Jews — whose alleged dry legalism contributed to their fumbling their ancient tribal covenant with God — and Jesus, who personally embodied God's new covenant of love.
(The same article explains the sea change that has taken place in the world of Christian scholarship in recent years. The article continues: “But today seminaries across the Christian spectrum teach, as Vanderbilt University New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine says, that ‘if you get the [Jewish] context wrong, you will certainly get Jesus wrong.’” This is highly encouraging progress.)
Certainly Torah speaks a great deal about commandments and God’s behavioral expectations of Israel. It’s difficult to imagine any moral religious, political, or social system that lacks criminal, civil, business, and family laws to regulate human interactions. In some societies, both ancient and modern, it is the prerogatives of the powerful and wealthy that laws are designed to protect. In the Bible, the laws aim to protect the needs of the most vulnerable, which is not to say that it always succeeds by our 21st century moral standards. The covenant between God and Israel is characterized by God’s concern not only with how we treat one another and strangers in our midst, but also with how we treat the environment and how we worship God.
In this context we find this exhortation in Parshat Acharei Mot, echoed in many places in Torah:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their statutes. My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 18:1-4)
What Egyptian and Canaanite practices does Torah have in mind? The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) says that these verses refer to the religious practices of Egypt and Canaan, limiting the scope of the verse. Further commentary makes it clear that this is not ironclad rule. When Jews live in a host country, Talmud (B.Gittin 10b) tells us that civil law is binding; the principle is dina d’malkhuta dina - “the law of the land is the law.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) drew a different distinction: “We may imitate the nations among whom we live in things that are based on reason but not on things relating to religion or superstition.”
The S’fat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847–1905) takes an entirely different approach in his explanation of this passage, one that appears to address the Christian charge of “dry legalism,” so rife in his lifetime. He tells us that this is a difficult passage to understand. We might think it refers to illicit or perverse sexual liaisons (as some classic commentators maintain), but were that so, why does Torah specify the deeds of Egypt and Canaan alone? And why be concerned only with forbidden sexual acts, when the impermissible sexual behaviors are delineated in detail throughout the remainder of Leviticus chapter 18? The S’fat Emet writes:
Rather, the intent is that in all our deeds we not do things as they are done in Egypt and Canaan. Every deed has an inner and outer side; the [inner] root of all things is surely in holiness, since all was created for God’s glory. This innermost point has been given to Israel. That is the meaning of the teaching, Let all your deeds be for the sake of heaven (Pirke Avot 2:12).
The S’fat Emet is telling us that if we have the right mindset, every act can be l’shaym shamyim (for the sake of heaven). The laws of Egypt and Canaan were carved into stone — they were merely rules; the mitzvot of God are engraved on the heart — they possess the potential for holiness. He writes:
We have also explained that through the commandments one draws life into all things. Hence performance of mitzvot animates the life force in us and calls the sacred into our lives. That is why, he reminds us, berakhot (blessings) recited before performing a mitzvah include the words, “…who made us holy with his commandments…”
Jewish practices, then, should not be a matter of rote observance and obedience (what the S’fat Emet calls the “outer side”), but rather of sacred intension and connection with the divine (the “inner side”). Jewish observances should not be an end in themselves, as so often happens when people get caught up in counting, comparing, and competing. Mitzvot should be a means to engaging with the divine, of drawing the sacred into our lives, of sanctifying the moments of our lives. As the S’fat Emet reminds us, the words “…who made us holy with his commandments…” can help us to get it right, so that our practices are saturated with religious and spiritual meaning and value. Quality over quantity. Meaning over mass. Holiness over hollowness.
This is not easy to accomplish, but if we can punctuate our lives with sacred moments and acts, the depth of our practice will increase, and we will be drawn in further to the world of meaning that mindful Jewish practice creates. This week, or this coming shabbat, choose a particular mitzvah or tradition and spend some time preparing by learning more about it and considering what meaning it can have for you. How can it enlarge your perspective, boost your spirit, enhance your life, elevate your neshamah (soul)? What religious or spiritual message can it convey to you? How can it bring you closer to those you love, and to God? Try just one this week. Next week try another. See what happens.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman