Why Judaism Has Laws

By David Hazony

A unique approach to the moral life.


What are the norms that make us good people, and what kind of principles must we infuse into our daily lives to make us moral? These are the questions at the heart of a great philosophical debate that has taken place in the West over the last few centuries. Traditional Judaism, which frequently stands apart from the major trends of Western thought, has weighed in with its own, unique position. According to classical Jewish belief, it is not enough for morality to consist entirely of wise sayings, good intentions, virtues. Morality also, and more importantly, needs laws.

If we open the Hebrew Bible, we will quickly find that it is riddled with collections of laws, particularly in the five books of Moses. These are norms that the Bible insists can and should be adopted by ordinary people in their day-to-day lives. A typical example appears in Leviticus 19:
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleaning of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger. I am the Eternal your God.

You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another.

You shall not swear by my name falsely, nor shall you profane the name of God. I am the Eternal.

You shall not defraud your neighbor nor rob him. The wages that of him that is hired shall not abide with you all night until morning.

You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but shall fear your God. I am the Eternal.

You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment. You shall not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty. But in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.

You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people.

Neither shall you stand aside when mischief befalls your neighbor. I am the Eternal.1
Here we see that the Bible uses laws—that is, statements of concrete rules of behavior—to express not only certain ritual prescriptions, such as the Sabbath and holidays, but also moral ones, such as judging fairly and helping your neighbor. The rabbinic tradition continued this approach, developing alongside its rich literature of tales and legends a great legal corpus dedicated to setting the standards of good behavior not only in broad terms, but also in detail—namely, as a system of rules handed down in accordance with a tradition of right and wrong.

Of course, the very idea that morality can comprise a system of traditional rules is today problematic. We have been raised in a culture that emphasizes the decision-making independence of the individual, often to the exclusion of almost everything else. And we have been taught to think that even to speak of moral laws is somehow a threat to the foundations of what we today consider to be the model of a normal, responsible person. The idea that the individual should subordinate his or her daily life to a set of rules and standards that are defined by a tradition—that is from without, rather than from one’s own understanding of right and wrong—seems to run counter to what modern life is all about.

But given the moral record of the Western world during the last century, we might want to leave ourselves room to reconsider. I think it is obvious that in the twentieth century, something went very wrong with Western morality. This was a century that opened with many believing that war was a thing of the past. But instead, dutiful, educated, supremely modern people who read Shakespeare and listened to Mozart embarked on horrific campaigns that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of innocents. In the wake of World War I, the Holocaust, and the Gulag, it is hard to avoid the feeling that while Western civilization may excel at making people prosperous and physically healthy, it is still far from knowing how to make people good. A parallel advancement in morality is, it seems, beyond our reach.

I will suggest in what follows that Jewish tradition offers its own approach to the problem, a conception of morality that is different from the normative Western view. It rests on the institution of a system of moral law, or what has traditionally been called halacha—a way, or a path. I will try to make the case that in Judaism, the law is not simply a set of arbitrary or authoritative rules, but a discipline geared to orienting both the community and the individual toward a vision of the good society. Of course, trying to live according to such a system of law requires discipline and sacrifice. But we should at least consider the possibility that such hard work may be necessary, even vital, if we hope to overcome mankind’s seemingly infinite capacity for barbarism.

Before beginning, however, I would like to note that interest in the question of whether we need law to become moral men and women, and what kind of law we need in order to be so, has enjoyed a rather impressive revival in recent years, in all of the various movements of Judaism. Orthodoxy, for example, has begun an earnest internal debate over whether that movement has gone too far in its focus on details, stringencies, and codes of law, at the expense of the broader values or principles that the law is meant to advance. At the same time, the Reform movement—the one branch of Judaism that rejected the idea of halacha—has reopened the issue of Jewish law in a significant way, as well. A salient example of this change is the platform adopted by the Reform rabbinate in 1999, which broke with its century-long opposition to Jewish law in calling for the “ongoing study of the whole array of commandments,” and for the renewed observance of many classical practices previously rejected by the movement.2

Whereas Jews in their different movements may argue over the specific weight and contents of law, the idea of a moral law will, it seems, always be a question for Jews, if for no other reason than because our central ancient texts, beginning with the Bible and continuing throughout the rabbinic tradition, are full of laws. And if we are to undertake an honest re-examination of Judaism by returning to its sources, we must at least take seriously the fact that, historically, it reserved a special place for law as a crucial element in the advancement of a vision of a moral people in history.3 What I would like to suggest here is that there is a good reason for this, and that it has something to do with the Jewish understanding of morality in general, and of the way morality should be conveyed and instilled in Jewish thought and action in particular. 


To understand the meaning of law in Judaism, we must begin with the fact that Jewish morality differs from the mainstream Western approaches, in both their Christian and secular iterations. We begin with the following observation: Whereas the focus of the main streams of Western moral thought is on the thoughts or beliefs or inner qualities that a person brings to bear in his moral decision-making, in Judaism the most important thing is the impact of our actions on our world.4 That is to say: Does a given action in fact make the world a better place than it would have been had the action not been taken?

We may find a typical example of what I am calling the mainstream Western view in the writings of Immanuel Kant, who can be said to have been the founder of modern ethical thought. In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant makes it very clear that:
A good will is good not because of what it effects or accomplishes, because of its fitness to attain some proposed end, but only because of its volition, that is, it is good in itself…. Its usefulness or fruitlessness can neither augment nor diminish this value.5
In other words, a central theme in Kantian ethics is that it is the purity of one’s decisions, rather than the result of one’s actions, in which one’s moral character is to be found. A similar emphasis can be found in the writings of C.S. Lewis, one of the most popular writers on Christianity of the last century. In his Mere Christianity, he writes:
When a man who has been perverted from his youth and taught that cruelty is the right thing, does some tiny little kindness, or refrains from some cruelty he might have committed… he may, in God’s eyes, be doing more than you and I would do if we gave up life itself for a friend…. The bigness or smallness of the thing, seen from the outside, is not what really matters.6
These views are similar, and they should be familiar. For in Kant’s rejection of the “usefulness or fruitlessness” of an action, as in Lewis’ dismissal of “the bigness or smallness of the thing, seen from the outside,” we see the common denominator that unites most Christian and Enlightenment thought on morals. This is the idea that what you actually succeed in achieving with your actions is of relatively little account. What really matters is what happens inside your soul. As we have often heard it said, it’s the thought that counts.

Such views are, however, largely absent from the classical texts of Jewish tradition. What we find there is much more frequently a kind of morality that is deeply interested in the consequences of our actions: In whether or not we succeed in taking care of the needy, for instance, and in how we work together to create a good society.

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