The purpose of studying halacha is building a foundation that ultimately allows for a renewal of a person’s spiritual consciousness. In order to work on spiritual freedom – which naturally comes with a whole set of doubts – one must possess a clear and defined identity with a grounded core
The Importance of Halachic Boundaries
To achieve this, to be able to distinguish, separate and eliminate the bad from the good, one must engage in Torah and prayer. This Torah study should be delving into the depths of the law (Megillah 4b) —i.e., studying the Codifiers. For good and bad have a hold on the Torah. They are attached through the aspects of forbidden and permitted, impure and pure, kosher and unkosher, which appear in the Torah. And as long as one does not clarify the law, he is a mixture of good and bad. This is why he cannot separate and eliminate the bad from the good. He is in the aspect of (Proverbs 11:27), “He who seeks bad, it will come to him.” Only once he delves into and clarifies the law in practice, and determines <the permitted, the kosher and the pure>…”Likkutei Mohara”n 8:6:1-2, Translation from Sefaria.com
In this torah, the tzaddik’s ability to do the work of tikkun (rectification) – to give ruach to his surroundings, to descend and rectify the roots of heresy (the same stormy spirit identified with the ‘rav of the Klipa’) - is connected to his ability to learn halacha and study its codifications and codifiers. This type of learning does not require particular depth: its purpose is a fluency and access to halacha. Such learning deals with earthly, physical matters – and indeed, it follows the very physical description of drawing ruach through physical inhalation and exhalation. Rav Nachman taught his followers to learn the Shulkhan Arukh Chayim with the commentary of the Mishnah Berura (by R’ I. M. HaKohen ‘The Chafetz Chaim’) in a regular and systematic way. So as not to stir up a ruach s’eara (a spirit of storm, the Tohu, chaos), Rav Nachman seeks to establish borders and framework. The study of halacha actualizes this by setting up borders for the tzaddik which protect halacha against chaos, and enable learning to be constructive.
Many of us struggle with learning the details of halacha in an organized, regular manner. A person seeking spirituality will likely find fine legal details to be dry and uninspired. Yet for Rav Nachman, the purpose of studying halacha is building a foundation that ultimately allows for a renewal of a person’s spiritual consciousness. For example, a book like the Mishna Berurah has its own particular life force which is specifically drawn from the pragmatic aspect embedded in the halachic details, and from a readiness to commit and be faithful to their observance. I see this in the learning of the laws of Shabbat right before Shabbat in Bnei Brak, at a time that is considered to be deeply spiritual, full of longing and inspiration. To an onlooker, this genre of learning may feel alien to the holy atmosphere of approaching Shabbat. But to those gathered, this type of learning is a kind of entry into the atmosphere of Shabbat. By immersing himself in the details of halacha, an inner serenity settles upon the individual who learns, bringing with it a sense of reality’s coherence which allows him to receive the holiness of Shabbat.
I think there is a part of a person that needs to know the language of halacha’s ‘intellect’ - each one of us must have a ‘mitnagdic’ element. By this I do not mean a solid and impenetrable aspect, but rather a part of us that engages, in a straightforward way with halacha. It is the way of life of a Jewish person: I learn and keep halacha because I am a Jew.
My place in the world of halacha does not stem from obedience or willingness to take on the yoke of mitzvot. Rather, it comes from a simple connection to the flow of halachic life which is spurred not by ideological rigidity but by a recognition that ‘this is our life.’ The halachic lifestyle affects us in the simplest ways, even without our noticing. For example, food-related questions - is this kosher/dairy/pareve? - manifest a framework for us to relate in a reliable and clear way to a day-to-day physical reality. This level of awareness has its benefit: halacha creates an ordered world with delineated rules for what is permitted/forbidden. Thus, the study of halacha gives its student a religious language for identifying what is and is not allowed. From this perspective, we must find a point of belonging and identification with the halachic world. The halachic world - through its simplicity and flow of Torah life-force - allows for a greater clarity in and management of daily matters, because of its language and limits.
I think that Rav Nachman’s emphasis on the simple learning of halacha emerges from the internal paradox present in the tzaddik’s descent to the klipa (shell, physical realm). In order to elevate the klipa, the tzaddik must find a way to resonate with it - and as far as I understand, this resonance must also be found in the spiritual realm. Moreover, as he descends to the klipa, he must maintain the understanding that he will never be a part of the klipa - otherwise, he will become ensnared in it. In order to engage and overcome a force upon you, you must feel that it is relevant - that you could, theoretically, be inside of it. but if you are in it, how can you elevate it? The hassidim confronted the internal paradox of the tzaddik’s descent in different ways. Some described this descent as the consequence of a sin that occurs of its accord, and must be used for good. In this torah, Rav Nachman does not describe this descent as a crisis or downfall, but rather an imperative descent. Thus, a halachic awareness is the solution: it provides a person with a stable foundation, a clear understanding of his place, without estranging him from other worlds that are substantively different from his own.
It is important to draw attention to this point: the halachic world helps the tzaddik, and so too it helps every person who is part of the tzaddik’s world and identifies with him. The halachic world grants me a clear state with immense strength - an inner stillness, an ability to encounter the other without fear, because I know that I belong to a specific way of life. Halachic certainty provides a space for creation and encounter from a fearless, full place.
One of the main principles of a halachic awareness is the distinction between good and evil, an ability that allows evil to appear alien and strange to the observer. Thus, evil does not arise as a real option, for it becomes fundamentally alien to the religious lifestyle which maintains firm boundaries for forbidden and permitted; a halachic mindset sets borders and does not make room for exceptions. Studying the poskim is an act that forges a boundary between good and evil - this learning is therefore necessary for the descent to the kelipot, as it prevents the possibility of temptation. Rabbi A. I. Kook also presents a halachic consciousness as a type of protection: it creates definitions and limits for a person in the world, and these frames allow for spiritual freedom. The reason for this is simple. In order to work on spiritual freedom - which naturally comes with a whole set of doubts - one must possess a clear and defined identity with a grounded core. If not, there is the anxiety of downfall and dissolution (and this applies both in the religious and general existential realm as well). Paradoxically, halacha’s ‘closed’ nature allows for spiritual freedom and the ability to exercise doubt, to consider questions of faith and heresy - and, in this situation, proximity to heresy can only strengthen faith.
The tension described in this Torah through the dynamics of halacha and tefilah (prayer) exists because pure faith does not follow a pattern; it is present in actual reality. The feelings of longing in prayer, and in doing good - these are beyond words. Ultimately, then, heresy only calls into question the content of a framework - but it cannot touch faith itself. And heresy itself can be uplifted by bringing it to a higher place, one where the question mark hovers over the necessity of a framework to begin with. At this level, there is no contradiction between faith and heresy. In this upper world, faith is pure; it is expressed through a person’s action and prayer. Yet because it cannot be captured in any ‘form’, it cannot be shaken, either. From this perspective, the tzaddik must in fact cause the heresy to be even more ‘radical.’ At the polar end of this radicalization, he suddenly discovers that the ‘refined’ heresy becomes an even greater faith. This is a phenomenon that goes even farther than Rav I. A. Kook’s idea - in several notable places - that heresy comes to purify and refine faith (as he said about the halutzim of his time). The consequences are in fact even more profound: heresy itself, at a certain point, changes the very terms of faith and becomes a purer, clearer faith. This is because heresy allows faith to free itself from its contracted, non-spiritual aspects, liberating itself from the frameworks that define and contain the Ein-Sof (which transcends any limit or definition).