Why Judaism Has Laws

By David Hazony

A unique approach to the moral life.

As opposed to the Western moral tradition, which sets itself against the body and the material world it inhabits, Judaism describes man’s nature as comprising both spiritual and material elements, both of which must be engaged and tutored if we are to improve ourselves and our world.12 In the midrashic literature, man is described consistently as dual, combining both the “upper” and “lower” realms, elyonim and tahtonim, the angelic and the animalistic.13 He also possesses a “good inclination”: Not just an idea of the good but a drive to do good, which must be trained to overcome the powerful “evil inclination,” which leads us to abandon the good in pursuit of natural gratification. Much of later Jewish moral literature focused not merely on the derivation of correct beliefs, but also on the discipline required to bring about moral outcomes—such as Rabbi Moses Haim Luzzatto’s eighteenth-century classic, The Path of the Just.

This discipline is no trifle. The body is a cauldron of complex and conflicting forces, needs, and appetites, which have no particular interest in the quiet conclusions of moral reasoning. Unlike the mind, the body cannot be taught through persuasion, for its “knowledge” does not take the form of words, arguments, or even primarily emotions. The body “understands” through habits, which are ingrained by forcing it to do things it would not have ordinarily done, and by teaching it to defer its own drives and spontaneous behaviors to the dictates of principle or vision.

We may draw an analogy to sports or music. Anyone who has ever undertaken serious training will understand that when the aim is to excel at any kind of performance, it is not enough to read books, attend classes, or think about the best way to do it. The greatest portion of our efforts must be dedicated simply to intensive practice, to repetition, to arrive at the point where doing it right is second nature—that is, to the point where it is something you do not have to think about. For someone who has practiced many long hours through intensive repetition, the basic level of performance is something that his or her body does automatically, as a matter of habit. And if one stops practicing for a few months, one loses that edge. Excellent performance in any arena requires the uninterrupted training of our unconscious, habitual, physical selves. We must work on not just our minds, but the habits of our bodies as well.

Now, if being a good person is less about what you think than about what you achieve, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that when we speak of moral excellence, we are talking about something that is more like being a musician or an athlete than like being a philosopher or a historian. It thus follows that in order to teach people to be good, it cannot be just a matter of teaching one to think or believe certain things. Morality, like any other performance skill, requires actual training, not just good intentions. And training means stricture rather than laxity, repetition rather than spontaneity.

Traditional Judaism believes in engendering good in the world by training us to adopt not only moral beliefs but moral habits. This it achieves through the discipline of law. Good actions in Judaism, such as providing for the needy, taking in guests, dealing honestly in business, and contributing one’s time to family and community take on the status of not simply a good deed, but a mitzva—a “commandment” grounded in a system of law. Giving of yourself becomes a duty that is perceived as coming from without: Not a product of one’s autonomous decision making, but an obligation which must be upheld if one is to remain on the right side of the law, and thereby uphold one’s covenantal obligations to God and Israel. Thus, whereas modern Western thinking tends to view as genuinely moral only those actions which stem from an act of self-legislation—a decision to follow a rule that is, in essence, of one’s own making—Judaism takes the opposite view: That whereas there is certainly something admirable about the individual who invents good rules and keeps them faithfully, only a morality which is grounded in law can be counted upon not only to help redress a specific crisis, but also to act as a consistent force that instills the habits of goodness in both the individual and the community.

This is perhaps what the Talmud in tractate Kidushin meant when it said that one who is commanded and takes action is greater than one who is not commanded, but acts nonetheless.14 Morality must not be left up to the immediate decision of the individual actor who finds himself in the situation of a moral dilemma. Rather, the moral person is one whose habits lead him to do the right thing without having to think too hard about whether he or she wants to or not.


This aspect of the law—as the principal agent of moral training for the Jew—is not, however, limited only to those laws that deal directly with overtly moral questions. According to Judaism, even the “ritual” aspects of Jewish law, or those that appear to have no moral content, are nonetheless crucial for the training they provide. The dietary laws, for example, can be understood as preparation for a situation in which proper moral conduct may come into conflict with a specific physical urge, in this case the appetite for food. Through the continual, controlled inhibition of this appetite, man learns to limit the influence of this urge upon his actions.15 When combined with similar training regarding other physical inclinations, man’s being as a whole becomes conditioned to responding rightly and accurately whenever emotions or inclinations conflict with moral demands. As Eliezer Berkovits, one of the leading philosophers of Judaism in the last century, put it:
The aim [of the law] is to teach… a new “awareness,” one which is foreign to the organic [physical] component of the human personality.... The purpose of the inhibitive rules is to practice saying “no” to self-centered demands; whereas the fulfillment of the positive commands is the exercise of saying “yes” in consideration of an order different from one’s own.16
This does not, of course, mean that the ritual laws have no spiritual or theological meaning beyond their importance for moral training. On the contrary, Jewish ritual is filled to the brim with symbolism concerning the Jew’s relationship with God, his community, or his own inner self. But such additional meaning could have been reached, one may argue, even if these rituals were not rules, but merely customs passed on from parents to children. What the idea of law contributes is the sense of acting out of obligation, even in contravention of momentary desires. By presenting rituals as law, Judaism demands that people impose discipline on their own actions in every sphere of their physical lives. Thus the tradition trains them as moral beings in a way that no amount of preaching can.

To illustrate the advantages offered by this kind of discipline, it is useful to consider the example of moral conduct with regard to speech-and in particular, the injunction against gossip, or the spreading of stories about people. This is derived from the Ninth Commandment’s declaration that “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” as well as the verse in Leviticus that says, “You shall not go as a talebearer among your people.”17 The reason gossip is considered a bad thing is, I think, fairly clear: Everyone has said or done things of which they are not proud. It does very little good for a society to be in the habit of amusing itself by spreading the news of these failings as far and thin as it can. Even if the things that are being said are entirely true, it is nonetheless a very painful thing to have every mistake one has ever made circulating forever among people whose opinions matter to us. It alienates the individual and makes people less willing to strive, to sacrifice, and to dedicate themselves to the well-being of those around them.

We all know this to be true. And yet, the version of this moral principle that most of us normally hear, something along the lines of “It’s not nice to gossip,” does hardly anything at all to change people’s behavior. When we stop and look around us, we quickly see that the telling of pointless and hurtful stories—things that no one could possibly have a decent reason for knowing about—are everywhere. The matter of who did what with whom has become hard to distinguish from public debate and legitimate criticism. And even if we feel bad about it once in a while, the truth is that in a society in which being an entertaining person means taking part in the spread of nasty stories about others, it is virtually impossible to avoid doing it yourself.

In Judaism, the prohibition against gossip is a law, beginning in the Bible and continuing with a developed literature on what one may or may not say about others. Gossip is called lashon hara, “the evil tongue,” and the rabbis believed it to be one of the worst of societal ills. According to the Talmud, “Anyone who speaks the evil tongue, God says of him: He and I cannot live in the same world.” According to one midrash, lashon hara is the source of all plagues; according to another, anyone who speaks it has no place in the world to come. According to a third, the evil tongue is described as being equal to the shedding of blood, sexual immorality, and idolatry—the three sins which Judaism holds that one ought to die for rather than commit.18 These may be extreme formulations, and one should take them in the spirit of classical rabbinic hyperbole. The point is that this is a deeply held value, one that expresses itself not just in aphorisms, but also as law, with entire books having been written delineating the borders between legitimate criticism and the evil tongue.

And indeed, in today’s world, there exist living communities of people who dedicate themselves to the observance of this law, and who have as a result developed entirely different habits of speech from the ordinary conversation we encounter. These people take the laws of lashon hara seriously, and have worked hard to inculcate the habits of good speech, and with no small measure of success. In most cases, they have gone to a great deal of trouble to better themselves not because of some general principle of being nice or being good, but because doing so is the law, and they strive to be law-abiding people.

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