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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-J049-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 16, 2024, from

Article Summary

The central ideal of rabbinic Judaism is that of living by the Torah, that is, God’s teachings. These teachings are mediated by a detailed normative system called halakhah, which might be translated as ‘the Way’. The term ‘rabbinic law’ captures the form of halakhic discourse, but not its range. Appropriate sections of halakhah have indeed served as the law of Jewish communities for two millennia. But other sections relate to individual conscience and religious observance and are enforceable only by a ‘heavenly court’.

Although grounded in Scripture, halakhah’s frame of reference is the ‘oral Torah’, a tradition of interpretation and argument culminating in the twenty volumes of the Talmud. God’s authority is the foundational norm, but it is only invoked occasionally as superseding human understanding. Indeed, the rabbis disallowed divine interference in their deliberations, asserting, in keeping with Scripture, that Torah is ‘not in heaven’ (Bava Metzia 59b, citing Deuteronomy 30: 12).

Given the lack of binding dogma in Judaism, halakhic practice has often been regarded as the common denominator that unites the Jewish community. The enterprise of furnishing ‘reasons of the commandments’ (ta’amei ha-mitzvot), central to many thinkers in Judaism, accordingly reveals a great diversity of orientations. These range, in medieval Judaism, from esoteric mystical doctrines to Maimonides’ rational and historical explanations; and among modern writers, from moral positivism to existentialism.

Citing this article:
Zohar, Noam J.. Halakhah, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-J049-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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