“Among my people it is believed – and rightly so – that it is only mindless superstitions and pointless rituals that separate us from the animals.” – Latka Gravas
Rabbi Yochanan said: Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, [aversion to] theft from the ant, chastity from the dove, and [conjugal] manners from fowl. (Bavli Eruvin, 100b)
First of all, I want to thank everyone who came to our amazing class last Wednesday. You peppered me relentlessly from start to finish and didn’t let up. It was one of the most stimulating mornings I’ve had.
Now, just to clarify things, I was not presenting the Sefer Hahinukh as the definitive answer to why we observe what we observe the way we observe. I was presenting him as an author in search of a reason to continue to observe to give the people in his generation (and of generations after) hope in a time when they may be tempted to abandon their faith for a more ‘successful’ one. Throughout history, we have seen works like this, especially when Jews were feeling oppression. Most recently, when other beliefs and philosophies and ‘movements’ seemed to dominate the horizon, – such as meditation, psychology, vegetarianism, new-age-ism, Zionism – Jewish authors were quick with their apologetics or fusion-literature to show how these ‘non-Jewish’ ideas fit neatly into mainstream Jewish belief. The author of the Sefer Hahinukh (which means the book of education), is just one in a long line of authors starting with Philo & Josephus and leading up to our time. He is, in many ways, a good example of how Torah shebe’al peh evolved.
Of course, we may end up at the point made famous by Latka Gravis, a character from a foreign (unidentified) country, created by Andy Kaufman for the TV show Taxi. When questioned about his country’s really bizarre wedding rituals which seemed to be filled with meaningless, superstitious practices he said: “Among my people it is believed – and rightly so – that it is only mindless superstitions and pointless rituals that separate us from the animals.” Sometimes it seems as if Judaism is such a religion. I’d like to believe that the system is more rational, but It really is hard to justify certain practices and beliefs (eg, yayin nesech, shatnes, grafting, kashrut). But maybe if we step back from the minutiae of ritual we can discover something else – a meta-message underlying it all.
In some way, it’s similar to Talmud study, where the conclusion is not as important as the process of getting there.
As I was driving home after our class on Wednesday, I realized that we were all saying the same thing about Rabbi Yohanan’s observation in the Talmud (see above). Nature is amoral. What we see in nature is more a reflection of ourselves than what it really is. Romans saw the eagle as a symbol of power and dominance. We praise the eagle for its protectiveness. God is a ‘man of war’ when Moses and the people sing of Him at the Red Sea, but He is also ‘kind and merciful’ when Moses prays to Him after the golden calf.
Mitzvot are the same. The reason for observance is not inherent in the mitzvah. Observance, itself, is the rationale for observance. (Think how many of us eat better in general because kashrut demands careful inspection of a product’s ingredients).
There is such a thing a ‘naval b’reshut haTorah’, that is, behaving in a disgusting manner within the limits of the Torah. But such practice is frowned upon as being out of step with what the Torah demands of us. Ultimately, the values we imprint upon our religious beliefs and how they come through in our practice and observance define the meaning of what we do and how we express our ourselves as Jewish.