Former Shaliach in Washington (2003-4) and Memphis (2010-12)
So Who Needs Gemara Anyway?
We often see discussions in Halacha as technical, boring and tedious. The rabbis look at some verses and can’t agree how to interpret them, so we end up with two opinions, and another paragraph to memorize. Why bother learning the argument? Why can’t we leave that to the Rabbis and just get to the bottom line? Why do we need to learn books and books full of arguments? The whole Gemara seems like a waste of time.
But in fact, usually the differences of halachic opinions are merely the tip of the iceberg, the by-product of a profound spiritual debate. As we learn a halachic debate we need to understand the underlying spiritual worldviews. Long after the technical issue has been decided and the psak given, the spiritual lessons of both sides remain on paper, there for us to learn.
While it may seem strange to look for theology and spiritual ideas in Halacha, there are advantages to doing that. When we look at Agadot, or word of wisdom such as Pirkei Avot – we have the advantage of explicit statements regarding spiritual issues. But they often remain very vague and amorphous. The halachic discourse forces the sages to be far more accurate and unequivocal in their ideology as well. They can’t speak in generalizations or codes. Taking a closer look at the ideology through the halachik discussion, will give us a clear cut picture of their opinion.
For example – A young soldier who turns to his Rabbi during the “disengagement” of Gush Katif with the question of whether or not he should participate in removing people from their homes, forces a Rabbi to define exactly what his ideology is. He can’t hide behind vague and generic statements about conflicting ideals. Whatever psak he gives will clearly define the Rabbi’s ideological opinion.
Another example of a seemingly technical debate which is merely the façade of a deep, spiritual, conflict can be found in the laws of Kriat Shema:
The school of Shammai says: In the evening all people should recline and recite (the Shema), and in the morning they should stand, since it says: “When you lie down and when you arise.”
But the school of Hillel says: Each person may recite it in his usual way (posture), since it says: “When you walk on the road”.
The purpose of reading the Shema is Kabalat Ol Malchut Shamayim; Accepting G-d’s kingship upon myself. It is a coronation ceremony.
How should this ceremony look? That is the questions at hand.
Beit Shamai seem more intuitive (to me, at least) – If you are going to do something so significant, if you are going to coronate the king, you can’t do it while you’re on the phone or on the way to the store. You stop whatever you are doing. You depart for a moment from the materialistic world and enter the realm of holiness. There is a clear differentiation between holy and secular.
According to Beit Hillel, on the other hand, the sanctity of accepting G-d’s kingship is intertwined with our everyday, mundane lives. A construction worker can say Shema while he’s on the scaffolds, it can be even said while we’re walking or driving.
We need to find the holiness even in the mundane and secular.
As a side note – While at first this may seem like a very lenient and user friendly opinion, in fact Beit Hillel are being very demanding! For them – Hashem is everywhere; I can’t compartmentalize him. He’s there when I’m in shul, but also at the office, the basketball court or my own living room.
This debate continues, with slight variations till today. It manifested around how we say Shema, but now we can see it formulate the line between Modern-Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox, between Religious Zionist and Charedi. The ideological debate will manifest in a myriad of halachic details.
Now you can say that this is cheating. After all – it’s obvious that when we’re talking about kriat shema we’ll easily find an underlying spiritual basis. After all, it is part of davening.
So let’s try an example from a different realm – the Sukkah.
Rabbi Yochanan says: it is written “when you gather in from your threshing floor and your wine cellar” (Devarim 16, 13) – from the waste of the threshing floor and the wine cellar make your schach.
Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish said: “A mist ascended from the earth” (Bereshit 2, 6)
At first glance this is a (boring) technical discussion – How do I learn that the schach must be derived from the ground (=organic) and not be able to accept Tum’a. It doesn’t even seem to make a difference – both Rabbis agree what the bottom line is. So who cares? But in fact, once again there are serious spiritual world views behind each opinion.
Rabbi Yochanan learns the halacha from the verses regarding the sukkah itself. Reish Lakish surprises us and brings a pasuk from Bereshit, the story of Gan Eden. This is not just a textual debate or a contest to find the most fantastic connections. Each one of them has a different spiritual understanding of the Sukkah, which also shows itself in the discussion.
Rabbi Yochanan is emphasizing the agricultural aspect of the holiday, how sitting in the Sukkah is connected to the recent harvest. This viewpoint will naturally lead to a holiday focused on humility and gratitude to Hashem.
Reish Lakish, on the other hand, is connecting the sukkah to the Garden of Eden. He sees our entering the Sukkah as returning to the idealistic relationship with Hashem, reminiscent of Gan Eden itself. His sukkah might physically look like Rabbi Yochanan’s, but spiritually it’s very different.
So we can see how the ‘technical’ decisions don’t stem only from textual interpretations, but also from spiritual understanding.
As we celebrate receiving the Torah, and as we learn and delve into it, we can, and should, see not just a lesson in legal workmanship and textual analysis, but also spiritual and theological debates raging over the pages of the Gemara.
Every halacha, every “technical” detail which governs our day to day lives today is not arbitrary. They’re not there to fill our lives with meaningless details, but rather each detail derives from spiritual ideas and concepts. If we learn the depths of the Gemara, every one of the hundreds of halachic action we do a day will suddenly become a spiritual experience, a step to grow higher and closer to Hashem.