Halakha, Aggadah and Jesus

If I had time for another hobby, it would be following the Supreme Court the way a sports junkie follows sports. For most people, sports is about finding a team and cheering for it. For a true junkie, though, the data and analysis have their own charm. I love hearing about Supreme Court cases not to root for one side or another, but to savor the sheer intellectual joy of the questions they address.

A few months ago, for instance, the Supreme Court heard the case of a nurse who argued he’d lost his job because his immediate supervisor was prejudiced against his activities as a military reservist. By the time the case got to the Supreme Court, the issue wasn’t over whether this was true, though: the hospital argued that because he’d actually been fired by someone else, the supervisor’s prejudice shouldn’t constitute wrongful dismissal, while the reservists’ lawyers argued that a proving a supervisor’s prejudice should be enough to prove wrongful dismissal even if the supervisor did not make the firing decision.

Am I the only one who finds this fascinating? Nine of our country’s great minds are assigned to be arbiters of definitions: definitions which can alter the way business is conducted, the way we conduct ourselves in public, what formulas police have to recite in cop shows. What more evidence of the power of words could you have than that!

This is also part of what interests me about Talmudic debate and the great rabbis of bygone eras. Though the times have completely changed, there’s still something compelling to me about the way Rava and Abbaya argue about the minimum amount of money (in Babylonian coinage) required to be given to the bride or her family in order for a marriage contract to be valid; there’s something beautiful about Hillel and Shammai’s debate over which way the Mezuzah on the door should face (one said vertical, the other horizontal–which is why most Mezuzahs are put at an angle to this day). Though I am not a Jew, I enjoy reading about Jewish jurisprudence because the ancient Jewish commitment to negotiating the spaces between fixed texts and fluid life is fascinating to me.

I am beginning to suspect, however, that Jesus didn’t make a single halakhic argument in his life.

Maybe it’s because he taught that the world was going to end soon: if we’re always a step away from the Day of Judgment, detailed human jurisprudence doesn’t sound so pressing or essential anymore. What I mean is: if we all knew Jesus were coming back tomorrow, Supreme Court justices could throw up their hands at every case and say, “Let God be the Judge!”

Or maybe he wanted the apostles to be able to focus on preaching with getting sucked into constant arbitration and conflict resolution. That’s the position he himself takes in Luke 12:14: “who made me a judge or a divider over you?”

No, for whatever reason, Jesus focused not on halakha, but on its less prestigious complement aggadah. If halakha are textual readings that try to bridge the gap between text and life by settling matters of definition, aggadah are riffs on the text that try to accentuate an element in a homily or story.

So instead of focusing on which exclamations of anger should be regulated by the courts, Jesus tells a story about a man who says “thou fool!” and gets burned by a stray tongue of fire from the underworld. Instead of debating, as Hillel and Shammai did, what should constitute legal grounds for divorce (Hillel went as low as a burned meal, Shammai insisted on adultery), Jesus tells a story about how before the law of Moses there was a law of Adam.

One possible criticism of Jesus is that his teachings can’t really be put into action on a collective scale. There’s a reason there is no Christian jurisprudence.

One thing you can say in praise of Jesus is that he tried as hard as anyone ever has to write the law (using his crazy stories) on our hearts.

And though I love the way that good judges and lawyers work with language, as much as I envy their manifest influence on reality (and their accompanying compensation), I take some comfort in seeing the way that Jesus chose to work with language instead. That in addition to giving his life for us, he gave us stories. And that stories are a gift with the power to change the world, or at least the souls that make important stops in it.

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5 Responses to Halakha, Aggadah and Jesus

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Very nice. I am not sufficiently aware of Jewish legal traditions to know whether you’ve done a good job of capturing these terms and their meanings, but it’s certainly thought-provoking — especially on just what that “godly conversation” we’re supposed to be practicing might actually be like.

  2. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Jesus may have preferred stories to argument, but that hasn’t stopped the rest of us from arguing about what they mean. Such irony. A wonderful post, and no, you aren’t entirely alone. Argument is a fascinating thing to watch.

  3. James Goldberg says:


    Set up enforceable standards, arguing about definitions, and judging are all important in conducting business in an imperfect world.

    On the Day of Judgment, though, I think arguments about precise definitions won’t matter. Is it too much of a stretch to say we’ll be judged by the stories we lived by?

  4. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Love this, James. No “straining eyes at gnats” for the good Yeshua, certainly.

  5. Genghis says:

    Yet, Jesus was not silent on Halachic matters. Some examples that come to mind include his criticism of the prevailing halacha on Corban and on adultery.

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