The Halacha: Understanding and Identification
Religious Youth’s intellectual and emotional attitudes to the Halacha

Chemy Avnery

The observance of mitzvot is an essential element in Jewish religious identity. The Halacha establishes the content of the mitzvot and associated normative behaviors. In the first part of this project, the author investigates the attitudes of religious young people to the Halacha on two levels. The first level is the intellectual-conceptual: how do religious young people understand the concept ‘Halacha’? The second level is the emotional-dispositional: How do young people feel about the Halacha in general or about halachic particulars. Here the focus is primarily on the negative reactions that young people commonly experience in identifying with the halachic normative system.

The conceptions and feelings are drawn from three sources: verbal conversations with religious youth, questionnaires distributed to formerly religious youth, and verbal conversations with a number of teachers.

Ideas influence and inspire emotions. In this part of the project, the author points out some of the ways that this takes place. He then discusses some conceptions of the Halacha through which emotional alienation from the Halacha can be moderated and identification to it increased.

In the second part of the project, the author focuses on the multiple meanings of the term ‘Halacha’ and the diverse ways in which it is used. This analysis has an educational goal – to enable teachers to engage with their student’s alienation from the Halacha. The meanings of ‘Halacha’ vary greatly and in some cases even contradict one another, such that difficulties that arise from one meaning may be irrelevant when the Halacha is considered under a different meaning.

The diverse interpretations of the ‘Halacha’ reflect partial meanings that are founded on a central and essential notion of the Halacha. According to this notion, the Halacha is a legal system that includes all of the normative content of Judaism.

The study continues with a discussion of the commonly accepted notion that the Halacha is “everything written in the Shulchan Aruch”. The author shows that in one respect, this understanding of the Halacha is too broad, as the Shulchan Aruch (and other halachic works) includes normative instructions without distinguishing between levels of normative force. These include teachings that despite the fact that they merely describe superrogatory virtues, or moral invocations, are phrased in language of the highest normative force (“forbidden” or “obliged”). The understanding of the Halacha that can arise from this phenomenon is liable to impact upon one’s level of identification with the halacha, as described in this study. For this reason, the author recommends that educators indicate the normative force of any halachot that are taught.

In a different way, the notion that the Halacha is “everything written in the Shulchan Aruch” is very close to the essential notion of the Halacha, yet this is not brought to the fore in practical halachic education. Generally, halachic education focuses on ritual law, while obscuring the halachic concern for interpersonal relations. This focus is liable to induce the some of the above-mentioned difficulties and the author suggests that halachic education must emphasize the breadth of the halachic system, that includes interpersonal law and morality.


Download Article ( PDF 419K) Back to Journals 02 Bio

Copyright © 2000-2010 ATID. All rights reserved.