“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”
Thus speaks Jesus in the Book of Matthew, condemning the forerunners of Judaism’s great rabbis for neglecting the spirit of the law, even while upholding its letter. Such condemnations are found throughout the New Testament, and this classic Christian critique of halakhah, Jewish law, has been repeated throughout the millennia by Jewish and Gentile critics of traditional Judaism. Yet, Judaism’s sages have long maintained that halakhah represents the will of the Almighty, and that its careful study can allow us a glimpse into His mind.
How can the study of rules surrounding marriage and divorce, the Sabbath and tort law, draw us closer to God? This is one of the questions at the heart of Professor Chaim Saiman’s new book, Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, published by Princeton University Press as part of the Tikvah Fund’s Library of Jewish Ideas series. This remarkable book—written for laymen and experts alike—demonstrates how the rabbis of the Talmud use the language of law to tackle questions of values, theology, beauty, the nature of man, and much more. Behind the legal details of the Oral Torah lies an entire body of thought about the deepest questions of human life.
In this podcast, Professor Saiman joins Tikvah Senior Director Rabbi Mark Gottlieb to discuss his book. They explore what makes the study of Talmud so peculiar in our modern world, the deeper meaning of rabbinic legal discourse, and whether the word “law” is even a fitting way to describe the intricate system of value-laden practice that makes up the halakhah.
Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble as well as “Engineered to Perfection” by Peter Nickalls.