The Necessity of Principles and Particulars

When it comes to the vast and varied corpus of Jewish law, the minutiae are not often what stand out and stick in your mind (though there are always the wacky laws that make your head turn). More commonly, it is the aphorism, the principle that you think captures something essential about life and the way it ought to be lived that stays with you, that you incorporate into your life in some way and allow to change your thinking on a given issue.

I was fortunate enough to be exposed to just such a story, about principles themselves and their value. The Midrash (Sifre Deuteronomy 306) relates the following about Deut. 32:2, which reads “My doctrine shall drop as rain, My speech shall distill as the dew…”

Rabbi Meir said: One should always gather the words of Torah in principles, because if one gathers them in their particulars, they will tire you out and you will not know what to do with them. It is similar to a person who is traveling to Caesarea and needs one or two hundred Zuz for spending money. If she takes that money in small change, the coins will weigh her down and she will not know what to do; but if she combines the small change and converts them into Selahs she can convert them back to small change whenever she needs. So too if one if going to the marketplace and he needs one or two thousand coins of spending money, if he converts them into Selahs they will weigh him down and he will not know what to do; but if he combines them into gold coins he can convert them back into Selahs whenever he wants.

Thinking of principles that we are exposed to in Judaism (or in life generally) in this way is very revealing. First, the notion that they are more portable, like larger denominations of money, fits perfectly with the truth that principles are more memorable. Second, inextricably linked to their portability is the fact that they cannot be ‘cashed in’ in the same way as particular laws and norms — they do not affect the mundane aspects of our lives unless we convert them back into specific rituals practices or laws. Third, this story makes it clear to me that both are needed, we need to focus both on cultivating a rich set of principles and a web of interlocking practices that can carry us through the mundane (the marketplace) and the profound (traveling from one stage of our lives to the next).

The big picture application of this Midrash that occurred to me when I first heard it was that it serves as an apt description of certain Jewish communities just as it describes individual practice. I believe that all Jewish communities over the course of history have chosen their own idiosyncratic blend of principles and laws to uphold as especially important. Are the ritual details of davenning (prayer) the most important, or is giving tzedakkah (charity)? Do you spend more time studying text or meditating?

There are no ‘right’ answers here, only different ways to live out one’s Judaism. And yet I was struck by how I thought immediately of liberal denominations of Judaism in relation to this story, specifically those populated by Jews who do not view halakha (Jewish law) as binding. For many in those communities, it is the principles that not only stick with us more, but represent the essence of Judaism, as the law is seen as variously antiquated, offensive or impractical. It is like going on a trip — in this case one from pre-modernity to modernity, and now to post-modernity — and, having carefully converted all of our money into big bills, we have yet to stop at the stall in the marketplace and break those big bills down into small change.

While the Midrash is unequivocal about the importance of, even the preference for, the principles over the particulars, it is clear that converting the principles back into particulars is the only way in which to live them out — you cannot settle in to a new city without spending some money. What would it look like for liberal Judaisms to experiment with cashing some of our cherished principles in in exchange for law — ritual and civil law that we could champion?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


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