The Perfect Torah Versus the Evolving Torah, Part 5 The Mei HaShiloah on the Relationship Between God and Torah Restoring God to the Halachic Equation

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 24 april 2020

In the previous essay, we discussed the contemporary religious crisis of the alienation of God from Halacha. This crisis is marked by a growing disconnect between a narrow legal focus on Halacha vs. an all-encompassing religious engagement with the living God. I believe that the recent surge of interest in chassidic texts and spirituality, what can be termed the new wave or turn of neo-chassidism, emerging from within certain sectors of the Orthodox communities – even among those that were formerly regarded as bastions of a strictly rationalistic and anti-mystical approach to Judaism such as the Yeshiva University in the United States and Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel – attests to the profound disillusionment that young religious seekers feel about a dry Judaism which is obsessively preoccupied with logos and law, but is devoid of soul and spirit. (1) These groups are strictly committed to halachic observance, but are seeking to infuse it with greater spirituality.

As we have explained in the previous essay, Chassidic teachings in general and the Mei HaShiloah’s teachings in particular can serve as a corrective to restore the presence of God to Halachic observance. Halacha is not an end in itself, but a means to serve God. While Halacha is an integral and necessary component of religious life, it becomes distorted when it is regarded as the be-all and end-all of religious piety.

As the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel eloquently states, “Halacha must not be observed for its own sake but for the sake of God. The law must not be idolized. It is part, not all, of the Torah. We live for the sake of God rather than for the sake of the law.” (2)

The Mei HaShiloah on the Tension Between God’s True Will and Halacha

This brings us to the more radical teachings of the Mei HaShiloah where he explores the relationship between God, Torah and Halacha. In this essay, we will briefly explore these ideas and discuss the debate surrounding them. As we will see, the Mei HaShiloah’s ideas have much to bear on the discourse of Halacha within contemporary society.

Many Orthodox Jews espouse an approach that maintains that God’s will is fully revealed and expressed in Halacha. They maintain that essentially God’s will and the Torah are synonymous. The Mei HaShiloah points out that God transcends the Torah which contains only a limited expression and manifestation of His will. (3) For example, he states that no one can be certain whether s/he observes the Torah according to the depths of God’s will. It is possible to keep all the laws listed in the Shulchan Aruch, and yet be uncertain whether we live in full accord with the divine will. (4)

Furthermore, he differentiates between following the general rules of Torah (i.e. codified Halacha) vs. discerning the specific will of God for every given moment which may not always conform to the general rules laid down by the Halacha. (5)

One of the major contributions of the Mei HaShiloah’s thought is his original religious typological model regarding the biblical characters of Yosef and Yehuda. (6) Yosef represents the halachic personality who follows the Shulchan Aruch “by the book”, whereas Yehuda represents the religious personality who is attuned to the true will of God which at times may supersede Halacha.

Due to the centrality of the following passage in the Mei HaShiloah’s writings, it will be quoted here in full:
“This is what is meant by [the verse] Ephraim shall not envy Judah, And Judah shall not harass Ephraim [Isaiah 11:13]. In truth these two tribes are always in opposition to one another. The nature [hayyim] God gave to the tribe of Ephraim is to seek out everything according to the law [ma’aseh ‘al ha-din] and halakha without deviating from it. Therefore, when it is written that the purpose of the Torah is not to sin it states, Else He will rush fire upon you, the House of Joseph [Amos 5:6]. This means that you [Israel] should make sure [your actions] are not opposed to the actions [of the House of Joseph].
“The root of the life of Judah is always to search after God in every action regardless of what the law requires. [Judah] always looks to God in order that He will reveal to him the depth of the truth [‘omek ha-emet] in any particular situation. It could be that even though the decree [din] may be true according to the arguments of the litigants, it may not ultimately be true in that their testimony may be based on false assumptions, as we see in kinyan d‘Rabba [b.T. Nedarim 25b]. This can be true in all such matters.
“This is the root of the life of Judah, i.e., to seek out God in everything and not to act according to the dictum, a commandment of men – learned by rote [Isaiah 29:13]. Even though he performed a certain act in one way yesterday, today he will not depend on himself but only seek out God to reveal His will anew. This [mode of behavior] sometimes requires acting in opposition to the halakha [neged ha-halakha] for [it is written] It is the time to act for God for they have abandoned Your Torah [Psalms 119:126].
“This is the reason these two tribes oppose one another. However, in the future it is stated, Ephraim will not envy Judah and Judah shall not harass Ephraim [Isaiah 11:13]. This means that Ephraim will not oppose [the actions] of Judah when he acts outside the realm of halakha. He will not harass him because God will show Ephraim that Judah’s intentions were for the sake of heaven and not for his own benefit. As a result there will peace between them." (7)

The point of departure for the halachic personality is “what does the Shulchan Aruch require of me?” whereas for the religious personality this question is only secondary and ancillary to the fundamental question, “What does God require of me?” Although the halachic personality also fulfills the Halacha because it is the will of God, nevertheless, he views the Halacha as the complete embodiment of the divine will, whereas for the religious personality, as exemplified by the archetype of Yehuda, there is a hierarchical relationship between the two; Halacha is only a limited manifestation of the divine will but not its total embodiment. God is greater than Halacha.

The Mei HaShiloah, Halacha, and Antinomianism

The most controversial aspect of the Mei HaShiloah’s teachings is his suggestion that sometimes the will of God contradicts normative Halacha. He raises the possibility of a people receiving a divine illumination or perceiving an inner divine voice calling them to act in a way which conflicts with codified Halacha. (8)

This notion, that on rare occasions one may or even must violate Halacha, finds precedent within Talmudic sources.

One classic example is the incident where Elijah the Prophet built a sacrificial alter on Mt. Carmel, despite the prohibition of offering sacrifices outside the designated sanctuary. (9) Another instance is the permission to mention the name of God as part of a personal greeting, although it is usually strictly forbidden to utter God’s name in vain. (10) The Rabbinic sages quote the verse, “it is a time to act for the Lord, for they have violated Your Torah” (11) which they interpret to mean that in specific circumstances one must violate the laws of the Torah for God’s sake. (12)

A related concept is the notion of aveira lishma (a pious sin), (13) whereby one violates the Torah for a noble and holy purpose. (14) Classical rabbinic examples of this phenomenon are the sexual relations that Yael had with Sisera (15) and Queen Esther with King Ahashveirosh. Although these sexual liaisons were forbidden according to Talmudic law, they were pursued with righteous intent to save the Jewish people from death and destruction.

However, these Talmudic examples have always been regarded as rare exceptions to the prevailing halachic norm. Thus, we need to ask what was the Mei HaShiloah’s intention in invoking these precedents as exemplifying the religious worldview of the Yehuda paradigm in his religious typology? Did the Mei HaShiloah actually advocate religious antinomianism (breaking Halacha) in practice (albeit in unique circumstances)? Or did he merely entertain this notion in theory? Most importantly, what bearing does the Mei HaShiloah have on the contemporary halachic crisis?

Indeed, there is an ongoing raging debate about the Mei HaShiloah’s views about Halacha and antinomianism. (16) This debate is not just a dispassionate, theoretical debate taking place among ivory tower academics; rather it is a deeply passionate and personal debate where personal ideology and scholarly inquiry comingle and influence each other.

Both sides agree that on practical level, there is no evidence whatsoever that the Mei HaShiloah himself ever violated any Halacha or engaged in any other type of antinomian behavior or “holy sinning.” (17) They argue, however, whether the Mei HaShiloah was essentially a radical religious thinker who was very careful to couch his radical ideas in conservative language in order to conceal his subversive message; (18) or, whether he was essentially a traditional religious figure whose wider theological horizons of thought was belied by his staunch halachic practice. (19) In truth, it is possible that he was a complex figure and dialectical thinker whose religious weltanschauung consisted of balancing divergent ideas and competing truths. He may have entertained certain radical notions on a theoretical level, but his theological radicalism was held in check by an absolute commitment to Halacha in practice. (20)

However, the main question that concerns us in this essay is not what the Mei HaShiloah himself actually held, but how the Mei HaShiloah’s ideas relate to the contemporary Halachic crisis. We will explore this further in the next essay.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo and Yehudah BerDov Zirkind


(1) See the articles published in Adam Mintz, Lawrence Schiffman and Robert S. Hirt, eds., Jewish Spirituality and Divine Law (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2005); See also the article by Barbara Bensoussan, "Rekindling the Flame: Neo-Chassidus Brings the Inner Light of Torah to Modern Orthodoxy," Jewish Action, vol. 75, no. 4 (Dec. 2014): 20-29; and Binyamin Ehrenkranz, "Embracing Chassidus: Q. & A. with Rabbi Moshe Weinberger”, Ibid., 30-33.

(2) Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (NY: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1955), 326.

(3) See Mei HaShiloah, Volume 1, Shemot 20:2, s.v. Anochi.

(4) Ibid., Vayikra 26:3, s.v. Im.

(5) See, for example, Mei HaShiloah, Vol. 1, Bereshit 23:1 s.v. Vayiheyu; Ibid., Shemot 34:17, s.v. Elohei; Ibid., Bamidbar 2:1, s.v. Vayiseu; Ibid., 23:23 s.v. Ka'eit; Ibid., 36:5, s.v. Kein; Ibid., Tractate Shabbat 22b s.v. Hanacha; Ibid., Vol. 2, Shemot 6:23, s.v. Vayikach; Ibid., Bamidbar 9:2, s.v. Vya'asu.

(6) For on analysis of the Yosef vs. Yehuda typology in the Izbica tradition, see Shaul Magid, Hasidism on the Margin: Reconciliation, Antinomianism, and Messianism in Izbica/Radzin Hasidism (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), 169-184; Ora Wiskind-Elper, Wisdom of the Heart: The Teachings of Rabbi Ya‘akov of Izbica-Radzyn (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2010), chap. 2.

(7) Mei HaShiloah, Vol. 1, Bereshit 37:1 s.v. V’zeh; English translation by Shaul Magid, Hasidism on the Margin, 172-173.

(8) See above footnote #5.

(9) See Yevamot 90b; Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodei Hatora 9:3.

(10) Mishna Brachot 9:5.

(11) Tehillim 119:126.

(12) Mishna Brachot 9:5; Talmud Brachot 63a; See also tractates Yoma 69a; Gitin 60a; Temura 14b; Tamid 27b.

(13) See Nazir 23b; Horayot 10b.

(14) For an overview of the concept of Avera Lishma, see Yuval Blankovsky, Sin for the Sake of God: A Tale of a Radical Idea in the Talmudic Literature (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2017) [Hebrew]; Rabbi Asher Weiss, “Gedola avera lishma,” 2016 lecture (in Hebrew), accessible online; Alexander Klein “Gedola avera lishma,” Shma’atin 181 (2012): 133-150; Zvi Heber “Avera le-shem shamayim,” Ma’aliyot 21 (1999): 205-227; David Bashevkin, Sin•a•gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought (Boston: Cherry Orchard Books, 2019), chap. 5.
For an analysis of the way the concept of Averah Lishma was interpreted in Chassidic thought, see Yehoshua Mondshine, “The Fluidity of Categories in Hasidism: Averah Lishmah in the Teachings of R. Zevi Elimelekh of Dynow,” in Ada Rapaport-Albert, ed. Hasidism Reappraised (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1996), 301-320; Tsippi Kauffman, In All Your Ways Know Him: The Concept of God and Avodah Be-Gashmiyut in the Early Stages of Hasidism (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2009), chap. 12 [Hebrew]; Benjamin Brown, “The Two Faces of Religious Radicalism: Orthodox Zealotry and ‘Holy Sinning’ in Nineteenth-Century Hasidism in Hungary and Galicia”, The Journal of Religion 93, no. 3 (July 2013): 341-374.

(15) See Nazir 23b; Horayot 10b.

(16) See, for example, the studies by Rivka Shatz-Uffenheimer, “Autonomia Shel Ha-Ruah ve-Torat Moshe,” Molad 21 (1963): 554-556; Joseph G. Weiss, “A Late Jewish Utopia of Religious Freedom,” in David Goldstein, ed., Studies in East European Jewish Mysticism and Hasidism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 209-248; Rachel Elior, “Temurot be-machshava ha-datit be-chasidut polin - beyn yir'ah ve-ahava le-omek ve-gavan,” Tarbiz 62, no. 3 (Nisan-Sivan 1993): 381-432; Idem, Cherut al haluchot: ha-machshava ha-chasidit, mekoroseha ha-mistiyim ve-yesodoseha ha-kabaliyim (Tel Aviv: Misrad habitachon: 1999), chap. 11; Jonatan Meir, “The Status of Commandments in the Philosophy of Rabbi Mordechai Joseph Leiner of Izbica,” Mishlav 35 (2000): 27-53 [Hebrew].

(17) Note the following comment by Rabbi Herzl Hefter in his article “‘In God's Hands’: The Religious Phenomenology of R. Mordechai Yosef of Izbica,” Tradition 46, no. 1 (2013): 50, “The following anecdote told in Hasidic circles is particularly relevant. One morning, the story goes, when R. Mordechai Yosef arose from his bed, he inadvertently tied his right shoe before his left (in violation of the ruling of the Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 2:4). So shaken was R. Mordechai Yosef that he fasted that day in penance. See R. Yeruham Leiner, Maamar Zikkaron la-Rishonim, (Jerusalem, 1997), 8.”

(18) A representative example of a more radical reading of the Mei HaShiloah is Shaul Magid, Hasidism on the Margin. For Shaul Magid's recent reflections on the ideological factors and religious agendas fueling the debate on how to interpret the Mei HaShiloah’s ideas and other seemingly controversial chassidic texts, see his article, “Who Owns the Black Hat? Zionist Scholars Are Battling the Religious Left for the Hasidic Legacy,” accessible online.

Note the astute comment and trenchant critique of Magid’s reading by Allan Nadler, “At the end of his long discussion of antinomianism, often fascinating but at times convoluted and confusing, Magid is still unable to point to a single example of actual antinomian behavior by a single Hasid since the inception of the Izbica dynasty in 1839. This hard historical fact raises a central question: if the very idea that makes Izbicer Hasidism so intriguing was never translated into practice, what exactly are its meaning and historical importance? That the potentially antinomian doctrines in Izbicer writings have been interpreted internally (i.e., by Radziner Hasidim) as applying only to postmessianic times, Magid seems to find quite irksome. He has his own agenda, which, by the book’s conclusion, has become quite apparent. (Allan Nadler’s Review of Shaul Magid’s Hasidism on the Margin, Jewish Quarterly Review, Volume 96, Number 2, (Spring 2006), p. 281).

(19) A representative example of a more conservative reading of the Mei HaShiloah is Benjamin Brown, “Theoretical Antinomianism and the Conservative Function of Utopia.”

(20) Note that this insight can also be applied to other Jewish thinkers such as the Rambam and Rav Kook.

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