Though typically translated as “Jewish law,” the term halakhah is not an easy match for what is usually thought of as law. This is because the rabbinic legal system has rarely wielded the political power to enforce its many detailed rules, nor has it ever been the law of any state. Even more idiosyncratically, the talmudic rabbis claim that the study of halakhah is a holy endeavor that brings a person closer to God—a claim no country makes of its law.
In this panoramic book, Chaim Saiman traces how generations of rabbis have used concepts forged in talmudic disputation to do the work that other societies assign not only to philosophy, political theory, theology, and ethics but also to art, drama, and literature. In the multifaceted world of halakhah where everything is law, law is also everything, and even laws that serve no practical purpose can, when properly studied, provide surprising insights into timeless questions about the very nature of human existence.
What does it mean for legal analysis to connect humans to God? Can spiritual teachings remain meaningful and at the same time rigidly codified? Can a modern state be governed by such law? Guiding readers across two millennia of richly illuminating perspectives, this book shows how halakhah is not just “law” but an entire way of thinking, being, and knowing.
Awards and Recognition
- One of Mosaic's Best Books of 2018 (Moshe Koppel)
Chaim N. Saiman is professor in the Charles Widger School of Law at Villanova University. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.
"Highly recommended."—Jonathan Schofer, Reading Religion
“Saiman’s book is a compelling and original exposition of the unique nature of halakhah as a legal system, providing both a larger picture of what halakhah is and brilliant particular readings of its diverse genres and periods. Saiman’s vast erudition and conceptual depth shines through every page of this wonderful book.”—Moshe Halbertal, author of Maimonides: Life and Thought
“Chaim Saiman has written a genuinely enthralling book about a concept central to rabbinic Judaism: the study of Jewish law, not only as a guide to life but as ongoing encounter with the divine. A superb, much-needed, and enlightening work.”—Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
“In this pellucid and captivating book, Chaim Saiman provides a new understanding of halakhah that takes as axiomatic its seamless integration of regulatory and expressive modalities into a discourse that not only conveys legal norms but also shapes thought, communicates social and religious values, and explores enduring human questions. At stake is our very conception of what law is and could be.”—Christine Hayes, author of What’s Divine about Divine Law?
“In the best halakhic tradition, this enlightening book informs the beginner by providing a concise introduction in a lucid and engaging style, yet also provokes the experienced halakhist to deep thought and self-reflection on the meaning and development of the halakhic system. Saiman expresses an undiminished youthful passion for his subject, distilled through the prism of mature legal scholarship.”—Mosheh Lichtenstein, dean of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Israel
“Saiman provides an academically sophisticated introduction to Jewish law as a historical and lived practice and proposes an original and even surprising thesis about the nature of rabbinic legal discourse—that it is less about governance of conduct and more about the exploration of religious values and ideals. This is a terrific book.”—Noah Feldman, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Harvard University
“Halakhah not only succeeds wonderfully as an introductory text but brims with ideas, formulations, interpretations, and perspectives that will stimulate, enrich, and catalyze scholars as well. Saiman’s smart, comprehensive, and regularly brilliant book will stand as a significant contribution for some while to come.”—Yehudah Mirsky, Brandeis University