As Stephen Stills once sang, “You who’ve been on the road, must have a code that you can live by…” I guess he internalized this message from the Rambam, and Rav Yosef Karo, the respective authors of the Yad Hachazaka and the Shulchan Aruch, both are books that break from the Talmudic dialectic by distilling and excising process in favor of writing only the halachic decision .I now understand why there was such opposition to this move, as necessary as it might have been at the time.
Both of these works diminish the value of the journey in favor of the destination. It doesn’t matter how you got there, the important thing is you have arrived, and now you should do this! No doubt, there are many who for this very reason find these books attractive, the Maharal, however, was not a fan for what inevitably happened after these books became popular:
To decide halakhic questions from the codes without knowing the source of the ruling was not the intent of these authors. Had they known that their works would lead to the abandonment of Talmud, they would not have written them. It is better for one to decide on the basis of the Talmud even though he might err, for a scholar must depend solely on his understanding. As such, he is beloved of God, and preferable to the one who rules from a code but does not know the reason for the ruling; such a one walks like a blind person.
In other words, it is better to be part of a creative process and risk failure than it is to be an appendage to someone else’s thinking and blindly, literally blindly, follow the rules. The supple dynamic and even protean nature of Torah study is suffocated by the code, but there is another unfortunate result of only relying on the codes for answers. By disemboweling the dialectic and favoring a singular opinion, not only have you codified actions, but values and thoughts as well. Where the Talmud allowed for opposing opinions, sometimes of dramatic importance, the code enforces not only uniform behaviors, which allow us to pray and celebrate together, but uniform thought, that makes it much easier to denigrate and exclude those who don’t look and act the same way.
What the Maharal means to say is the Rambam and Rav Yosef Karo, had they known that the success of their codes would begin creating automatons disinterested in the origins of their rulings, they would have endured the chaotic practices that the Talmud, by its nature, seemed to allow. They wanted some order, but they never would have countenanced the ignorance that came with it.
Given the elitism of the Rambam, I’m not so sure that he wouldn’t be sanguine with how things have turned out, even though I am sure he would be resentful that another code came along and superseded his.
Recently, I have been working on curriculum for a project, and because of approaching deadlines, some of the themes for this curriculum had to be farmed out to others. It was my job to edit their work so that it would conform to the established format. Their classes were insightful and interesting, but incredibly dogmatic. They had created a class on Judaism and the Environment, so, of course, it is a foregone conclusion of how these sources are going to support the most progressive environmental thinking. As I was working on what they did, I kept thinking that I could come up with sources that said the earth and her creatures are there for humans to exploit them anyway they see fit. That voice was not in their piece, even though the argument of seeing both positions would make the class more interesting. One could see the students analyzing which interpretations seemed to be more valid. Instead, agenda transcended process, and we’re the poorer for it. There is no room for a “wrong” answer.
If all we do is bring sources that corroborate opinions that precede our investigation of them, we have nothing, and I mean nothing, to offer.
If all we have to say is, “We’re for recycling just as you are!” Nobody needs us.
Let the study of Torah not be the handmaiden of any outside agenda.