Halacha is a discipline of logical, deductive methodology by which we extrapolate G-d's expectations of us in situations not already defined in prior written works. The precision with which we practice this discipline determines the accuracy with which we can know G-d's expectations of us in any given situation.
Halacha and History
The Torah is a book of halacha (G-d's expectations of His people), not a work of history. As such it ought to have opened with the first formal mitzvah given to the Jewish people in this week's parsha and not with the Creation, according to Rabbi Yitzchak quoted in the first Rashi on the Chumash.
Even more interesting than Rabbi Yitzchak's observation, is the reason he gives why the Torah actually does start with the Creation and only gets to the first mitzvah after fifteen parshiyot of history. The reason, he says, is to teach us that in the history of the Jewish people and their relationship with their land, causality is the reverse of the way it is conventionally understood in the academic study of history. Traditionally, the behaviors of individuals and nations are understood in the context of historic events. For example, many traditional historians posit that the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany resulted from Germany's humiliation at the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War. Hitler's rise in Germany in turn, was the cause of the Second World War and the holocaust. In Jewish history, particularly the history of Eretz Yisrael, the choices people make shape history rather than result from history. Human, especially Jewish behavior causes rather than results from historic events.
The Torah starts with the evolution of monotheism and its ethic, a moral choice made by the first Jew. It recounts the conflicts between monotheism and idolatry, and the flowering of the Jewish people among the nations of the world. It teaches the basis upon which G-d determines which nations will occupy Eretz Yisrael and for how long. The Torah shows how the behaviors of the occupants of Eretz Yisrael, whether Jew or gentile, determine their right to stay there. This idea is even more clearly articulated in Vayikra 18:25 (see by the Ramban there) where Hashem warns his people not to act like the nations who were expelled from Israel because such actions would result in the Jewish nation also being expelled from Israel. "Israel cannot sustain transgressors of the Law" (Rashi, Vayikra 18:28).
So how are we meant to act? What are Hashem's expectations of His chosen nation? The answer to this question constitutes the body of Halacha and it starts in our parsha, Bo. With the first formal mitzvah given to Israel, Hashem begins to direct us how to lead sanctified lives that can flourish in Eretz Yisrael.
The Calendar and History
The first of these directives is the Jewish calendar starting with the month of Nisan the fifteenth of which had already been designated as the moment of geulah (redemption). Once again we deviate here from traditional causality between significant dates and historic events. Usually, after an important event has occurred we note the date of its occurrence and might thenceforth observe that date as an anniversary of the event. This is not the case in Jewish history. In Jewish history the date is chosen first, and even the method of commemoration; the event occurs later! Consider the sequence in the parsha:
After the ninth plague the story is abruptly interrupted with the first Mitzvah, Kidush Hachoddesh (to sanctify the first day of each month and to operate the lunar calendar by which the dates of Holidays are determined). This is immediately followed by the next mitzvah,Korban Pesach (the Passover sacrifice) with some slight differences in the way it was to be performed that particular year in Egypt and the way it was to be practiced in subsequent years. Specifically, inShemos 12:14 we are told that this service is to be practiced "as a commemoration…throughout your generations…as an eternal practice you shall celebrate it." Again we see conventional causality reversed. The commemoration is prescribed and described in detail before the event has even occurred. Which is the cause and which is the effect? Is Pesach the commemoration of something that happened before, or in some strange way is Pesach the fixed point that was designed long before Yetzias Mitzrayim, and the historic event is the expression of the predetermined practice of Pesach?
Taking the commemoration as the cause and the event as the outcome, Rabbi Chaim Soleveitchik explained the answer we give to the wicked son at the Pesach seder. The son asks what the meaning is of our Pesach practice. We answer: Ba'avur zeh asah Hashem li betzeissi miMitzrayim (For the sake of this practice, G-d did all this for me when I left Egypt - Shemos 13:8)). Our Pesach practice is so important that it is for the sake of this practice and to make it relevant, that G-d enacted the whole drama of Yetzias Mitrayim for the Jewish people. The historic event is designed for and caused by the need for the practice; the practice is not a mere commemoration of an earlier historic event.
This also explains how Avraham and Lot kept Pesach so many generations before the Jews even went down to Egypt. As we are told in Kabbala, Hashem created the world (which incudes its history) from the blueprint he found in His Torah. Torah, the world of halacha, preceded history. The world and its history were designed to give expression to halacha rather than halacha having been designed to govern the world. Here we depart from secular academic thinking in the understanding of halacha.
At this point it is important to explain that the term halachah has two meanings. Its one meaning is a set of laws and practices codified in the Shulchan Aruch and developed further in various works thereafter until the present day. Its second meaning is a discipline of logical, deductive methodology to extrapolate G-d's expectations of us in situations not already defined in prior written works. This deductive methodology is incorporated in the body and study of Talmud. The precision with which we practice the discipline ofhalachik reasoning determines the accuracy with which we can know G-d's expectations in any given situation. In the discussion ofhalacha in this essay, we are referring to halacha specifically in its second meaning, that of deductive, Talmudic methodology.
Academics often attempt to understand halacha and chazal in their social and historic contexts and sometimes use this context to justify the abandonment of certain halachik practices in modern times. An example might be the suggestion that since the reason for the observance of the second day of Yomtov in the diaspora no longer applies because the calendar is preset and universally known, we no longer need to observe two days of Yomtov. Although contextual analyses can be intellectually illuminating, their use in the deductive methodology to reach halachik conclusion is not admissible in orthodox halachik process. To alter the halacha or create newhalachot by interpreting halacha sociologically or historically can be gravely erroneous from an halachik perspective.
The prime example of this erroneous halachik reasoning was King Shlomo's exclusion of himself (an halachik conclusion) from the law restricting the number of wives a Jewish king may take. He assumed that the law was intended to protect kings from being intellectually and morally seduced by their absorption in the many needs of their communities of wives. This was a valid philosophical and sociological interpretation and is actually stated in the Torah. Shlomo's mistake was not in his understanding of the halachik philosophy, it was in using this philosophic and sociological understanding as a factor in drawing halachik conclusion. He decided that he was brilliant, G-dfearing and tenacious enough not to be influenced by his wives and that the law therefore, did not apply to him. He changed the law as it is stated in the Torah not by using admissible halachic methodology but by using the philosophic and sociological context in which the law was given.
Through his humiliating error, King Shlomo taught us the limits of contextual reasoning in the halachik process. Because halachacauses history and influences sociology rather than the other way around, historic and sociological context cannot be used as part of the halachik process. If our forefathers were to have used historic context to apply halacha, they would not have observed Pesach centuries before the Jews even went to Egypt. But they did. They observed Pesach in their times even though it had no historic relevance yet because halacha is an independent system and applies eternally irrespective of context.
Halacha and Modernity
Even though historic context does not form part of halachikmethodology, current context is vital for the application of halachaand for halachik relevance in modern times. As new situations and modern challenges emerge, halacha helps us address the turbulence of modernity and understand Hashem's modern day expectations of us. This ongoing evolution of halachik process is the first meaning of the term halacha; a set of laws and practices codified in theShulchan Aruch and developed further in various works thereafter until the present day. It is only in the second meaning of the termhalacha, the discipline of halachik deductive methodology, that historic, sociological and philosophic context is not relevant.
For example, when electricity became a viable source of energy in the early 19th century, we needed to understand how it worked and to make halachik determinations about its use on Shabbattot and Yomtovim. However, the fact that lighting a fire on Shabbat is called a melacha (work) and that in the old days it took manual labor to start a fire while in modern times it can be done with the flick of a switch, was an irrelevant factor in the halachik methodology used to reach conclusions about its modern application.
The idea of the Jewish calendar introduced in the parsha reflects this exquisite tension between unwavering faithfulness to a rigorous, ancient method of reasoning and its alignment with modernity. Think of the lunar process of Kidush Hachodesh as a metaphor for thehalachik process that is followed by the Sanhedrin and our poskim. Think of the solar cycle as representing predictable scientific reality. The lunar process of Kidush Hachodesh is ancient and divine and is a process to which we have adhered since the beginning of time. But we are not permitted to be oblivious to the scientific reality of seasons determined by the solar, not the lunar cycle. Without detracting from the integrity of the lunar process of Kidush Hachodesh, from time to time we add a month into our lunar year so as to keep it aligned with the solar cycle of seasons.
This paradox of aligning ancient halachik method with modern scientific and existential challenges is the reality of Halachik Judaism.