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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To reduce Judaism to law, to halakhah, is to dim its light, to pervert its essence and to kill its spirit. We have a legacy of aggadah together with a system of halakhah, and although, because of a variety of reasons, that legacy was frequently overlooked and aggadah became subservient to halakhah, halakhah is ultimately dependent upon aggadah. Halakhah, the rationalization of living, is not only forced to employ elements that are themselves unreasoned, its ultimate authority depends upon aggadah. For what is the basis of halakhah? The event at Sinai, the mystery of revelation, belongs to the sphere of aggadah. Thus while the content of halakhah is subject to its own reasoning, its authority is derived from aggadah….

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

By inwardness alone we do not come close 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.

It is impossible to decide whether in Judaism supremacy belongs to halakhah or to aggadah, to the lawgiver or to the Psalmist. The rabbis may have sensed the problem. "Rav 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" (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 98b)….

There is no halakhah without aggadah, and no aggadah without halakhah. We must neither disparage the body nor sacrifice the spirit. The body is the discipline, the pattern, the law; the spirit is inner devotion, spon­taneity, freedom. The body without the spirit is a corpse; the spirit without the body is a ghost. Thus a mitzvah is both a discipline and an in­spiration, an act of obedience and an experience of joy, a yoke and a prerogative. Our task is to learn how to maintain a harmony between the demands of halakhah and the spirit of aggadah.

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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.