Thursday, February 27, 2014

Missing the Forest for the Trees- A new approach to teaching halacha

Why don't we just sleep for 25 hours, so we don't do any melacha?”, my student said sarcastically. As much as I might have wished for her to have expressed her frustration with Hilchos Shabbos in a different way, she was not the only frustrated by the school mandated halacha curriculum. I disliked having to teach halacha that way. Although there was a small attempt to get into the ideas behind the halachos, in my estimation, it was far from enough. What follows is an attempt to suggest a better approach to teaching halacha to high school students.

When I was in the Aish HaTorah Kollel, I first heard about the Sheish Mitzvos Timidiyos (the six constant commandments), from Rav Noach Weinberg zt”l. The SMT, which as far as I know, was first discussed by the Sefer HaChinuch, are six mitzvos which have some sort of “constancy” that the other 607 mitzvohs do not. The six mitzvos on the list are:

  1. Anochi HaShem Elokecha- I am HaShem your God (It is beyond the scope of the current discussion to discuss whether it is a mitzvah and what the mitzvah might be)
  2. Lo Yihiyeh lecha elohim acheirm al pa'nai- do not serve other powers
  3. Shema Yisrael- God is one in every sense of the term
  4. V'ahavta- Loving god
  5. Es HaShem Elokecha tir'eh (Is this the correct citation?)- Fear/Awe of God
  6. Lo sasuru- Do not stray after forbidden desires

The way I understand the “constancy” of these six mitzvos, is that while the other 607 are not obligatory at every moment of life, these six mitzvos are always to be observed. I never thought to question why, or to draw any further conclusions. Recently, my friend Yehoshua Hershberg shared an explanation that blew me away. I am hesitant to bring the context, as the topic is one which could sidetrack the idea, but I do think the context is too important to leave out. Other than direct quotes, the ideas in this essay are only my own, and any mistakes should be attributed to me, and not to Yehoshua.

His comments came up in a discussion which involved a discussion about the push, by some men and women, for women to have more options in performing mitzvos from which they are not halachically obligated, and which have, for the most part, if not entirely, traditionally been performed only by men. Yehoshua made six points, five of which are relevant to this discussion, which are quoted verbatim:

  1. Women and men will never be ritually equal in halachic Judaism
    2. The natural thrust of feminism, the philosophy influencing all this, is to drive towards complete equality
    3. Feminism and improvements in women's education have created a situation where many orthodox women want to be more involved in Judaism and want to be "closer to God"
    (author's note- the quotation marks are there, only because he is quoting from something that was said, not as a way of disparaging this desire), etc.
    4. The general philosophy of most rishonim is that the way to be close to God is through the emotional/intellectual mitzvos, of which men AND women are equal in their obligation.
    5. I would advise that, in general, for men and women, (4) should be an important educational message (without underwriting the ritual mitzvos).

While one might quibble with the second point and suggest that there are various approached to halachic feminism, I do not wish to get distracted by that point. Additionally, while one can discuss what the mitzvah or mitzvohs will be at which the line will be drawn, despite any halachic attempt to being inclusive, I tend to agree that full ritual equality is an impossibility.

Yehoshua went on to elaborate on his fifth point, and tie it in to the SMT. He suggested that these six mitzvos are singled out due to being qualitatively different from the other mitzvos. While the other commandments are means to an end, the SMT are the end to which the other 607 mitzvohs point. I have my thoughts on why no bein adam l'chaveiro mitzvos (commandments between person and person) are on the list, but I will not share them here. Thus, while the halachic system does not have full ritual equality with those 607, both men and women are obligated in mitzvos which fall into each of those six categories, and thus, are equal in terms of the ultimate goal of mitzvah performance.

Whether or not one accepts these implications as a way of, at least partially, dealing with the halachic/hashkafic analysis of the desire for women to have more ritual opportunities, I wish to take his fifth statement at face value and deal with the implications for general Torah education for both men and women.

One of the subjects that is most difficult for teachers in Jewish schools to teach is halacha. Besides the challenge of not making it dry and boring (which can be overcome), getting students to see mitzvah observance as a means and not as an end to itself is a big challenge. Furthermore, even if we can inculcate the message that mitzvah observance is only a means, the end is often misunderstood as being some version of “mitzvah points”, and/or Olam Haba and other types of reward. Yehoshua's approach would allow for a paradigm shift. Whether we are to take Rambam's approach and suggest that the mitzvos are a means to achieving Y'dias HaShem (knowledge of God), or Crescas's approach that the goal is Ahavas HaShem (love of God) each mitzvah would be taught within a framework that treats it as a means to one of these goals through the prism of the Sheish Mitzvos Timidiyos. This would, of course, have to include an emphasis on ta'amei HaMitzvos (possible reasons for the commandments), with a strong preference on various approaches, both rational (Rambam and Chinuch etc.) as well as spiritual/mystical (rav Kook, chassidus etc.).

It is my contention that such an approach could complete change the way we view mitzvah observance, how we teach it, and, most importantly, how we live it.


  1. FWIW,>I think of these mitzvos as three pieces of knowledge and three middos. Machashavah and Hislahavus, which then (if you recall from "Tools & Goals" sec. V) feed a an attitude toward life (hashkafah) which would then inform one's observance (taamei hamitzvos), so as to develop the mind and heart and continuing the upward cycle.

    Belief in a Creator finds emotional expression in ahavas Hashem. Much as knowing that someone is your parent also naturally generates love, and knowing a piece of art causes an attachment to the artist.

    Belief in His Uniqueness fuels a desire to follow his ends to the exclusion of the other "shiny object" in life that attract our eye.

    And belief in G-d's Singularity, that He is One in an absolute way, speaks to how transcendent He is. Awe naturally follows.

    But yes, we need to realize that halakhah means the art of walking, and going is meaningless if you aren't trying to get anywhere.

    Quoting T&G: Rav Chaim Volozhiner comments (Ruach Chaim, [Avos 1:13]) that Hillel refers to someone who constantly learns Torah shelo lishmah, for the sake of advancing his reputation and fame. Such study backfires, and such a person would lose even the reputation he began with. The gemara’s assurance that someone who acts for ulterior motive will come to act lishmah is only the person who is trying to ascend, but needs other motivations to actually carry through on that aspiration. “A person cannot put his foot on the next rung up without taking it off the rung below.”

    1. Sorry for mentioning T&G yet again, but your closing sentence was pretty much my thesis. Our difference is in focus... I don't think the educational agenda is possible without a cultural one. We need enough parents, other role models, and just a general feel in shul that people are at least looking for a goal, or else the classroom won't be enough.

      After all, we all intellectually know there is a goal that halakhah is pointing us to; the problem is bringing that down to the emotional, experiential, level so that we live accordingly.