Beyond the Letter of the Law

Rabbi Bradley Artson
Rabbi Bradley Artson
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Vice President, American Jewish University

Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson (www.bradartson.com) has long been a passionate advocate for social justice, human dignity, diversity and inclusion. He wrote a book on Jewish teachings on war, peace and nuclear annihilation in the late 80s, became a leading voice advocating for GLBT marriage and ordination in the 90s, and has published and spoken widely on environmental ethics, special needs inclusion, racial and economic justice, cultural and religious dialogue and cooperation, and working for a just and secure peace for Israel and the Middle East. He is particularly interested in theology, ethics, and the integration of science and religion. He supervises the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program and mentors Camp Ramah in California in Ojai and Ramah of Northern California in the Bay Area. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining Conservative rabbis for Europe. A frequent contributor for the Huffington Post and for the Times of Israel, and a public figure Facebook page with over 60,000 likes, he is the author of 12 books and over 250 articles, most recently Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit. Married to Elana Artson, they are the proud parents of twins, Jacob and Shira.  Learn more infomation about Rabbi Artson.

posted on May 5, 2007
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

One of the defining features of traditional Judaism is its careful attention to matters of halakhah (Jewish law). While broader issues of theology and ethics form a significant backdrop to Jewish thought, primary attention is paid to the mitzvot, the sacred commanded deeds of Judaism, and to the kinds of debates which lawyers enjoy. Is something muttar (permissible) or assur (prohibited)? Is something hayyav (obligatory) or reshut (optional)? These kinds of evaluations are the typical vocabulary of rabbinic discourse, profoundly molding the culture and the worldview of the Jewish people as a whole.

Small wonder, then, that many people (Jews included) conclude that Judaism isn’t a very spiritual enterprise at all! Trained by exposure to Christianity, Buddhism, or New Age faiths to define spirituality as an inner sensitivity to the awe and marvel of being alive, a sense of unity with all that is and with its source, so many seekers give Judaism a brief opportunity to prove itself (often during services on Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur). Hearing talk about how a sacrifice is to be offered, enduring explanations of how the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) used to immerse himself and bow, and endless repetition of a fixed and archaic liturgy seems to many to be hollow, pointless and futile.

In part that problem is one of inadequate preparation. Without prior study, a Shakespeare play or a great painting will seem lifeless and stilted too. Achievements of real depth require some training to be able to experience the wisdom they encode in form. And part of the problem is adopting a foreign definition of spirituality so that it precludes, prima facie, precisely where Jewish spirituality is strongest—in building a community that sees solidarity, transformation, and transcendence as its highest expression of faith.

But those answers only explain in part. In part, traditional Judaism has always recognized that reducing all of Judaism just to halakhah represents a betrayal of the fullness of Torah. The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to call this idolatry “pan-halakhism,” reducing Judaism to a set of rules. As central as halakhah has always been (and must always be), the contours of Torah extend well beyond questions of law, well beyond issues of permitted and prohibited.

Today’s Torah portion itself speaks to that religious realm beyond the reach of law. Much of righteous living cannot be reduced to simple rules. Prohibitions and mandates don’t instill values such as kindness, selflessness, and charity. Above and beyond the rules is Judaism’s insistence that we live our lives in a way that testifies to God’s goodness and justice and love. Such a way of living is called Kiddush ha-Shem, the sanctification of God’s name. Any deed that makes God’s sovereignty visible, any action that bears witnesses to God is Kiddush ha-Shem, the highest value within the orbit of Jewish values

Today’s Torah portion is understood as the source of this mitzvah. God tells the Jewish people, “You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the people of Israel.”

Life presents us with a simple choice: How we live our lives can either heighten a sense of God in the world or it can diminish it. There is no neutral, middle ground. By treating our fellow human beings with generosity, we bear witness to God’s generosity. Acts of greed and selfishness make that bounty harder to perceive. By speaking out against oppression and bigotry, we affirm God as the righteous judge, as the One passionate about justice. To remain silent in the face of such suffering is to eclipse God’s justice. By extending a basic trust to our fellows, we make it easier for them to feel God’s willingness to trust them, to affirm the goodness of creation.

In everything we do—at work, on the road, at play—we can help other people to know that there is a God; we can bring credit to the God of Israel and to God’s Torah. Far more than simply arguing about rules, the essence of Jewish piety is the compassion and love that the rules embody. As the great Nineteenth Century Rabbi Israel Salanter said, “Compassion is the foundation of belief. For a person who isn’t compassionate, even the belief in God is a kind of idolatry.”

In hell, Robert Cover noted, there will be only rules, and they will be strictly enforced. We make heaven here on Earth; we sanctify God’s name and God’s Torah by using it to express God’s values of love, compassion, holiness, and justice. We are what we do, and to be a holy people we must live each moment as an opportunity to serve God.

That’s Kiddush ha-Shem.

Shabbat shalom.