In recent decades it has become increasingly popular in Orthodox circles to answer every question by appealing to halacha. Must I inform a cashier that she has undercharged me – what does halacha say? May I attend a homosexual wedding – what does halacha say? Must I return a lost item to a non-Jew – what does halacha say?
In other words, what matters in the minds of growing numbers of Orthodox Jews is “permitted” and “prohibited.” Right and wrong barely enter the discussion. Indeed, many believe that permitted equals right and prohibited equals wrong.
Yet no less an authority than the Gemara (Bava Metzia 30b) states that Yerushalayim was destroyed(!) because Jews rendered their judgments based on halacha, ignoring the Torah’s exhortation (Devarim 6:18) to go beyond the letter of the law. As Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik famously said, “Halacha is the floor, not the ceiling.” In other words, halacha represents the bare minimum a Jew must do. Indeed, according to the Ramban, the specific dos and don’ts of the Torah leave enough room for a Jew to lead a degenerate life. He can curse to his heart’s desire and gorge himself like a pig and truthfully claim that the Torah neverexplicitly prohibits these acts.
That’s why, the Ramban writes, the Torah contains a general admonition to “be holy” (Vayikra 19:2). To be holy means to take into account an entire realm of behavior not necessarily covered by the Torah’s detailed mitzvos or the specific injunctions of halacha. It means taking seriously such mandates as “you shall walk in God’s ways” and “you shall cleave unto God.” It means studying in depth what some have called the “fifth book of the Shulchan Aruch” – those unwritten rules and behaviors that a true student of Torah ought to perceive between the lines of the explicit.