Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Aggada vs. Halakha

As much as I love Rabbi Soloveitchik's Halakhic Man, I have always felt closer to his seemingly secondary homo religiosus. At spots, I resemble Halakhic man, but not overall, and I have always felt this to be an inadequacy.

This was until I discovered Abraham Joshua Heschel's work, God in Search of Man.

He beautifully explains the specific and unique importance of both halakha and aggadah, and further explains why we cannot have a religion that focuses on one to the exclusion of the other. He explains that it is the blend, utilizing both of these techniques/ ways of seeing the world, that leads to the full and complete Judaism.

In his chapter "The Problem of Polarity," he explains the unique functions of halakha and agada:

    Halacha represents the strength to shape one's life according to a fixed pattern; it is a form-giving force. Agada is the expression of man's ceaseless striving which often defies all limitations. Halacha is the rationalization and schematization of living; it defines, specifies, sets measure and limit, placing life into an exact system. Agada deals with man's ineffable relations to God, to other men, and to the world. Halacha deals with details, with each commandment separately; agada deals with the whole of life, with the totality of religious life. Halacha deals with the law; agada with the meaning of the law. Halacha deals with subjects that can be expressed literally; agada introduces us to a realm which lies beyond the range of expression. Halacha teaches us how to perform common acts; agada tells us how to participate in the eternal drama. Halacha gives us knowledge; agada gives us aspiration. (336)

What is the problem with halacha without agada?

    To reduce Judaism to law, to halacha, is to dim its light, to pervert its essence and to kill its spirit. We have a legacy of agada together with a system of halacha, and although, because of a variety of reasons, that legacy was frequently overlooked and agada became subservient to halacha, halacha is ultimately dependant upon agada. Halacha, the rationalization of living, is not only forced to employ elements which are themselves unreasoned; its ultimate authority depends upon agada. For what is the basis of halacha? The statement "Moses received the Torah from Sinai." Yet this statement does not express a halachic idea. For halacha deals with what man ought to do, with that which man can translate into action, with things which are definite and concrete, and anything tht lies beyond man's scope is not an object of halacha. The event at Sinai, the mystery of revelation, belongs to the sphere of agada. Thus while the content of halacha is subject to its own reasoning, its authority is derived from agada.

    Halacha does not deal with the ultimate level of existence. The law does not create in us the motivation to love and to fear God, nor is it capable of endowing us with the power to overcome evil and to resist its temptations, nor with the loyalty to fulfill its precepts. It supplies the weapons, it points the way; the fighting is left to the soul of man.


    Halacha is an answer to a question, namely: What does God ask of me? The moment that question dies in the heart, the answer becomes meaningless. That question, however, is agadic, spontaneous, personal. (338-339)

What is the problem with agada without halacha?

    To reduce Judaism to inwardness, to agada, is to blot out its light, to dissolve its essence and to destroy its reality. Indeed, the surest way to forfeit agada is to abolish halacha. They can only surive in symbiosis. Without halacha agada loses its substance, its character, its source of inspiration, its security against becoming secularized.

    By inwardness alone we do not come to God. The purest intentions, the finest sense of devotion, the noblest spiritual aspirations are fatuous when not realized in action. Spiritualism is a way for angels, not for man. There is only one function that can take place without the aid of external means: dreaming. When dreaming, man is almost detached from concrete reality. Yet spiritual life is not a dream and is in constant need of action. Action is the verification of the spirit. Does friendship consist of mere emotion? Of indulgence in feeling? Is it not always in need of tangible, material means of expression? The life of the spirit too needs concrete actions for its actualization. The body must not be left alone; the spirit must be fulfilled in the flesh. The spirit is decisive; but it is life, all of life, where the spirit is at stake. To consecrate our tongue and our hands we need extraordinary means of pedagogy. (340)

Which takes precedence?

    It is impossible to decide whether in Judaism supremacy belongs to halacha or to agada, to the lawgiver or the Psalmist. The Rabbis may have sensed the problem. Rab said: The world was created for the sake of David, so that he might sing hymns and psalms to God. Samuel said: The world was created for the sake of Moses, so that he might receive the Torah. (340)

Heschel sees Halakhas as akin to Regularity (keva). He sees Agada as akin to Spontaneity (kavanah.) He explains that generally the pole of regularity is stronger than that of spontaneity, and therefore we must take care, as there is a "perpetual danger of our observance and worship becoming mere habit, a mechanical performance. The fixed pattern and regularity of our services tend to stifle the spontaneity of devotion." At the same time, he explains that it is necessary to make our actions habitual, as "loyalty to external forms, dedication of the will is itself a form of worship. The mitsvot sustain their halo even when our minds forget to light in us the attentiveness to the holy." He compares this to a father working each day to feed his children; he "fulfills the good regardless of whether his mind is constantly bent upon the moral intention of his deeds."

The other extreme, of course, is to "abrogate the principle of regularity, to worship only when we are touched by the spirit and to observe only what is relevant to our minds." The problem is that oftentimes, one's moments of illumination and spontaneity are rare, and "in the long interims the mind is often dull, bare and vapid." He therefore explains that we need to try, even though it may go against our nature, to perform the laws. He states that "the spirit rests not only on our achievement...but also on our effort, on our way. This is why the very act of going to the house of worship, every day or every seventh day, is a song without words." He compares it to "a child, eager to hear a song," who "spreads out the score before its mother. All the child can do is open the book."


I find Heschel's approach to be very interesting, for while he admits the polarity of agada and halakha, he also sees them as intertwined, and believes that existence is meaningless and dull if one has only one but not the other. As my approach is generally more aggadic (I like magic, mystery, beauty, spontaneity, and the like), I find his understanding of halacha helpful, for instead of being coldly rational, it is a kind of preparation for the times of illumination. As someone who really cannot pray unless "touched by the spirit," as he put it, I find his ideas about the value of habit and regularity, and of our trying even if we do not succeed, to be both new to me and valid.


Anonymous said...

Great post (no duh :-)!

In Kabalistic terms, the tension between what you call "halacha" and "agada" is called "ratzoh v'shuv".

A) quite appropo for today (Rosh Chodesh Nissan), its the yahrtzeit of Nadav and Avihu--Ahron Hakohen's sons. According to kabbalah (brought down in many places, see e.g. Shem MiShmuel on Parshat Shemini) their sin was unbridled passion (agada) for G-d without applying it in day to day life.

B) the Rambam writes in his Shmonah Perakim (his intro to Avot) that understanding Aggadah is the ultimate goal, but to reach it u must first be well versed in the halachah.

C) How I read it, the two main protagonists in Chaim Potok's novels: The Chosen and The Promise are intended to reflect the tension in Judaism between these two worlds.

D) You would probably find Chassidut fascinating...

Anonymous said...

discovering Heschel is a truly a great treat! May I recommend his "Passion for Truth"- a book about the Kotzker and Kierkegaard- just amazing!

Anonymous said...

excellent post.See the introduction of R.Ahron Soloveichik to his sefer 'Logic of the Heart,Logic of the Mind.Agada and Halacha.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Very interesting. Is the book available in the library?


Beisrunner said...

I can't believe you haven't read R' Soloveitchik's "Lonely Man of Faith", which comes to answer the same question. It talks about the "majestic man", which is the same personality described in Halachic Man. But it also describes "covenantal man" or the "lonely man of faith" who is a sort of more genuine homo religiosus. In the end it says that both paradigms are necessary and the true religious Jew will incorporate both into aspects of his life.

"Uvikashtem misham" may address the topic too, but it's really hard, I've never managed to finish it.

Chana said...


I have read Lonely Man of Faith, but thank you for recommending it to me. I found Heschel's thoughts struck more of a respondant chord within me, even though I admire the idea of Adam the first and Adam the second and their divergent capabilities.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if you'll notice this comment so long after you've posted, but here goes:

Are you familiar with the writings of Rav Kook? I'm slowly working through a selection of his writings and one theme that emerges quite frequently is his regret that not enough attention is paid to what he calls "the inner dimension of the Torah". By this, he meant that traditional methods of Jewish study concentrate on halacha, but minimise aggada. He felt that aggadic literature must be studied in detail and the ideas written in different times and places, in different styles, must be interrelated and developed.

"Those whose general intellectual development has brought them to a state of being thirsty for thought and avid for new and vital ideas, being unable to find agreeable and healthy nourishment in Judaism, rich in varying ingredients, prepared by workers living in our midst, and acceptable to the new generation - they become alienated. Impoverished, they stray in every direction, following the ideas prevalent in the nation where they reside...

It is surely our duty at the present time to write about the God of Israel in books, pamphlets, essays, imaginative tracts, poems, commentaries, and homilies, in all the forms of literary expression that communicate our thought to the public. And it is for us to state our beliefs and opinions in comprehensible terms, for ourselves and for the generations to come." (from the essay The Inner Dimension of the Torah)