Why be Jewishly Observant?
We all are confronted with the arbitrariness of the commandments. Why do this? Does God really care if I eat oysters or cheeseburgers? That’s ridiculous. Maybe. In the Torah this week we we are faced with this problem dead on. The powerful narratives of Genesis and Exodus are far behind us, and now we are in the nitty-gritty of the sacrificial laws. In other words, the Torah is not just fun any more. So, why does God care if Jews sacrifice an animal in this way? Or that way? Here? Or there? Or why would God care about sacrifice at all?
With our awareness of other cultures (in other places; at other times) we find it impossible to believe that any culture can be right on how to worship God, so, we conclude, they must all be wrong.
We’re not the first to wonder about the nature of Jewish observance. In a commentary on the Torah, we read, “What difference does it make to the Holy One whether one slaughters and animal from the front or the back? The mitzvoth were given solely to refine created beings.” (Genesis Rabbah 44:1)
Our ancestors apprently also found it hard to believe that an eternal being beyond time and space would care about the physical particulars of worship. Yet they saw the rituals as a method of refinement of human beings. Discipline, consciousness-raising, whatever. The point was that Jewish law was and is a method for purification and refinement of the soul. We cannot become holy in abstraction – we can’t plug our brains into the ether and live like angels. We are stuck in the particulars of our situation, our messy materiality – so our rituals are, too. But they aim at something higher. God may not care about the particulars of observance, but those particulars can make us care about God – and so refine us.
A favorite heavy-hitter, Immanuel Levinas, addresses this same idea. He writes,
In the Talmud, Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai is questioned by his pupils about the reasons for the rites concerning the lustral water in Numbers, and takes refuge behind the authority of the divine commandment. But he adds that, without authority of this commandment, ‘Contact with a dead person does not make one impure, nor does lustral water purify. No intrinsic power is accorded to the ritual gesture, yet without it the soul cannot be raised up to God.
Levinas goes on to write that it is the particulars of the commandments that give them their meaning:
[….] “Ben Zoma said, ‘I have found a verse that contains the whole of the Torah: Hear O Isarel the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.’ Ben Nanus said ‘I have found a verse that contains the whole of the Torah: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Ben Pazi said: ‘I have found a verse that contains the whole of the Torah: You shall sacrifice a lamb in the morning and another at dusk.’ Rabbi, their master, stood up and decided: ‘The teaching as according to Ben Pazi.’”….The law is effort. The daily fidelity to the ritual gesture demands a courage that is calmer, nobler and greater than that of the warrior. –Immanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom, p18-19
Is Jewish Observance a Drag? Or Are You?
What is the power of the commandments, of Jewish ritual? An interesting discussion by two commentators on this week’s parshah shows an interesting disagreement. In Leviticus 6:11, the Torah states: Every male of Aaron’s descendents will eat [of this sacrifice]; it is an eternal law for your generations. From the offerings of Adonai that are of fire, whomever approaches them yikdash. I’ve deliberately left yikdash untranslated because it is about this word that there is an important disagreement.
The plain reading of this verb would be “will be holy” – whomever approaches them will be holy. That is, when the descendents of Aaron eat this, they will become holy. This is the reading of Saadia Ga’on, a 9th century commentator and leader of the Jewish community in
Though this verse is discussing a particular law of sacrifice for a particular group of people, still we all face this issue. We have all of these rituals and customs that are handed down to us by our tradition. Do they make us holy by virtue of the act itself? Or is it that we have to (or have the opportunity to) purify ourselves in order to do them. That is, do the rituals (in line with Rashbam’s reading) require us to look into the mirror and ask ‘How should I act; what kind of person should I be?’ before taking on part of the tradition? In this sense, the rituals are an excuse to be holy, though they do not make us holy necessarily. Should we really observe Shabbat in the same state of mind that we are in the rest of the week? Or should we prepare ourselves, purify ourselves, become holy first? Rashbam’s interpretation might lead us to demand of ourselves a change that can make Jewish observance more powerful – instead of our demanding that Judaism be more powerful in order for us to desire to change.Shabbat Shalom - do something beautiful for Shabbat.