There are two key characteristics that for millennia have kept Halacha, Jewish Law, alive in the hearts of millions of Jews. These are its apparent immunity to the effects of time and space, and its image as a bestower of benefits rather than as a demander of discipline. There has always been a Jewish core constituency comfortable with turning President Kennedy’s aphorism on its head and asking, not what I can do for Judaism but what can Judaism do for me? For Jews who hold this view, Halacha does not impose upon but enhances Jewish lives in twentieth-century Australia as surely as it once did in eleventh-century Europe. Their view toward Halacha resembles that of the fitness fanatic toward his workout regimen. They do not minimize the effort it demands, but they welcome the benefits it brings, and above all, they see the link between the two.
One example is the system of rules that govern the role of father. It prevents children from ever sitting in their father’s chair at the dining room table and indeed from even starting the meal until father has recited the blessing and broken bread. These structures are not examples of petty parental tyranny but are components of a monumental system of family stability. They create what might appear to be an almost artificial and ceremonial role for fathers but it is nonetheless real.
In a cruel quirk, Nature loudly and clearly calls for a male to be present in the life of a child for only about sixty seconds, right at the beginning. Modern urban life and a welfare society thereafter render the father unnecessary for the protection of mother and young child, as well as for their economic sustenance. Not surprisingly, father bolts because a healthy male psyche rebels at feeling unneeded and impotent, two closely related emotions. Students of inner-city pathologies know that when fathers feel unneeded, they abandon their families. Sadly, by the time it becomes obvious that the father is desperately needed, above all by his growing male offspring, it is usually too late. In contrast, Jewish law creates in the home an extensive network of need for the father that uncivilized Nature never dreamed of. The result is the much-praised dedication of the Jewish husband to his wife and children. This is because, like most of us, fathers also respond best to being needed.
The common misrepresentation of Kosher, the Biblical dietary laws, argues that they were a primitive substitute for hygiene and refrigeration. This mistaken explanation is a rather convenient approach for those Jews who are partial to prawns, bacon, and cheeseburgers. In reality, however, these laws set up an exquisite human sensitivity to other life forms. Another case of the Law conferring hidden benefits, Kosher establishes the basis for self-discipline and desirable discrimination between the permitted and the prohibited in the most simple of the body’s appetites. From toddlerhood, the religiously raised Jewish youngster knows the difference between kosher candy and the other kind. This strength, learned by even the young child with respect of food, will later stand him in good stead with respect to other, more compelling desires. It is obvious to everyone but secular humanist educational establishment ideologues that, for the most part, high school girls who only eat kosher food do not get pregnant. This is not due to any mysterious contraceptive properties of chicken soup; it is due to a serendipitous benefit of eating only kosher food. Children who are raised kosher learn to “just say no” long before they are subjected to the compelling and irresistible calls of adolescence. By then it is much too late to start teaching “just say no.”
Refraining from using an automobile or a telephone from sundown on Friday until nightfall on Saturday is likewise no hardship. For the committed Jew, Sabbath presents an invaluable opportunity to escape into a 25-hour oasis of time once each week. Obviously, neither cars nor phones existed 3,000 years ago, although the Sabbath did. The timelessness of the Talmud ordains that this period should markedly differ from the remaining six days of the week. During those days, our most profound satisfactions come from exercising our talents. In other words, we act as subjects, exerting ourselves upon all the objects of creation. On Sabbath, we become the objects; passive recipients of all that God has placed in the world for our good. To no one’ great astonishment, this Sabbath observance bestows all manner of unexpected benefits upon the family. In each week, there is at least one day during which family members live with one another with no outside interruptions. On other days they may do things together or be entertained in one another’s company; on Sabbath they think, talk, or sing with one another. The human connection is on a far more intimate level.
So it is with all the other laws that make up the indescribably complex, Talmudically based Jewish legal code (which, by the way, earned high praise from Thomas Aquinas, who quoted Numbers 24:5 as he declared that the Law established “the best form of government,” I-II, 105, 1). In family matters, criminal justice, economic, national, and all other areas, the same principle prevails. All the laws are divinely designed for the safe and durable operation of human society. They do not proscribe in order to satisfy the whims of a capricious deity. They describe an existing reality which can be ignored only at one’s own peril.
In a similar fashion, it is a mistake to assume that until Sir Isaac Newton proclaimed the law of gravity at the end of the seventeenth century, Englishmen were free to float among the clouds immune to gravitational constraint. Newton did not proscribe, he described. Anyone was free to demonstrate their disdain for the Torah’s description of the built-in psychological needs of a man, but they, too, do so at their own peril. Conversely, those Jews who follow Scripture’s teaching about how to eat and about how to spend every seventh day discover delightful advantages.
That the Halacha system should directly benefit its adherents comes as no surprise to a people that believes its God to be intrinsically good and His Torah and Law His greatest gift to His special people.