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Home >> Essays >> Studies by Rabbi Lopes Cardozo >> Studies >> On Halacha as the Art of Amazement

On Halacha as the Art of Amazement
Written by : Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, Added : 08/01/2006, Viewed : 341

(originally published in ‘Between Silence and Speech’)

In the way that man observes the world and interacts with it, he reveals one of the most surprising and impressive sides to all of human existence: the faculty of appreciation. When walking by a landscape he can be overwhelmed by its beauty. Wondering at the sky, standing on the seashore, or viewing the sunset, he becomes aware of an inner, uplifting experience that he cannot verbalize. Enjoying the music of Mozart, Beethoven or Paganini, man can be lifted to unprecedented heights. Through the constant search for beauty, harmony, conformity and so forth, man confirms his unique place in this universe.

But, even in the "small moments" of man's life, he shows an unusual appreciation for his surroundings. When choosing the interior of his home or the color and style of his clothes, he will carefully select colors, patterns and specific combinations. Many hours, if not days and months (or years), are spent on this endeavor. For most people, this is far from a waste of time but, rather, the fulfillment of a deep emotional need.

Things must "go well," flow into each other, and create a picture of great harmony, tranquility and beauty. One blotch of paint will not inspire us, but a certain combination of them definitely does. One musical note is boring, but the flowing of many of them within a certain pattern will make a symphony that can bring thousands of listeners to exultation.

Art collectors will pay large amounts of money to become the owners of paintings that are often no larger than a few square centimeters. Some paintings are valued at millions of dollars and are viewed by hundreds of thousands of human beings, who are often prepared to travel long distances to view them. The world of haute couture has, for thousands of years, produced an infinite amount of elegant (and not so elegant) garments of all kinds and fashions. Instead of man tiring of all these efforts and getting bored, he is deeply involved in all this, searching for every possible new way to make sure that beauty and novelty will always be with him.

How Did We Get Like This?

Let us ask: How did we get like this? Rudolf Otto and many others have already made us realize that we cannot adequately explain why we enjoy music or fall in love with a painting or the seashore.1

Indeed, what is there about beauty that makes it beautiful? What is there so great about a van Gogh, or the music of Beethoven? Is there not a certain absurdity to all this? How is it that we can hear more than one musical note at a time? And why is it that we do not just hear the different notes together but also apprehend them as a unity? We somehow grasp them. We are conscious of the music and its beauty. There is indeed a faculty called appreciation. But what is this faculty made of?

The American philosopher G. N. M. Tyrrel (in his Grades of Significance), writing about "reading," reminds the reader of this most miraculous faculty of man: 2

A book, we will suppose, has fallen into the hands of intelligent beings who know nothing of what writing and printing mean, but they are accustomed to dealing with the external relationships of things. They try to find out the laws of the book, which for them mean the principles governing the order in which the letters are arranged...They will think they have discovered the laws of the book when they have formulated certain rules governing the external relationships of the letters. That each word and each sentence expresses a meaning will never dawn on them because their background of thought is made up of concepts which deal only with external relationships, and explanations to them means solving the puzzle of these external relationships...Their methods will never reach the grade of significance which contains the idea of meanings.

Why do we associate sounds with meaning? How is it that meaningless shapes are capable of triggering within us the concept of meaning?

Perhaps the most outstanding example of man's mysterious nature is the experience of love. If we could imagine a creature from outer space looking at the human body, what would he see? Probably one of the most repulsive creations walking around in the cosmos. "Deformed" organs such as protrusions of flesh hanging on both sides of some kind of roundness or enlarged balloon on top of the human body. In the middle of this ball, called a head, there is another extension placed between two items of glass, and below, a hole into which man disposes of all sorts of substances (which by outer space standards have a most offensive taste!) Legs and arms will be described in most uncomplimentary terms. Most astonishing of all would no doubt be the fact that these "monstrous" creations fall in love with each other, fight wars because of jealousy, and like to have intimate relationships that result in producing even more of these unsightly creatures.

Why, indeed, do we not consider music an abhorrent experience, a Rembrandt painting the ravings of a hideous human creativity, or lovemaking as a most repulsive act?


This, in fact, touches on the very core of religion and the problem of secularism. Western civilization has a very specific approach to life. It is highly pragmatic. Matters are basically seen from a purely utilitarian point of view. Everything is measured by result-getting standards. What matters is whether things "work." Humans have become tool-making creatures for whom the world is a gigantic toolbox for the satisfaction of their needs. Satisfaction, luxury, and pleasure are man's goals. Everything is calculated, and there is supreme faith in statistics.

This has possibly caused the greatest problem of our times: the tragedy of existential indifference, missing out on exactly that which is no doubt the most exciting side of life - the mysterium tremendum that lies behind all existence, after every move man makes, behind every human experience. It is the invisible part of life where the real flow of life runs, that which the five senses cannot grasp or touch. Modern man takes notice of what surrounds him and tells himself that everything will be explained. Man looks to the skeleton but does not see the content and the essence.

Maurice Nicoll describes this very well when he discusses the fact that humans cannot even see themselves or their fellowmen: 3

We can all see another person's body directly. We see the lips moving, the eyes opening and shutting, the lines of the mouth and face changing, and the body expressing itself as a whole in action. The person himself is invisible...If the invisible side of people were discerned as easily as the visible side, we would live in a new humanity. As we are we live in visible humanity, a humanity of appearances...All our thoughts, emotions, feelings, imagination, reveries, dreams, fantasies are invisible. All that belongs to our scheming, planning, secrets, ambitions, all our hopes, fears, doubts, perplexities, all our affections, speculations, ponderings, vacuities, uncertainties, all our desires, longings, appetites, sensations, our likes, dislikes, aversions, attractions, loves and hates - all are themselves invisible. They constitute "one's self." (italics added)

Nicoll insists that while all this may appear obvious, it is not at all overt:

It is an extremely difficult thing to grasp...We do not grasp that we are invisible. We do not realize that we are in a world of invisible people. We do not understand that life before all other definitions of it, is a drama of the visible and the invisible. 4 (italics added)

When I buy grain, my main interest is that it is alive and not dead. But that life I cannot see, touch or smell. An unconscious cat, even though still alive, is not a real cat until it regains consciousness. This is what philosophers call "inner space." The matter itself is, however, mysterious. "Analyze, weigh and measure a tree as you please, observe its form and function, its genesis and the laws to which it is subject, still an acquaintance with its essence never comes about." 5

What smites us with total amazement is not what we grasp and are able to convey, but that what lies within our reach is beyond our grasp - not the quantitative aspect of nature, but something qualitative. Everything is more than the sum total of its parts. Man is aware of it, but it is beyond description or comprehension.

Even the very act of thinking baffles thinking: the most incomprehensible fact is that man can comprehend altogether! That which man can apprehend man cannot comprehend. That which man takes account of cannot be accounted for! "The search of reason ends at the shore of the known. We sail because our mind is like a fantastic seashell and when applying our ear to its lips, we hear a perpetual murmur from the wave beyond the shore." 6 And only through the awareness of this mystery does man start to live. Only then can he experience what real life is all about. The beginning of happiness lies in the understanding that life without the awareness of mystery is not worth living. Why? Because all life really starts in wonder and amazement! Struck by the impenetrable mysterium of all being, the soul becomes reawakened. As if struck by fire, man is taken by a radical amazement.

This is the beginning of all genuine religion. Because of man's astonishment with the world and himself, he recognizes the masterly hand of God. He ponders over the grandeur and sublimity of God. When seeing God as the foundation of all mystery, he starts to feel Him in his bones, in all that he does, feels, thinks and says!

As has been said, the tendency to take everything for granted and the indifference to the sublime is the root of all irreligiosity. It is a way toward the secularization of the world. Religion is a protest against taking things for granted. It is the art of living in amazement.


To be aware of the total mystery of all matter, to feel it, to breathe it, is obviously not an easy task. To become aware of the great secret behind all being is no doubt an art. How does man capture the notion of wonder and amazement and inject this into his very life? Some people sense these qualities at distant intervals, in extraordinary events, but can one capture it in every moment?

This, the author would suggest, is only possible by capturing the mysterium and transforming it into a way of living. This is the purpose of the halachah: to experience the mysterium in and through commonplace deeds. Halachah is the art of revealing the non-human side, the meta-human side, the divine dimension through the medium of every human act. Halachah is there to teach us that our humanity is utterly inexplicable, that man should stand trembling before God.

Judaism teaches that proper deeds lead to correct and true thinking. Deeds created mentality: the actual deed of killing creates a mentality to kill, the distribution of charity creates a mind-set to care for one's fellowman. Likewise, certain deeds have the power of making man walk through life in the awareness of the mysterium behind all human existence.

By giving deeds a certain direction, they become sensitized to the notion of mystery. By living halachah we hold back and allow for a moment of reflection. It creates a mind-set not to take anything for granted but to become amazed by the very deed that follows. The dietary laws make man take notice, while eating, of the very wondrous existence of food, by making a brachah (blessing) on the miracle of eating. It stalls a deed, giving it an opportunity to transcend being a commonplace act and to become a higher deed. It causes a new, profound reflection on life. Consequently, it provides for a different and more dignified way of living. It makes man take notice of his deeds and his life and ask, "Why am I acting? What is the meaning of a human act and, therefore, of life?"

What is there in the human deed that it should be the main carrier of this message? Is action the most important manifestation of human life? Why is philosophical reflection without the deed not good enough? Did not the Greeks contemplate the mystery of life without the halachah? Does one really have to act so as to know?

It is in the deed that man meets himself. In deeds man becomes aware of what his life is really all about: the power to harm, to wreck, and to destroy, but also the possibility of deriving joy and bestowing it upon others, of relieving or intensifying one's own and other people's tension. The deed shows man who he really is and not what he would like to be. Here his own self is exposed: what man does not dare to think, he shows in his deeds. The "real" heart of man is revealed in his deeds. Man may have lofty ideas but behave like a criminal. History teaches that noble ideas are no guarantee for noble deeds. And since God provided man with a world in which noble deeds are by far the most powerful ways to build and fashion this world, it is the deed that counts. No noble thought ever changed this world for the better if it did not become a noble deed. Metaphysics is not known for giving birth to noble deeds.

But even if philosophical speculation would conduce man to act nobly, it would slowly evaporate into thin air if it did not go hand in hand with a firm and continuous commitment to a pragmatic deed. It is the deed that upholds the thought.

It should be added that such an approach will only bear fruit when these deeds are constantly repeated. No human deed will leave its mark if done only once. To become effective it must grow into some kind of a habit as the result of its having rooted itself in the deep consciousness of man. Things continually done come to be done subconsciously. "Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state. We are spinning our own fates, good or evil and never to be undone." 7

Habit is capitalized action. Habit becomes conscience. For this reason alone, Judaism sees the deed as the key to teach man to recognize the mysterium. By way of rituals, blessings, and so on, often done in a habitual way and becoming second nature, man will subconsciously open himself up to the experience of amazement. Obviously, this is no guarantee. Deeds, even when they carry the potential to reveal the mysterium, do not automatically result in a greater awareness. This will always depend on man's "conscious" awareness of what he is doing. Only when man wills it to happen will the subconscious mind activate this potentiality. What it does, however, is to lay the subconscious foundation of this awareness, so that if man should wish to capitalize on it, he may - thus enabling him to realize the wondrous aspect of human existence.

In other words, a halachic life is not a guarantee that one will become consciously aware of the need to be amazed. One can live a halachic life without any notion of amazement. But what is important is that the halachah gives man the option so that if he wants, he can achieve amazement, since he plants in his subconscious the seed for amazement. He turns his subconscious mind into an instrument that will take notice of the mysterium.

It is also the uniqueness of "time" of which halachah makes man aware. It is in time that man meets God. Every second that passes by is never to return. This makes time extremely precious. Consequently, it must be handled with the greatest of care. It teaches man that there are no insignificant moments or deeds. Whatever is done by man is to be done within the framework of an encounter with God. This requires that every deed be done with the awareness that one stands before the Lord of the universe and that every little matter, however unimportant in the eyes of man, counts. It is done in the presence of the King!

A New Awareness

The aim is to infuse purely subjective emotions, needs and desires with a new awareness - one that otherwise is almost congenitally foreign to the entire component of the human personality. The religious system of Judaism, which disciplines the Jew in every situation all through life, establishes habitual patterns of bodily reaction and conduct that testify to an acute awareness of an order of reality that is not of the body. In that sense it liberates man from taking things for granted. This liberating act is a means, not a guarantee that it will result in a higher consciousness of amazement.

When a Jew is overcome with nausea at the sight of non-kosher food, such a reaction is not natural; it is not in keeping with the laws of normal human experience. The reaction shows the awareness of some outside will that his personality has acquired. In a sense, the nausea reflects the partial transformation of the natural desire for food into the desire for that which is beyond man.

It has often been said that halachah requires mechanical, ritual performances. What is more important, the conscious worship of the mind or the quasi-automatic performances of the body? This is a question based on an utterly mistaken conception of the human personality. Man is made of body and soul. The body cannot worship consciously and the mind is incapable of serving by way of ritual. Man is not only body or soul; he is the result of both and therefore in need of serving God in a way that corresponds to the body as well as the soul, each according to its own nature. On the level of the soul, the relationship to God is spiritual and conscious, but there is no place for action. On the level of the body, there is no place for "conscious" worship. It can only be materialized into action. Only a combination can lead to an appropriate result. In the deed, the mitzvah is the union of the two. The mitzvah is never only thought, nor is it a mere reflex action. The mitzvah is a deed that is of the spirit and body at the same time. The subconscious condition toward the will of God and the mysterium tremendum is brought about by continuous conscious suggestion.

Halachah is designed to make our lives compatible with our sense of the mysterium. What counts is not if it is compatible with common sense or the "obvious," but with that which is unspoken. What it wants to accomplish is to bring together the passing with the everlasting, the momentary with the eternal. And only through the human deed, transformed into a mitzvah, will it accomplish that task - to bring eternity into man's life, to redeem God's power in every human experience, to discover divinity within man himself. Once it has done so, it is capable of turning every human deed into a mitzvah.

To Deserve

The fact that man is capable of acting, building, investigating, enjoying and being aware that he can only take account of these faculties, but not account for them, confronts him with another inescapable question: Does he deserve these faculties? No normal man is without some concern for truth, beauty, or love. But can he make any claim to them? The shattering truth is that man does not deserve them, that he could not possibly deserve them. Nobody ever earned the right to love, to enjoy. No one ever earned these faculties through his or her talents or abilities. They are gifts, not rewards earned. It is as simple as that! Man experiences thousands of things and not one of them is really earned. This is most embarrassing! Man eats from Somebody's table without taking notice.

Man's first concern should therefore be, Am I worthy? Do I deserve all this? How can I make myself worthy of all this? How will man respond to all these undeserved gifts? Without response there is no dignity! Love obligates, man must respond! Man needs to discharge his debts toward God. Only through that will he attain dignity.

This is another aspect of halachic life. By living in accordance with halachah as discussed above, man responds to God's ultimate gifts. He recognizes God's fingerprint in every and any matter. By redeeming God's power in this world, man sanctifies all his deeds; man becomes worthy of life!

Love becomes law in the life of the beloved. To be aware that man is the recipient of genuine love he imposes upon himself disciplines - the dos and the don'ts - that make him worthy of this love. This is, in fact, the hallmark of the mature human being. God's love becomes God's commandment. Moral consequences follow, not without struggle and difficulties, not without the constant need to revise and rethink. With hard work, the heavens open and this awareness of the mystery becomes man's experience.

(Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.)


  1. Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy (London, 1923; rev. ed. 1929)
  2. London, 1930; quoted by E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1978), p. 42.
  3. Living Time (London, 1952), ch. 1, quoted in Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 33
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid. p. 32
  6. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, Man's Quest for God, Studies in Prayer and Symbolism (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1954), xiii.
  7. William James, Principles of Psychology, vol. I, (New York: Macmillan and Co.)

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