What happens in heaven? The question has caught the attention of everyone from ancient theologians to modern New Yorker cartoonists. If it continues to fascinate, that is because it touches on other timeless questions. What is perfection? What are the secrets of the universe? What explains who we are and why we are here?
In the Bible, the familiar image of heaven is the divine throne, hinted at in the scenes of Moses’ colloquies with God (especially Exodus 24), referred to explicitly in Psalms (45:7, 47:9), and adumbrated in Ezekiel’s ecstatic description of the angels and heavenly creatures singing God’s praises amid chariots, lightning, and fire. The Christian book of Revelation contains some twenty chapters drawing on these themes.
The rabbis of the Talmud also frequently describe heaven through the image of God’s throne, an emblem of His sovereignty over all created things. But, in one particular text, the Talmud presents a picture of heaven quite unlike anything in the Bible, an image that is indeed unthinkable, if not blasphemous, outside of its uniquely rabbinic context. It opens as follows (Bava Metzia 86a):
They were arguing in the Academy of Heaven.
Sit with these words for a moment. First, focus on the noun “academy.” In this talmudic passage, heaven is not a place of angels, halos, lyres, pearly gates, or fluffy clouds, or of chariots, smoke, lightning, or thunder. The essence of heaven is an academy—a yeshiva—a place of Torah study.
Then there’s the verb, “arguing.” This heaven is a place not of peace and tranquility but of intellectual debate and contention. About what? The mysteries of the cosmos? The answers to life’s ultimate meaning? The secrets that emerge when theology meets physics? The revelation of God’s ultimate purpose?
Hardly; none of the above. The passage continues:
If the blotch on the [individual’s] skin preceded the white hair, he is impure.
If the white hair preceded the blotch on the skin, he is pure.
Not only does the Academy of Heaven forgo any discussion of ultimate truths, but the question being debated at this highest imaginable institution of learning centers on an issue of law—and not just any issue, but one involving some of the most obscure, picayune, and technical details that can be found in the entire rabbinic canon.
To be precise, the question being debated relates to the laws of tsara’at, the skin malady described in Leviticus 13 and commonly translated as leprosy. Here is the background: if an individual’s skin develops a white blotch and then the hairs inside the blotch also turn white, the affected person is diagnosed with tsara’at and deemed impure for ritual purposes. But if the hair turns white first, and then the skin blotch appears, the infection is deemed benign and the individual is declared pure.
Simple enough; but now a complication arises. Suppose there is doubt as to which occurs first, the blotch or the hair turning white. Then what? And who’s to decide? We’re in heaven, after all; in any well-functioning heavenly academy, God would be sitting on His throne teaching authoritatively with the student-angels seated in rapt attention below. But the Talmud’s heavenly academy is different, and so is the role played by the angels:
The Holy One, blessed is He, says he is pure,
While the rest of the Academy of Heaven says he is impure.
The Talmud then goes one bold step farther. Not only is God not the final arbiter, and not only are the angels accorded equal status with Him, but the final decision is put in the hands of a talmudic rabbi who must be called up to the academy to adjudicate:
They [the Academy] asked: “Who will judge this issue?”
It was decided that Rabbah bar Naḥmani [should perform that function].
As Rabbah bar Naḥmani said, “I have singular knowledge in the laws of leprosy.”
They sent a messenger to fetch him.
What we have seen here is by no means the only view of heaven in the Talmud, but it is a view that only the Talmud could fathom or propose. In a few short lines, it has told us quite a bit about how it understands both heaven and halakhah, a word almost universally translated as Jewish law.
In heaven, presumably, there are no mortals and certainly no lepers—and even if there were, God would certainly know whether blotch or white hair came first. But, for the Talmud, a legal rule has meaning and reflects something important beyond its potential applicability to any given case or controversy. That is why God and the angels debate these incredibly specific details. It follows, therefore, that the law and its details are intrinsically worthy of study—so worthy, indeed, as to form the central activity in heaven itself. A debate between God and the angels over an intricacy of halakhah is, to the Talmud, ultimate perfection.
What exactly, then, is halakhah? In its literal sense, the word means something akin to “the way,” or “the path.” At the same time, however, halakhah presents itself as a regulatory system, and one that has governed virtually every concrete aspect of the life practiced by observant Jews for centuries.
Take, for example, the influential 16th-century work known as the Shulḥan Arukh, literally a “set [or ready] table.” This four-part compilation, commonly referred to as a (or the) definitive code of Jewish law, begins with the “Laws of Arising in the Morning” and carries on right through to the “Laws of Retiring to Bed” followed by the “Laws of Modesty” (sexual intimacy) and everything from the laws of childbirth to the laws of mourning. Elsewhere, this compendious work not only instructs one to eat matzah on Passover but legislates when one should eat it (after nightfall but before midnight), how much one must eat (one or maybe two olives’ worth), what position one should assume while eating it (reclining—but to the left), and the maximum length of time one can allot to eating it (about ten minutes). The same is true for what to wear and when to wear it, how to do business and with whom—not to mention the laws of Sabbath, Jewish holidays, prayers, blessings, marriage, divorce, inheritance, and thousands of other familiar and lesser-known practices.
Committed Jews observe these laws by, among other things, ceasing all travel and work-related activity before sundown on Friday evening, eating only kosher food, and maintaining separate sets of dishes for meat and for dairy foods. Each spring, Jews restock their kitchens with food that is especially kosher for Passover, and for the purpose of eating this food they haul out two additional sets of milk and meat dishes, not to mention the kitchenware, reserved for the holiday.
Whether measured in time, energy, or money, many of these practices come at great expense, yet religiously observant Jews adhere to them because halakhah so demands. Moreover, though less commonly today, Jewish communities were once empowered to punish those who flagrantly violated halakhah’s rules.
So there are compelling reasons to translate halakhah as Jewish law. But, as hinted in the talmudic passage I introduced earlier, that English phrase also misconstrues the role of halakhah and how it functions. It does so both by overestimation and by underestimation.
On the overestimating side, the term “law” would seem to place halakhah in the same category as American law, German law, or Uruguayan law: that is, a legal system established by an independent state with the authority to make and enforce its rules. Halakhah, however, has not generally functioned in a specific country; it is instead the law of a people, not of a place, and a law that operates outside of (and often at cross-purposes with) the power structures of the states or principalities in which Jews have historically resided.
Furthermore, halakhah has rarely maintained the autonomy needed to enforce the full range of its regulatory regime or to be solely “in charge” of Jewish life. Throughout their history, Jews have been subject to political and legal systems that compete with halakhah, and to which halakhah has often accommodated itself. In brief, both halakhah’s authority to govern and its method of governance are quite different from how American, German, or Uruguayan law regulates each of those countries.
On the underestimating side, translating halakhah as Jewish law does not begin to grasp the role it plays in Jewish life. This point is best illustrated by another tale about the study of halakhah, this one a true story set not in heaven but very much down here on earth.
A few years ago, a flyer was posted in the synagogue of an upper-middle-class Orthodox community outside New York City whose congregants tend to be doctors, lawyers, real-estate developers, businesspeople, and white-collar professionals. The flyer publicized a lecture to be delivered on Shabbat afternoon by a guest rabbi from another community. Most of the information provided was routine: the rabbi’s name, the time and place of the lecture, and the names of the sponsors who made it possible.
On any given weekend, similar announcements can be found in thousands of churches and community centers across the country. But two things set this announcement apart. One was the topic of the lecture: “Bidding Competitively on Goods or Properties when Others are Previously Involved”—an issue vaguely related to what lawyers call tortious interference with contract. The other was the rabbi’s title: dean of an advanced institute of talmudic study specializing in business and commercial law.
For a professor who teaches the subject of contract law, the details to be discussed by the afternoon lecturer might be fascinating. Indeed, in any other setting in contemporary America, a lecture under this title would be delivered by a law professor speaking to students or academic colleagues, or by an attorney addressing clients. The subject is hardly a matter of general interest, and certainly of dubious appeal to a lay audience—much less to anyone in search of spiritual fulfillment. Nor, for congregants like these who considered themselves already bound by halakhah, was the lecture designed to elucidate the rules directly relevant to common scenarios of religious observance. And yet, on that Shabbat afternoon, nearly 150 lay individuals came out to hear the rabbi guide them through the byways of a talmudic discussion.
Why? For those involved, the answer is clear: they did not see the event as a lecture either on law or on anything related to the concerns of business or commercial life but rather as an opportunity to participate in a quintessentially spiritual experience: the study of Torah, an activity that competes not only with such other spiritual enterprises as prayer and good works, and not only with other intellectual interests like studying philosophy, art, or science, but with virtually every other human pursuit—up to and including the basic human need of earning a living. Instead, following the example of God and the angels in the Academy of Heaven, the congregation was engaged in a devotional act.
Nor is grappling with the legal minutiae of God’s Torah an enterprise unique to one New York City suburb. Every day, thousands of men and, increasingly, women around the globe gather in synagogues and office parks, sit in trains or buses, or log in online to study a double-sided page of Talmud. The program, known as daf yomi (a page a day), completes the entire Talmud over a span of seven-and-a-half years.
In August 2012, more than 90,000 such students crammed into MetLife Stadium—home to the National Football League’s two New York City-based teams — to mark the completion of another multiyear cycle. (By comparison, a mere 81,500 fans turned out for Superbowl XLIII.) It was a celebration at least as stirring as any sports game, rock concert, or political rally, and all in the name of an enormous and enormously technical legal work of more than 5,400 pages studied each day as a religiously prescribed “hobby.”
Roughly 1,600 years ago, a talmudic sage predicted that “in the future, the stadiums of the Gentiles will be used by Jewish leaders to teach Torah in public” (Megillah 6a). For the vast majority of intervening centuries, this declaration could only have been understood as a messianic hope—or a delusional display of hubris. But by 2012, the commitment to Torah study could fill one of America’s massive colosseums to overflowing.
Packed stadiums are one thing, but the unique status of Jewish law is even more evident in life’s quieter moments. When a parent is critically ill and a child wants to beseech God for a cure, Torah study is an appropriate response. Should the parent pass on, Torah study is a time-honored way to commemorate the departed. The same is true of joyous occasions—weddings, bar mitzvahs, newborn celebrations, graduations, birthdays.
I have spent a decade-and-a-half in the company of accomplished legal scholars and am fortunate to know very successful lawyers. Yet I’ve never been to a stadium full of people celebrating the U.S. Constitution, much less the tax code; have never heard a law professor address a church group on the details of contract law; and have never seen a parent, faced with the joy of new life, or a child faced with the tragedy of a parent’s death, whip out the Uniform Commercial Code in search of inspiration or insight. By contrast, it is hard to imagine any private, public, social, religious, or institutional setting where it would not be appropriate to take out a book and study or expound on some finer point of Jewish law.
What for the Talmud, and for so many Jews today, is heaven, for Grant Gilmore, one of the 20th century’s best-known professors of law, is hell. “The better the society,” Gilmore concludes his classic book on American legal history,
the less law there will be. In heaven there will be no law. . . . The worse the society, the more law there will be. In hell there will be nothing but law, and due process will be meticulously observed.
The difference could not be starker. And the reason for that difference is that while halakhah is undoubtedly law, it is also something else. What makes it so difficult to identify that additional “something” is the paucity of useful parallels to it in Western systems, and the lack of a worked-out theory in most Jewish sources.
To put the matter broadly, the rabbis of old used concepts forged within halakhah’s regulatory framework to do the work that other societies assign to philosophy, political theory, theology, and ethics, and even to art, drama, and literature. While halakhah’s regulatory ideals are realized through observance of its laws, access to its broader social and religious aims is gained through its study.
This aspect of the rabbinic ideal of Torah study can best be demonstrated by the Talmud’s insistence on preserving complex debates over points of law that it admits are obsolete or have no possible applicability. It does that because halakhah “applies” not only when carried out as law, but when standing as a normative idea in a system that continuously analyzes and cross-references its foundational concepts. The rabbis view their law not only as a collection of bureaucratic commands imposed by an external agent, even if that agent is God, but as a language of wisdom that explores values, shapes thought, and guides behavior—through legal instruction.
In sum, halakhah is not only a body of regulations but a way, a path, of thinking, being, and knowing. In this sense it is also the analogue of a classical liberal-arts education, offering a set of concepts for understanding and interpreting the world and making decisions within it. All of which means that the relevant question is not what halakhah regulates but what, through the process of regulating, it teaches.
The present essay is adapted from Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law by Chaim N. Saiman, newly published by Princeton University Press in partnership with the Tikvah Fund. Copyright 2018 by Princeton University Press. By permission.