22 May Law and Personality – by Rabbi Chaim Cowen
I’m writing this from the National Library of Israel, a place I have spent much of my waking hours over the past five months as I have the special privilege of being immersed in research within the magical city of Jerusalem. In Israel, I see so many young people passionate and connected to their Yiddishkeit. Every day there’s something else to get excited about, collecting wood to build that lag ba’omer bonfire, the endless stream of Jewish pop icons performing concerts, the random flag dance happening where Ben Yehudah meets Yafo, the waiter at Café Rimon leaving a little bread when you finish your meal so you can bentch and fulfil the halacha of having a bread remaining on the table. Not to mention the Yoms and the crazy vibe they generate, the endless options of Torah learning from world-class superstars – and the critical mass of committed Jews, young and old, who hold HaShem, Torah and Mitzvot, dear.
Living here, I have come to appreciate the importance of Yavneh. Our job is to simulate all the sources of passion which are taken for granted in Israel – to provide our students with the richness of experience that ignites a lust for an authentically Jewish life. We don’t have society backing it up like Israel does, which means its all up to us. Our homes and schools need to compensate for what is lacking on the street. If Lag BaOmer, Jewish music, bentching and flag dancing doesn’t happen in our classroom, homes, school yards and back gardens, its not going to come from anywhere else.
And this leads me to Law and Personality. Part of my research has been an examination of the underlying differences between Jewish and secular law. And, while there’s much to say on the topic, one important element is the role of the human being in the legal process. In secular law, there is the notion of the Rule of Law, where (at least in theory) a judge’s role is to apply the law without mixing their personality into the equation. The judge is merely a tool in the even-handed application of a set of principles. Jewish law, in contrast, sees the judge (or dayan) as one who plays an important role in not just applying the law, but also forming it. A proper dayan is referred to as elo-him, G-ds name, being that they are invested with G-dliness when they make a true judgement, and indeed, the law is a product of them and the rule book, all mixed up together.
I think this might explain why Shavuot is not only the festival of the law, but also the one in which we celebrate becoming a goy kadosh – a holy nation. The Jewish view of law is inherently connected to holiness of personality. We aren’t just people charged to perform holy acts; we are holy people who perform holy acts.
Holiness is life itself. Being connected to HaShem means feeling energised, purposeful – and deeply happy. When Judaism is lived properly, its contagious. It’s so deeply fulfilling that its addictive.
Shavuot is thus a reminder that as Jews, are lives mustn’t be bland. We are charged with uplifting our surrounds, creating positive energy, infusing every mitzvah with passion. And to be honest, when that’s in place, our lives in Australia can become saturated with the richness of Israel.