Halacha and Haggadah

Walking and telling stories.

That is what these two terms allude to.

When I hear this without knowing exactly what it means, I see a rabbi slowly walking through the landscape and telling stories. This rabbi could well be Jesus, surrounded by his disciples.

At the same time, the word walking reminds me not only of walking, but also of movement and change.

And that takes us to the midst of the topic.

The Halacha is the interpretation of the law, the standard tradition, the Haggadah is the collection of explanatory narratives that illustrates but is not binding.

Theory and practical example, order and chaos, tradition and adventure report, the way and experience, norm and implementation, doctrine and life.

It seems important to me that the Halacha changes. In Christianity, theology is changing, as is doctrine. The tradition of dialogue in Judaism shows this change over time much more clearly than the Greek, more philosophical theology of Christianity.

While in Christianity I have to read, understand and compare the books of various theologians each on their own, there is a scripture called Talmud that summarizes the doctrinal opinions on certain topics in dialogues, some of which extend over centuries, and thus make change visible.

Stories, parables, legends illustrate what the interpretation of the law often cannot do. Life is not black or white, it is colored, a colorful bouquet with gradients and grayscale.

Those stories, being understood more intuitively than analytically, give us examples of how the Halacha can be implemented in everyday life.

The Bible itself is Halacha and Haggadah, with Haggadah occupying the much larger part. Even in the Torah, the five books of Moses, the Haggadah prevails.

Evangelical fundamentalism now takes this Haggadah and distills an often petrified, non-changing Halacha from it: it is written. This is either done by distilling a moral from the stories or directing the stories down to the verse level and interpreting verses without context, to just name two examples.

This can be seen in the New Testament. Here, the Haggadah has a smaller share of the total volume, consisting mainly of the four Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. The letters are almost completely perceived as Halacha.

So Paul seems responsible. He distills a Halacha from the Tanach, the Old Testament, the stories about Jesus and his own experience. Why?

There are several reasons for this for me.

The young church needs norms, but this church is not Jewish, but Greek. In Greek thought, teaching about a normative doctrine had slowly prevailed. In addition, Paul himself was a Pharisee. The Pharisees tended more towards Halacha than Haggadah, were the fundamentalists of their time. And then, we might just interpret Paul wrong, and we are the ones turning all this into Halacha, or at least a never-changing Halacha.

Paul is a product of his time, his education, and the sociocultural environment into which he worked. And so are we.

And yet Paul knew very well that Halacha was changing. Let’s take his own letters. Today, theologians say that Paul developed his theology over the years, and that’s true. You could also put it this way: his Halacha was changing.

A break occurred in the fourth century, when the councils determined the scope and structure of the Bible. Interestingly, the canon of the Jewish Tanach was only determined well after Jesus’ life. But something happened in Christianity that could not happen in Judaism.

Judaism was in the diaspora. There was no standardizing authority, and Judaism developed in the dialogue between Jews and the Jews and their environment. This is exactly how Christianity had developed before the Councils. Various currents lived side by side, in dialogue with each other, and reacted to their environment.

By becoming a Roman state religion, Christianity became hierarchical with a standardizing authority in the Roman emperor and the Roman bishop, the Pope.

From then on, the needs of the Roman Empire determined the Halacha and delivered the Haggadah.

An example of a story: Constantin had a dream the night before a battle. If he were to have all his soldiers fight under the sign of the cross, he would be sure of victory. And that’s how it happened.

This led to the belief that we will be victorious on the side of Jesus, and that it were enough to bear his sign to be part of his winning army. And for centuries it was enough to belong to the church of his cross to be saved. A new Halacha was born, which remained valid until 1515 and beyond.

While Hebrew Haggadah shows us that Judaism is a grassroots movement, controlled and reacting from below, Christian Haggadah became a hierarchical, head-controlled, rather static non-movement.

This is already reflected in the logic we use for the interpretation of the Haggadah. It is characterized by Greek linear causal logic, refined by science. Narrative Middle Eastern culture, and in particular Hebrew, use block logic.

While linear logic thinks in the pattern of cause-effect, block logic looks at a fact from all sides. We Westerners are looking for the law that underlies a thing. A picture is painted in block logic. Linear logic tries to understand through reduction, block logic tries to create space, space to live and weave in.

Christian theology through its linear approach comes to principles such as the law of first mention. A theological principle is fundamentally described and defined at its first mention.

A Hebrew approach sees change, facets depending on the viewing angle.

Has Israel always done it right? Of course not. Let’s just take the example of the serpent on the staff, which Moses erected against the consequences of the plague of serpent in the desert. Later, this brass sign itself became a linear principle, a concretized, fossilized Halacha and thus in the language of the Old Testament an idol that had to be destroyed.

The Haggadah, the narrative became law. At that time, it was not the principles, but the objects that suddenly became the carrier and trigger of the plot. They wanted to stick to something concrete.

Could it be that this story is repeated in Christianity? The Haggadah of the Bible becomes Halacha over the centuries and even partially petrifies. The Bible becomes the measure of our understanding of God, Bible fidelity becomes the criterion of our right faith.

The brass snake had its appearance, the ark of the Covenant, the temple had its time. I ask a heretical question: what about the Bible?

I am not advocating destroying the Bible. I believe that the concrete idolization of the brass snake had to lead to the concrete destruction of the snake.

We usually don’t idolize the Bible, although there are churches that come close. We idolize the Halacha into which we have transformed our Bible. A Halacha without change, a Halacha without Haggadah, because our Haggadah only serves to produce Halacha. Linear, causal, cold Halacha. The Bible says.

It is this interpretation of the Bible that needs to be burned at the stake. Let’s put God in the middle and relive the Haggadah of the Bible, inspired as ever to span a picture, a space that brings us life in the tension between Halacha and Haggadah.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel has said that Halacha must always serve Haggadah. We flipped that around.