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Parshas Va-eschanan (Shabbos Nachamu) 5770

The Weird and Wacky Wisdom of Jewish Rituals

There are some Jews who think that the Torah is old, from a different time in history, and therefore has absolutely no relevance to our present-day lives. These people typically have not spent that much time studying the Torah – for if they did, they would quickly see how the Torah, with all its incredible wisdom for living, is as timely and relevant today as it was over 3300 years ago when it was first given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai.

A good illustration of this can be found in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Va’eschanan. Towards the beginning of the portion, we find the following four verses, in which Moses gives the Jewish people compelling reasons to observe all of G-d’s commandments:

5. "See, I have taught you decrees and ordinances as the Lord, my G-d, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land to which you come, to possess it. 6. You shall safeguard and perform them, for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these decrees and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation!’ 7. For which is a great nation that has a G-d Who is so close to it, as is the Lord, our G-d, whenever we call to Him? 8. And which is a great nation that has righteous decrees and ordinances, such as this entire Torah that I place before you this day?” (Deuteronomy 4:5-8).

Now we know that the Torah contains many different kinds of commandments, including chukim, or decrees, and mishpatim, or ordinances. Whereas chukim are those commandments that have no rational explanation, such as the Jewish Dietary Laws (Kosher), the prohibition against wearing linen and wool together (Shaatnez), the Laws of Ritual Impurity, etc., mishpatim are rational laws that are also dictated by human understanding, such as the obligation to honor one's parents and the prohibition against stealing.

This makes the above mentioned verses – and especially verse 6 - very difficult to understand. After all, maybe the nations of world should be impressed with the amazing wisdom of all the mishpatim of our 3320-year-old Torah – including fair competition laws, laws of torts and damages, the system of lower and higher courts, laws governing interpersonal relationships etc. – and so many other sensible laws in which the Torah was (and is) truly way ahead of its time.

Yet the Torah tells us here that the peoples of the world shall hear all the chukim – the so-called ‘irrational’ laws that the Torah commands us to do - and shall consider us ‘wise and discerning’ because of them! What is that supposed to mean? If anything, wouldn’t the nations of the world make fun of us because of these seemingly irrational commandments?

Can you imagine a gentile watching Jews swing chickens around their heads on the eve of Yom Kippur, or buying hand-made, tasteless matzah for $25 a pound to eat at the Passover Seder, or dipping brand new dishes in a mikvah (ritual bath), or shaking palm fronds and citrons on Sukkos – and then hear him say, “Wow! That Jewish religion is just so rational – it all makes perfect sense – and I want to convert!”

The Malbim (1809-1879), in his major commentary on the Torah, answers this question with a beautiful explanation of the last two verses (verses 7 and 8) in the passage quoted above. The Torah is teaching us that – as counterintuitive as it may seem – it is precisely the chukim that we do that will impress the peoples of the world, and for reasons which are recorded in these two verses:

The first verse states: For which is a great nation that has a G-d Who is so close to it, as is the Lord, our G-d, whenever we call to Him? This talks to the fact that the Jewish people, more than any other nation in history, have consistently produced stellar and stable marriages and family lives which were always the envy of the nations, and have (generally) lived ethical and spiritually elevated lives centered around G-d and His Torah. And even in modern times, Torah-observant Jews lead lives that are virtually free of many of the social ills and problems that plague society at large. [For an in-depth treatment of this fascinating phenomenon, see Lawrence Keleman’s book Permission to Receive: Four Rational Approaches to the Torah’s Divine Origin, in the chapter titled The Ethical Issue pp. 125-186.]

Even the twin threats of assimilation and intermarriage are virtually nonexistent among religious Jews (see, for example, the 2005 study by Antony Gordon and Richard M. Horowitz The Future of American Jewry: Will Your Grandchild be Jewish? at: http://www.simpletoremember.com/vitals/will-your-grandchild-be-jewish-chart-graph.htm).

When the nations of the world will see how the Jewish people who follow the Torah “have G-d so close to them whenever they call to Him” as the verse states, i.e. they are thriving morally and spiritually and are leading meaningful and fulfilling lives, they will come to realize that it is not the mishpatim of the Torah that produce these amazing results. After all, the other nations have sensible laws and ordinances as well, yet that hasn’t translated into the kind of lives the Jews have enjoyed. As strange as it seems, they will see how the chukim of the Torah – all the “weird” and “wacky” rituals that don’t seem to make any sense at all – must be the cause for the Jews’ apparent success in life. And they will then proclaim: “Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation!”

This phenomenon has been recognized in our own times not just by gentiles but by Jews as well, even those who don’t follow all the mitzvos of the Torah. For example, in 1999 Rabbi Richard Levy explained The Pittsburgh Principles -- the position paper, if you will, of the Reform Movement - in which he advocated a full-scale return to ritual, including Shabbos, Kashruth, and even going to the mikvah (however, not all of his principles were formally adopted by the movement – dz), even though the original “Pittsburgh Platform” of the Reform Movement of 1885 had declared that “all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress, originated in ages and under the influence of ideas altogether foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew …” Clearly, Rabbi Levy and his colleagues recognize the power of even the most “irrational” laws of the Torah to generate a vibrant and morally elevating Jewish life and to guarantee the continuity of the Jewish people.

And none other than Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the famous talk-show host and sex therapist, declared that the seemingly weird practice of Niddah – abstention of married sex for a period after menstruation followed by the woman’s immersion in the mikvah and reuniting with her husband – is “the most sophisticated method of maintaining libido in long-term monogamy I have ever encountered.” Who knew?

The second verse states: And which is a great nation that has righteous decrees and ordinances, such as this entire Torah that I place before you this day?” The Malbim explains this verse to be a second reason why the nations will be so impressed by the chukim and irrational laws of the Torah. This is because they will realize that even though these chukim don’t appear to be very sensible and logical, they are part of the same Torah that includes all the mishpatim which are brilliant and eminently sensible – i.e. they will see the “entire Torah” that G-d placed before the Jewish people and will realize that all of it contains incredible wisdom and depth – even the seemingly irrational parts.

To me, this idea - which even the nations of the world will come to realize about our Torah - is a no-brainer … I mean, if we see so much brilliance, sensitivity and rationality in so many of the laws and commandments of the Torah, then even when we come to parts of the Torah which defy rational understanding, we should have the humility, patience and common sense to realize that there is probably great depth in these laws too. It’s not like G-d had a momentary lapse while He was putting the Torah together and started rambling incoherently (G-d forbid)!!

Which is why I was so disturbed when I read about of one of our own boys who seems to have missed this point. Professor Alan Dershowitz, in one of his books (I think it’s in The Vanishing American Jew) challenges the claim that the Talmud (the repository of teachings of the Oral Tradition that was handed down from G-d to Moses at Mount Sinai) has Divine origins, based on this really strange story, which can be found in Tractate Bava Metzia 84a:

“When Rabbi Yishmael son of Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Shimon met [and stood waist to waist], a yoke of oxen could pass below them without touching them [that is how obese they were]. A certain [Roman] noblewoman said to them, ‘Your children are not yours,’ [because you could not possibly live with your wives on account of your physical build]. They replied, ‘Our wives’ girth is even greater than ours.’ ‘If so, all the more reason that your children aren’t yours,’ she retorted. Some say, this is what they told her: ‘For as a man is, so is his strength’ (Judges 8:21). Others say, this is what they said: ‘Love suppresses the flesh’ ”

Dershowitz writes that if the Rabbis who composed the Talmud could write stuff like this, they clearly had a little too much time on their hands, and that this story (and many others like it in the Talmud) illustrates that the Talmud is obviously a man-made - albeit brilliant - document.

What the good professor fails to realize – and he should know better, having gone to Yeshiva in his youth and studied the Talmud for many years – is that, as even he admits in his book, the Talmud is one of the most brilliant (and eminently logical) works of all time, and has been studied in depth by some of the greatest minds the Jewish people have known for the better part of 1500 years. So if he finds, on some of its pages, stories and laws which seem just plain silly and irrational, he should realize that even these teachings are all part of the “entire Talmud” and must therefore contain incredible depth and wisdom beneath the surface, in consistency with the rest of the Talmud’s teachings.

Indeed, the Kabbalists teach us that all the strange and seemingly silly stories in the Talmud and the Midrash mask deep mystical ideas. For a great illustration of this, see Rabbi Aaron Feldman’s amazing work The Juggler and the King (Feldheim Publishers), in which he elaborates on the Vilna Gaon’s incredible interpretations of the hidden wisdom of the Sages contained in all these stories.

Wow! Look how we can find so many relevant and important lessons for Jewish living in just four verses of the Torah!! This should tell us that each and every verse of the entire Torah contains amazing wisdom and depth – and all we have to do is have the patience and humility to learn its many lessons, enriching our lives in the process!

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