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If Judaism Is Spiritual, Why All the Rules?

If Judaism Is Spiritual, Why All the Rules?

On Freedom By Choice


Dear Ask-the-Rabbi Rabbi,

I was a social activist for many years, and then began dabbling in Buddhism. Now I feel drawn back to my Jewish roots. I’m excited by Judaism’s joy and celebration of life, but discouraged by the seemingly endless list of dos, don’ts and details. I’m looking for spirituality and self-expression, not more rules to follow. Isn’t modern life already stifling enough that we have to add yet more restrictions?

—A. Sikur

Dear A,

Yes, life has rules. Many rules. Why? Because the universe is built of rules. Whatever you care to call them—physics, karma, social norms, natural consequences. We all live within those rules. They are, after all, the infrastructure of being.

But Judaism More than Torah is about keeping rules, it’s about breaking Torah, and while Torah has rules, at it’s depth, it’s really about breaking rules.

If Torah was just about rules, G‑d would have introduced it at Mount Sinai by saying, “I am G‑d who created heaven and earth.” Then we would understand that our duty is to follow the laws of heaven and earth. But instead, He said, “I am G‑d who took you out of the land of the Egypt.” Because Torah is about escaping the bondage of a limited world, about transcending the laws of heaven and earth.1

In the beginning G‑d created the heavens and the earth.2

As a programmer codes parameters at the head of the program; as a screenwriter lays out the profile of each character before the script begins; as the artist mixes his palette before his brush touches the canvas; as the musician chooses his key, mode and meter before he begins to play—all in order to compose a new reality, an entire world consistent and harmonious within itself; to artfully suspend disbelief and grant life to that which never before existed—so too, in six days, the Creator set the rules of heaven and earth.

And God saw the light that it was good, and God separated between the light and between the darkness. And God called the light day, and the darkness He called night.3

And so there was Rule #1: Light should be light and dark should be dark, and each will have its time and boundary.

And God made the expanse and it separated between the water that was below the expanse and the water that was above the expanse, and it was so.4

And so there was Rule #2: The heavens will be above and the earth will be below, and each will have its space and boundary.

From there, all that exists was given its boundary, its limitations, its space to be a thing all of its own, as though it had no creator. As though it were just a thing that is because it always was.

Which is how it remained for the next 2,448 years. Until the Torah was given. And then it was time to break all the rules.

There was a king who decreed, “The citizens of Rome may not descend to Syria, and the citizens of Syria may not arise to Rome.”

So, too, when the Holy One, may He be blessed, created the world, He decreed, “The heavens are the heavens of G‑d, and the earth He has given to the children of Adam.”

But when He wished to give the Torah, he annulled His original decree. He said, “Those below shall rise above and above shall descend below. And I will initiate.”

And so it says, “And G‑d descended upon Mount Sinai…”

And after, it is written, “To Moses He said, ‘Arise up to G‑d!’”

That is the meaning of the verse, “Whatever G‑d desires, so He does, in the heavens and in the earth.”5

So it was that the very first rules of creation were knocked down by none other than the One who had set them up to begin with. And that was only to show us the way to follow. Which means that the rules of Torah are nothing less than keys to liberation from those rules that had been set in the six days of creation.

From Sinai on, light must break into the place of darkness, and darkness must begin to shine like light. Wisdom must pour down from the heavens and soak the earth, and the earth must sprout with wisdom. Serenity and spirituality must leave the place of the hermits and enter the place of common daily business, and the common people must come to know G‑d in all their ways of business. The innermost secret wisdom must spill out onto the street, until the street will speak wisdom.

And all your challenges, your upbringing, your handicaps, your impossible circumstances— everything the world throws at you to keep you chained to its bondage—no longer must any of these hold you back, but rather they must be transformed and exploited to become your means of achieving true freedom, a freedom you have fought for and won on your own, wielding the light-saber of Torah.

The Artist’s Signature

Why did the Creator create rules and then teach us to break them?

Perhaps G‑d is an artist. Perhaps the universe is art.

An artist’s greatest wish is to create a work that will live and breathe on its own. The portrait artist wants you to stare at his portrait and be grabbed by the life running through the subject. The author wants you to immerse yourself in a life he has constructed until it becomes your life. The producer wants you to forget your reality and live within the one he has created for you.

And then, at the bottom corner of the painting, on the cover of the book, at the end of the movie, the artist punctures a hole in his art and bursts its bubble. He signs his name and tells you, “I made this.”

Is the beauty gone? No. It is revealed. As long as we were suspended within its grasp, we had no context, no space to appreciate it. The signature provides that space, so that we can step back and say, “How awesome! How wondrous! What art is this!”

It is a paradox, but the signature, in the very act of subverting the artist’s genius, completes it.

The rules, the parameters, the protocols—they are all there to create a masterpiece of beauty. As David wrote in his Psalms, “Who awesome are Your works, oh G‑d! Due to Your great might, Your enemies deny You!”6 Meaning: You outdid Yourself. You created a world that seems so real, so self-sustaining, so compelling, that those dwelling within it can deny there was ever an Artist who made this.

So there is a Torah,Torah is the Artist’s signature, and we were given the job to stamp that signature on each of His works. the Artist’s signature,7 and we were given the job to stamp that signature on each of His works. To create a space, a vacuum, a window for the Creator to enter His creation, and for the creation to reveal its Creator.

To break out of prison, you need a hatchet and a crowbar. But there is no beauty in a broken grate. To break out of the prison of this world, you must liberate the world itself. The prison must be shown for what it truly is, a garden, an art gallery, a novel, yet incomplete, awaiting our work to redeem its beauty. Awaiting the final signature of the infinite mind that made it and sustains it.

The Artist’s Paradox

The artist’s paradox is rich and juicy. In one way, it tells us how the laws of nature exist to create a real world. In another way, it tells us how the laws of Torah create beauty in that world.

The artist’s paradox is that to become an artist you must have two opposite qualities: A fountain of creative expression that bursts through any restraint, coupled with the discipline to labor for hours until the rules of the craft sink into your bones. “Once you get rid of the garbage-movements,” a cellist once taught me, “once your fingers go only where they need to go, then you can start playing music.”

Art, then, is not simply to leap into the air, open your mouth and release the emotions inside, or to throw paint on a canvas and expect beauty to emerge. Art is the unbounded in tight, determinate containers.

Why? Because true art is not simply about something you want to express. Art is the artist placing the very core of his being on the table. The core of your being doesn’t naturally flow outward. The core of your being is unknown to all, invisible even to yourself. Even to say that it is unbounded does not capture its essence. It is free. It is that of you that can choose to be whatever it wishes to be.

So that the only window upon your core of being is at the nexus of two opposite lines, a point where creativity and rigorous discipline somehow impossibly cross. That is art, that is beauty—that window of paradox.

EveryA paradox says, “I am not this, neither am I the opposite of this." artist emulates the prototype of all art—the creation within which we stand. Here, a rock is not a rock, a flower is not a flower, a carp swimming in a pond is not a carp. Look closer, and you will see. All are articulations of infinite consciousness expressing itself as finite beings. Because the Artist desires the very core of His being to be found within His art. And that can occur only through paradox. A paradox that says, “I am not this, neither am I the opposite of this. I am not finite, nor can you define me as the Infinite. For I can be both at once and neither at the same time.”8

Two Worlds and Their Rules

If so, what is the difference between the outer world and its rules, and the Torah world and its rules? Both are a magnificent paradox, the ultimate art, as infinity squeezes into the finite. What renders one a prison, while the other is true freedom?9

Because the restrictions of the outer world are imposed by its own boundaries, and that makes them hard and real. The restrictions of Torah are imposed by choice—and therefore they are the ultimate freedom.

The laws of nature are bondage. Autumn will follow the summer, and winter the autumn—and there is nothing in all the world you can do about it. You will be younger than your parents. The color of your eyes will be determined at birth. You will have no choice as to where you will be born and to whom, what school you will attend as a child and what food they will give you.

There will be poverty and there will be wealth. There will be war and there will be peace. There will be oppressors and there will be the oppressed. The world will turn, the sun will rise in the east and set in the west, and no human hand can stop it.

Why must the world be this way? Because it is the stage on which a grand drama will play, a masterpiece of art, in which created beings will struggle to make hard choices and overcome sinister darkness with the power of light. Once that drama was composed, every prop was already determined—all the laws of nature, all the patterns of the universe. So that, in this universe, in all these props and backdrops, although He is here, we do not have the Artist at His core. We have bondage.

But why did He choose that drama?

Why did He choose that good is good and bad is bad? Why did He choose that stealing, lying and murder should be harmful? Why did He choose that they could exist at all?

Why did He choose that Shabbat will be on the seventh day? That there will be ten commandments at Sinai and not nine or eleven? That the leather boxes in which the scrolls of tefillin are encased must be cubical and not rounded? And that by our fulfilment of these things, He will be drawn into His world, through each mitzvah in its particular way?

Because He chose. That is what lies beyond all that is beyond—beyond even the infinite: The freedom to choose. And that is where all things began.

So that in the drama itself that plays upon that stage, there lies freedom. As the Grand Director chose freely the elements of that drama, so do we, His actors, choose our parts in it. We choose what will be of those dark brown eyes, that schooling, those struggles with our inner selves and those battles with a world that outrages us for its oppression and inequalities. In each of those choices,In each of these choices, we experience the free choice of our Creator. we experience the freedom of our Creator, the ultimate freedom.

That is the freedom that Torah grants each of us. Every choice, every decision, is another opportunity to connect to the ultimate freedom from which all things began. Each mitzvah is another exodus from the Egypt of a bounded world.10

So Many Rules

Now you will understand why there are so many dos and don’ts and details. Because there is so much beauty locked up in this world, so many artifacts that require the Artist’s signature, that require liberation.

A signature, like liberation, requires first that we break the rules. We must make that hollow, that space for the transcendent to enter.

Torah makes that space by breaking the world’s rules and introducing the Shabbat. The whole world screams, “You must keep moving! Keep those thumbs on those keys! Answer when we call! Drive! Run! Make more money! Spend it now!” And we say, “Today is Shabbat and we are free souls. Today we will appreciate what is here, but it will not tell us what to do. Today we are a step higher than the world.”

Torah creates that space by breaking rules and keeping kosher, when all the world demands we eat with them. When it tells us to dress with dignity while all the world demands that we succumb to their styles and fashions, because that is how they want us to look, because that is how they will get us to spend more, and because we must be part of their world. When Torah tells us to be the master over our own impulses, to break the tyranny of passion and immediate gratification that has captured most of humanity in its stranglehold.

Torah breaks all the rules when it lifts us above time.Torah breaks all the rules when it lifts us above time. The world says, “The past is the past and we have left it behind. The future is yet to come. Now is all that is true, all that is real.”

But a Jew sits and learns Torah and all the sages of every generation sit there as well, alive and arguing with one another, informing one another— Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Judah the Maccabee, Hillel, Rabbi Akiva, Rava, Maimonides, the Kabbalists of 16th-century Safed and the halachic geniuses who apply Torah to 21st-century technology—all in a single room, a single page, a single breath. When a Jew studies Torah or recites the daily prayers, the truths of the past glows vitally in the present, and the present embraces the past. And the past and present together merge to tell us of the glorious future soon to come, when all the world will be redeemed.

With Torah, a Jew breaks the laws of space. Because in Torah, all Jews are one; the entire globe is a small shtetl, and we are the living membrane strewn over it as a net to gather all its holy sparks.

And yet, breaking the rules is not the ultimate goal. The laws are broken only to leave a space in which to sign G‑d’s name. That is the next step, and it is a very radical one indeed.

Chemical Bonding

Before the Torah was given, there were people who lived in the realm of the spirit and shunned all that was earthly. And there were down-to-earth people who lived with feet firmly planted on the physical earth, immersed in its pleasures. There were even a small few, such as Noah, a “man of the earth,”11 who nevertheless lead a spiritual life.

But even for Noah, the spirit was spirit and the earth was earth. Even for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the material world was no more than a stage upon which a spiritual life could be led. Through their work, a ray of light shone in, but the darkness remained darkness.

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, of righteous memory, once compared this to a cup of sweet tea. There was tea. And there was sugar. The two came together and now there was sugary-sweet tea. Nothing new emerged. And nothing truly bonded. All it takes is for the tea to evaporate, and the sugar is left behind.

So it was before Sinai. The soul entered the body, and left the body. The body, and the world, remained unchanged.

But then Torah entered and something new became possible. The spiritual and the physical could fuse and become an entirely new singularity—much as hydrogen and oxygen atoms can bond to create an entirely new substance, one that can only be broken through yet another chemical reaction.12

That is the ultimate purpose of all these rules.Ultimately, the purpose of these rules is a chemical bonding of heaven and earth. They are the laboratory guidelines for those chemical reactions. With them, heaven and earth, the holy and the mundane, the divine creative force and the creation itself all fuse and become one. We take some ink and an animal hide and together they become a Torah scroll, tefillin or a mezuzah—portals of divine light. We take some branches and boards of wood, throw them together, and they become a Sukkah, a place where every act is a divine act. We make a sumptuous meal for Shabbat and every ingredient becomes a perfect bond of the worldly and the transcendent.

The same applies with the everyday activities of life. When you eat your kosher meal mindfully, saying a blessing before you eat and after; when you do business with a conscience, creating value for all stakeholders; when you treat a cranky child with loving patience—in all these things a harmony of parts is achieved. The rules, the restraint, those are the nuclear forces that hold disparate parts in a single bond.

In that bond, the oneness of their Creator shines through. Until every creature will sing its unique part in the symphony that is this universe, loud and clear, in a time very soon to come.

See Maamar Anochi 5749, 3b (Torat Menachem, Sefer Hamaamarim Melukat, vol. 3, page 310).
Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 12:3. Tanchuma, Va’Ereh 15.
See Talmud, Shabbat 55b: “The signature of the Holy One, may He be blessed, is truth.” Talmud Berachot 5b: “Truth refers to Torah.” Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 3:8: “Truth only means Torah.”
See Likutei Sichot, volume 19, pp. 26-27. Maamar Mayan Ganim, 5702, chapter 1.
On the following, see Maamar V’hu K’chattan, 5657, chapter 5 ff; Hemshech 5666 page 52ff.
Tanya, chapter 46.
In a private letter dated Rosh Chodesh Sivan 5733. Mindel collection.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Catherine Mosley Monterey, Ca October 30, 2016

Too many rules I'm sorry, I don't see how your comment refutes anything be put forth. I doubt that my God would turn me away for adhering to a life of as high a moral compas as I can find. As rabbi Hillel said, "everything else is commentary". My love of Judaism is in part because it allows me to have a 21st century mind while adhering to a moral code that keeps me very grounded and humble. Reply

Julie Smith Sydney October 27, 2016

"The only way man can receive God's good is by becoming similar to him, which is the concept of Chakhamah-Wisdom" - Bahir, part 2. We become similar to God by emulating his divine attributes of mercy. This is not a thing of personal preference, it is something detailed very beautifully in The Palm Tree of Deborah, which I recommend you read.

"Generation after generation were brought down for their sins of immorality, greed and aggression. Does Israel think it will be any different?" Reply

Catherine Monterey, Ca October 27, 2016

I am sure you will find this terribly flawed but I see little difference between my description of what rabbi Hillel said and your offering. Both would be executed through the individual towards his fellow man.
Is it possible that we agree more than disagree? Reply

Anonymous Southeastern PA October 27, 2016

What Rabbi Hillel actually said Rabbi Hillel actually said to a potential convert, "Whatever you hate, do not do to your fellow" - a much better moral law than the Golden Rule cited elsewhere on this thread - "Now, go and study" - and learn the details of ethical behavior from the Torah.

If we were to follow the Golden Rule instead, we would be inflicting our own personal preferences on others without any objective guidance. We Jews have the best ethical code possible: the one formulated by the Creator of the universe. Reply

Catherine Monterey, California October 23, 2016

I have always felt that a personal moral code, ethical behavior and a commitment to fair play would be enough to live a quality life yet still be able to spiritually venture into the 21st century. After all when asked to explain Judaism to a non-Jew rabbi Hillel responded, "do to your neighbor that which you wish to be done to you, all the rest is commentary". I couldn't agree more. Reply

Anonymous Canada October 17, 2016

A lot of assumptions made, here, about why artists create--none of which ring true with this artist, to the point of distraction. Otherwise a compelling and interesting article. Reply

Arthur bruns fl July 22, 2016

Abe the Agnostic Proof of the divinity of Torah? How about a race of people written about thousands of years ago, being forced from their land, devoid of their language, constantly facing extinction and even today threatened with extinction and then thousands of years later returned to their land and their language resurrected? Oh, and all predicted years in advance and partially fulfilled in our life time! No other group has this claim. No other book can assert it.
The answer to your question of the divinity of Torah is the Jew. The Holy Scriptures is the only book that proves itself. Reply

Edwin Pope Australia June 30, 2016

Rules bring freedom Hi Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
I agree with you and I am always drawn to the prophet Jeremiah 31:33, "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time", declares the Lord, "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts, I will be their God and they will be my people." To me it seems that the world follows laws that are not G-d's but human made out of the flaws and weaknesses of human nature. Because of this they break the laws and are pleased when the do. But if we have God's law, the perfect law, in our hearts then out of the love he pours into our hearts we will gladly obey the law and sin less, I know I do and as I grow in Him the less I sin. I hope I quoted Jeremiah correctly but that verse is with me always.
Australia Reply

Tzvi Freeman Los Angeles June 29, 2016

Abe has a point Abe's point is well taken. True freedom is the freedom to choose your rules. The rules of harmony can never provide utter freedom. They are rules of nature—if you want to get this sound, you use these techniques.

But then, the assertion that a moral society requires only empathy and no book of rules—that must have been written in haste. Every human society has its rules. That's what it means to be a social animal—to have rules.

The human being can never be free on his own. Our only way out is to find the divine spark within ourselves—and that is truly free. That spark is one with the Creator, who freely chose the rules of His creation.

That, perhaps, may be a matter of faith. The faith to believe that these rules of Torah are the free choices of the Creator, and therefore of the divine soul. But it is a reasonable faith. Reply

Anonymous Southeastern PA June 29, 2016

The divine origin of the Torah I highly recommend Living Up To The Truth, by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb. He follows the Kuzari in probing the origins of religions. Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam all began with unverifiable private revelations. Judaism began with a national experience: liberation from slavery. This is an archaeological fact: see the Ipuwer papyrus. Why would Jews start having seders out of the blue, saying this happened to all of us, unless it actually happened? See too the Merneptah stele.

As someone with a Ph.D. in mathematics and M.S. in statistics, I know there's no excuse for agnosticism; evidence for God is overwhelming to the open-minded when observing nature.

Which is colder - the Jew who regulates his life by Torah to unleash the divine sparks throughout creation, or the agnostic Nazi doing whatever his heart prompts him to do? Reply

Abe London June 28, 2016

How much more so when a book dictates to you and empathy takes a step aside. That is cold hearted! And it's all from a book who's divine origin cannot be proven.

The music Bach wrote was constrained by the church. In the baroque period certain chords were not allowed etc.

Death metal borrows more from Bach than the romantics! Reply

Anonymous Southeastern PA June 28, 2016

Romantics; empathy Bach was not "regulated by the church". Just false. Mozart and Haydn were self-"constrained" composers within sonata form. These composers "wrote from the heart". Romantics broke down form to give us stream-of-consciousness emoting, descending from Beethoven to Liszt to Wagner to Nietzsche to Hitler to Stalin to Mao, with a rock and rap soundtrack. Self-restraint gives us greater productivity and eternal value. We are still impressed with timeless Bach; today's shrieking rockers will be forgotten in a generation.

It's wonderful to have an instinct to good. What happens if your instinct changes and you still follow your instinct? Hitler followed his instincts. I would rather rely on an objective standard of right conduct. I put more trust in someone who would do the right thing even though it is inconvenient, than someone who relies on his changeable emotions. Reply

Abe London June 28, 2016

With respect to the Rabbi I think, while this has been an interesting discussion, I will bow out now. But see you in the next discussion.

I suppose it will all boil down to belief. There needs to be some sort of leap of faith to believe in the authenticity of the Torah. While I agree that some laws are good! and beneficial to mankind I don't think this gives it validity. Many don't have the Torah and have these laws. Many believe in the Torah and don't keep to these laws.

At the end of the day i'm interested in proof of it being divine. My search continues... till then i'm an agnostic (actually, most atheists are technically).

We can bring examples of laws enabling "freedom" or bringing out "beauty" etc. But at the end of the day we're just being philosophical. And if music has laws (and it does) this doesn't change the essence of belief in the Torah or its divine origin. I appreciate Bach to Beethoven, Handel to Haydn. Beauty in all. Reply

Edwin Pope Australia June 28, 2016

If Judasim Is Spiritual, Why all the rules? Dear Rabbi Tzvi Freeman,
Again, through your response to A. Sikur you have answered my thoughts on rules and regulations and the freedom of the Torah. So much I am earning since I joined yet I know I am only scratching the surface, there is so much more to learn and live; so much growing to do and so much sharing with others.
Thank you Chabad for the teaching and communion that I have with you all.
Edwin Reply

Abe LONDON June 27, 2016

He who can't read a compass discovers a new world.

Sayings a cute but that's about it. Reply

Abe LONDON June 27, 2016

Ahhh Godwin's Law rears its head.

Nothing egotistical about freedom of expression. Bach and his fellow contemporaries wrote, and were regulated by, for the church. Your examples of Mozart and Haydn were a bad one for they were not as constrained as baroque composers hence the new classical period. Romantics wrote more freely and from the heart giving us some of the most beautiful music without which we wouldn't have Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Your classical music analogy was a bad one.

Funny how those who bring the argument about the bible teaching us to not murder and steal etc. You mean to tell me that no such laws preceeded the bible? We can learn all these from empathy. I'm not scared of someone who learns morals through empathy but doesn't believe in God. I am scared of someone who needs a book to tell him not to murder. Empathy has gone and is taken over by a belief which is cold hearted and this person will murder, lie, steal and cheat for this belief. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman Los Angeles June 27, 2016

Re: Tehillim reference Thank you for the correction! Will fix asap. Reply

Tzvi Freeman Los Angeles June 27, 2016

Between Abe and Anonymous from PA Enjoying this exchange.

I would submit that Beethoven and Bach are both examples par excellence of knowing how to use the rules to attain the ultimate extent of freedom. Mozart, too, has his occasions.

But please, keep hammering out the discussion. Reply

Anonymous June 26, 2016

He who is a slave to the compass is master of the seas. Reply

Anonymous NEW BERLIN June 26, 2016

Tehillim reference question For Ref #6, did you mean 66:3? Reply

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