Why Judaism Has Laws

By David Hazony

A unique approach to the moral life.

This is felt most clearly in the teachings of the biblical prophets. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, presents God as denouncing the patrons of society not for their impiety, but for their lack of justice, as reflected in the suffering of the needy and orphaned:
They are waxen fat, they are become sleek;

Yea, they undertake deeds of wickedness;

They plead not the cause of the fatherless…

And the right of the needy they do not judge.

Shall I not punish for these things?

Says the Eternal;

Shall my soul not be avenged

On such a nation as this?7
For Jeremiah, God’s vengeance is taken on that nation which does not “plead the cause of the fatherless,” or which allows good intention without regard for results to distort the outcomes of the system in favor of the wealthy and powerful. This is what must inevitably happen in any system that is not explicitly dedicated to a good society as measured by results, for the good intentions of the naïve are invariably taken advantage of by the savvy and sophisticated.

Isaiah, too, sees the central problem of justice not as a matter of man’s inability to adhere to absolute rules, but rather his inability to bring good into his world, and especially to those parts of it where the need is greatest. In one famous passage, he tells Israel to stop focusing exclusively on the sacrifices, which are less important than the moral reality which the law was meant to bring about:
What need have I of all your sacrifices? Says the Eternal.

I am sated with burnt offerings of rams,

And suet of fatlings,

And blood of bulls, or lambs, or of he-goats, when you come to appear before me.

Who has required this of your hand, to trample my courts?

Bring me no more empty offerings.

The smell of abomination they are to me.

As for your new moons and Sabbaths and religious assemblies,

I cannot bear iniquity with solemn meeting.

Your new moons and fixed seasons

Fill me with loathing;

They are become a burden to me;

I am weary of enduring them...

Cease to do evil;

Learn to do good,

Devote yourselves to justice;

Aid the wronged.

Uphold the rights of the orphan;

Defend the cause of the widow.8
For the prophets, justice, like all moral categories, reflects the ability of a people to advance a vision of the good, and to re-orient itself in practice to a higher idea of what human communities are capable of achieving. This is, in fact, the Hebrew Bible’s central concern, although our understanding of it has been so deeply influenced by both classical Christian and modernistic interpretations that we tend to forget it. Indeed, if there is any one striking fact about biblical Judaism, it is that good intentions are rarely if ever weighed over good outcomes. Kings are accountable for the kingdoms they lead; prophets rail against them for their failures to protect the needy, to root out idolatry, or to act morally. Foreign nations are upbraided for their reprehensible behavior. The idea that we are in truth not of this world, and that we should cut ourselves off from what Martin Buber called the “lowlands of causality,” where things really happen, and instead attach ourselves to a pure existence that is beyond human, historical, social reality—this is almost completely absent from a thousand years of Jewish writing.

The rabbinic sages, as well, argued forcefully that Judaism aims at a set of moral values that are the very purpose of the law, including human dignity, life, peace between neighbors, honor to one’s parents, honest business dealings, dignified speech, honoring the dead, and communal unity; and that these values must be advanced in the real world if the laws are to maintain their merit. Perhaps the most vivid rabbinic statements stress that one societal value or another can be “weighed against all the rest of the commandments,” or that its violation is akin to the shedding of blood—that is, a violation of the basis on which society is built:
Anyone who speaks poorly of others, it is as though he has denied a fundamental of faith.

Anyone who embarrasses his fellow in public, it is as though he has shed his blood.

Charity is weighed against all the commandments.

The entire Tora is dedicated to the ways of peace.9
All of these quotations from the Talmud and Midrash reflect the decisive position that moral outcomes have in determining the moral good. They relate to the kind of society we build, rather than the kind of intentions or beliefs to which we are dedicated.

In this vein, the rabbinic tradition denounces the hasid shoteh, the pious fool whose excessive dedication to prayer and sanctity causes him to be a burden to those around him. In the eighteenth century, Rabbi Israel Salanter cautioned:
It is not infrequent for an energetic individual to rise in the middle of the night [to offer slihot prayers asking God’s forgiveness for his sins], and make such noise in rising from the bed that he wakes the entire household…. He is blissfully unaware that his loss outweighs his gain.10
In other words, as opposed to the mainstream Western view, the traditional Jewish view of the good person is one in which who you are is in large measure a function not of what you think or believe, but of what you do—that is, where you succeed in helping society move toward a higher, better order. Not purity of faith but perfection of our world is the ideal toward which we must strive. Not piety, but performance.


This is fairly straightforward, and it is a point which many Jewish thinkers have made in the modern era. What is rarely explained, however, is why exactly we need law in order to achieve this. We may suggest that the Jewish approach to morality—as emphasizing consequences rather than intentions—leads us inevitably to a second contribution: A method of making morality effective in the world, which distinguishes Jewish moral thinking from that most commonly found in the West.

Since pre-Christian times, Western tradition has consistently sought to portray morality as a kind of personal dedication that relates to one’s conscience (knowledge or faith or reason or intentions) rather than the habits of our corporeal selves—thus Plato, Augustine, Kant, and so many others. What unites this tradition is its fundamental dismissal of the body as a significant factor of the good, the assumption being that once man’s mind is properly directed, his body will surely follow.11 If you think good thoughts, so this theory goes, you will automatically do good deeds.

The problem, however, is that this is simply not true. As anyone knows who has ever tried and failed to bring about a major change in his own behavior, such as a diet or a change in one’s sleeping patterns, it is clear that the body does not automatically follow the dictates of the soul or the mind. We conclude that smoking is bad; we do not automatically quit. If morality is really about consequences and effective actions rather than good thoughts or intentions, then it cannot exist without the cooperation of the body. And it is a very hard thing to persuade the body to do anything that it is not accustomed to doing.

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