Tradition Today: Beyond the law

The idea of going beyond the requirements of the law is well documented in Jewish tradition, but it is usually applied to matters of ethics and morals.

haredim kosher food 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haredim kosher food 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Over the past few decades glatt kosher products – termed mehadrin – seem to have proliferated beyond all expectations. Not only do we find glatt kosher meat, but also fish, vegetables and even water. This seems rather strange considering the fact that glatt is actually applied only to the way in which meat is examined after slaughtering.
I suppose that what has happened is that the term has come to mean “extra strict supervision,” or just supervision by rabbis that are trusted in certain circles. It has reached the point where although I would be happy to eat products that are simply kosher, it is getting harder and harder to find them. On El Al, for example, the regular meals are kasher l’mehadrin. But you can also order “special kosher” which is supervised by different rabbis who are the only ones trusted by some groups.
If people want to be extra strict with themselves, that is their right, but I often wonder why this extra strictness seems to be confined to ritual mitzvot rather than to ethical ones. Whenever I hear about glatt, I am reminded of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s comment that we need a mashgiah not just for food but for other things such as lashon hara – gossip – as well.
The idea of going beyond the requirements of the law in our conduct is well documented in Jewish tradition, but it is usually applied to matters of ethics and morals. Indeed Judaism recognizes that one can be a “villain within the confines of the laws of Torah.” Law and law codes can go only so far. True goodness and righteousness demand that we not simply follow the laws but go beyond them in our actions.
In rabbinic literature we have the concept of midat hassidut – the quality of piety – in which the individual gives up rights that are his by law in favor of others, or goes beyond the strict requirements of law to fulfill the Torah’s demand to do “keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right...” (Genesis 18:19). The truly pious person – the mehadrin, if you will – will not only do what the law requires, but will want to know what justice and righteousness demand of him or her.
For example, in Pirkei Avot we find the definition of the pious person is one who says, “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours” (5:12) – meaning that even if the law would award him something belonging to the other person, he will not take it because he does not feel that it is the right thing to do.
I recently came across a remarkable passage in Maimonides’ code of Jewish law in which he went out of his way to say that although the law of the Torah may permit something, a good Jew will not follow it but will act mercifully. The passage concerns slavery, specifically the treatment of the non-Jewish slave. Since the Torah states “You shall not rule over him ruthlessly” (Leviticus 25:43) only in reference to the Hebrew slave, it was inferred that it was permitted to be ruthless with the non-Hebrew slave. Maimonides then ruled that “it is permitted to make a Canaanite slave work ruthlessly.” That is the Torah’s law.
However, he then continues, “Even though this is the law, the quality of mercy and the ways of wisdom teach that one should be merciful and pursue righteousness and not act unjustly toward his [Canaanite] slave or work hardship on him. Rather he should give him all kinds of food and drink... Nor should one scream at or be angry overmuch with his slave, but speak with him kindly and listen to his complaints... Cruelty and harshness are the ways of idolaters, while Israel, the seed of our father Abraham, who were taught by the Holy One through the beneficence of the Torah laws and statutes of righteousness, are merciful toward all.”
All too often observant people look upon Judaism as a series of laws that tells us what to do and what not to do. If we adhere to these laws, we are content and feel that we have done what is required of us. But the truth is that such conduct is not sufficient. Remember what the prophet Micah proclaimed, “What does the Lord require of you – only to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). We must judge our actions not against a checklist of laws, but against the greater demands of justice, mercy and humility. Micah may have thought that that was easy, but it is not. Without it, however, our actions are little more than rote and lack any moral passion.
The laws of the Torah are the base upon which we can build the goodlife that God desires, the life that, in Maimonides’ words, willdemonstrate that the beneficence of Torah will ensure that we eliminate“cruelty and harshness,” follow “statutes of righteousness” and “aremerciful toward all.” That is truly what glatt kosher morals require ofthose who would be truly mehadrin.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.