Halakhah and Aggadah

Balancing between the importance of Jewish behavior and the meaning that Jews find in those behaviors creates a productive tension that defines Jewish life.

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Heschel takes the traditional division of Jewish textual material into halakhah (legal materials) and aggadah (legendary materials) and restates the division as Jewish behaviors (halakhah) and the reasons/motivations for those behaviors (aggadah). For Heschel, these categories transcend the simple categorization of literary genres. For Heschel, the division of literary form reflects all of the polarities of Jewish existence and theology. Reprinted with permission from Between God and Man.

Halakhah represents the strength to shape one's life according to a fixed pattern; it is a form-giving force. Aggadah is the expression of man's ceaseless striving that often defies all limitations. Halakhah is the ration­alization and schematization of living; it defines, specifies, sets measure and limit, placing life into an exact system.

Aggadah deals with man's ineffable relations to God, to other men, and to the world. Halakhah deals with details, with each commandment separately; aggadah with the whole of life, with the totality of religious life. Halakhah deals with the law; aggadah with the meaning of the law. Halakhah deals with subjects that can be expressed literally; aggadah introduces us to a realm that lies beyond the range of expression. Halakhah teaches us how to per­form common acts; aggadah tells us how to participate in the eternal drama. Halakhah gives us knowledge; aggadah gives us aspiration.

Halakhah gives us the norms for action; aggadah, the vision of the ends of living. Halakhah prescribes, aggadah suggests; halakhah decrees, aggadah inspires; halakhah is definite; aggadah is allusive.

When Isaac blessed Jacob he said: "God give thee the dew of heaven, the fat of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine" (Genesis 27:28). Remarked the Midrash (an early Rabbinic commentary on Scripture): "Dew of heaven is Scripture, the fat of the earth is mishnah (the first compendium of Jewish case law), corn is halakhah, wine is aggadah."

Halakhah, by necessity, treats with the laws in the abstract, regardless of the totality of the person. It is aggadah that keeps on reminding that the purpose of performance is to transform the performer, that the pur­pose of observance is to train us in achieving spiritual ends.…

To maintain that the essence of Judaism consists exclusively of halakhah is as erroneous as to maintain that the essence of Judaism consists exclusively of aggadah. The interrelationship of halakhah and aggadah is the very heart of Judaism. Halakhah without aggadah is dead, aggadah without halakhah is wild.

Halakhah thinks in the category of quantity; aggadah is the category of quality. Aggadah maintains that he who saves one human life is as if he had saved all mankind. In the eyes of him whose first category is the category of quantity, one man is less than two men, but in the eyes of God one life is worth as much as all of life. Halakhah speaks of the esti­mable and measurable dimensions of our deeds, informing us how much we must perform in order to fulfill our duty, about the size, capacity, or content of the doer and the deed. Aggadah deals with the immeasurable, inward aspect of living, telling us how we must think and feel; how rather than how much we must do to fulfill our duty; the manner, not only the content, is important.

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Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Ph.D. (1907-1972), born in Warsaw and educated in Poland and Germany, was Professor of Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Among his books are Man Is Not Alone, God in Search of Man, The Earth is the Lord's, and Israel: Echo of Eternity.