Project Genesis

Mitzvos (Commandments)

Jewish Ritual for the Skeptical

Question:  A friend of mine is disgruntled with organized religions. He believes that all the festivals and rituals and holidays are antiquated nonsense. When asked why Jews needed the rituals and festivals and what relevance they held in order to be able to commune with G-d, I was stumped. I thought of many reasons why but could not put it simply for him. How would/should I approach this question?

Answer: Judaism encourages questioning, but the reason for a question is to receive an answer. If someone is asking, but is not willing to listen to an answer, for some other reason, no answer will satisfy them. There is a story told about one of the students of the great Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, (one of the holy martyrs of the Holocaust, Dean of Baranovitch Yeshiva in Poland, and leading student of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, revered author of Chafetz Chaim). This student had left the fold of Judaism and married a non-Jewish woman, and came back to his former teacher to ask some philosophical questions, hoping to undermine the Torah. Rabbi Wasserman answered with another question, “did you have these questions before or after you fell in love with this woman?” The former disciple was seeking only questions, not answers, and no answer would satisfy him because he was blinded by his lust. Thus, questions are encouraged, but only when they are actually seeking an answer.

However, hearing such questions are valuable for us who do seek answers, because it makes us think and delve deeper into the Torah, the word of G-d.

To begin, the reason we fulfill the Torah’s commandments is because G-d said so. The experience at Sinai was unique in the annals of both history and lore. Whereas other faiths claim a starting point with the revelation to an individual or a small group, the Torah religion had its start at Mount Sinai, with millions of people simultaneously experiencing prophecy. When one contemplates this, he realizes that such an event could not have been falsified logically and accepted subsequently. The fact that this claim was accepted as true by the decedents of those who were present attests to its validity. To put it simply, if someone claimed to see a “flying saucer” when he was alone in the wilderness, the listener could take it or leave it, because logic neither affirms nor dismisses his claim. However, if someone claimed millions of people saw a “flying saucer” and heard a message from its pilot, you would say “I would have heard about it from more than one person, not just you; I would have heard about it in the media, from my friends, etc., just as when I hear about any major event”. Then, if someone said “don’t you remember seeing it just now”, or “your parents saw it”, etc., then for sure you would only believe it if it really happened. Therefore, the fact that the claim was made in the Torah that millions of people experienced prophecy at Sinai, and the fact that it has been believed and accepted for over three millennia, by people all over the world, of many different faiths and traditions, seems to indicate that indeed the unique claim of national revelation at Sinai is true. Furthermore, the Torah predicts that this event is unique in both history and lore, which indicates that not only did this event actually happen, but it was actually G-d Himself Who made it happen and authored the Torah.

Thus, whatever the Torah says is logical to accept, because it is logical that the Torah is truly the word of G-d.

However, the Torah realizes that this may be sufficient for our intellect, yet G-d created us as complex beings, and emotion and enjoyment is valuable to us as well as human beings. We know that we need to eat for nutrition, however we also enjoy the food we eat, whether it be the taste, texture, appearance, fragrance, etc. If we would swallow nutritious pills, we would survive, but we would lack a vital enjoyment that our psyche requires. However, if we would eat delicious items that had no nutritious value we might enjoy the experience, but we would not gain anything out of it—the main reason for eating. Therefore, we need both aspects of food, the nutrition and the enjoyment, however the main reason is the nutrition. There is a genre of Torah literature known as “Taamei HaMitzvos”, which is usually translated as “reasons for the commandments”. However, there are additional words in Hebrew which mean “reason” or “cause”. The word “taam” has another connotation – “taste” or “flavor”. Therefore, these books explain to us the emotional aspect of the commandments, similar to the flavor of food, because the “cause” or “reason” is simply that G-d said so, similar to the nutrition of the food. The Torah says, the reason is for our own good, because G-d wants to reward us with the greatest reward, which can only come through effort, rather than free gifts, and thus the fact that G-d said so is sufficient.

One of the classic volumes on “Taamei HaMitzvos” is a book entitled “Sefer HaChinuch”, the “Book of Education”, first published in 13th Century Spain by Rabbi Aaron HaLevi. This book goes through the 613 commandments in the order they appear in the Bible, and explains the “taam” for each one. (The book is also available in English).

The Chinuch separately discusses each of the 613 commandments, both from a legal and a moral perspective. For each, the discussion starts by linking the mitzvah to its Biblical source, and then addresses the philosophical underpinnings of the commandment (termed the “Shoresh“, or “root”). Following this, the Chinuch presents a brief overview of the practical Jewish law governing its observance – usually based on Maimonides – and closes with a summary as to the commandment’s applicability.

Concerning the commandment to rejoice on the holiday of Sukkos (Tabernacles), the Chinuch explains that just as human beings have a need to eat, drink, marry, have shelter, etc. so too all human beings have a need for fun and enjoyment. Therefore, the Torah commands us at certain intervals to find this fun and enjoyment with G-d, as the Psalmist exhorts us to “Serve the Lord with joy”, and explains that “Joy and strength are in His Place”.

However, ultimately, there are some things that can not be captured in the written word. I could write forever, both in prose as above or even in the higher level of poetry as well, but never capture the actual experience of celebrating the Sabbath and Holidays according to the Torah, or the actual experience of prayer, with *tallis* and *tefillin, or the experience of immersing in a *mikveh. I could write about it, talk about it, even think about it, but never actually capture it. These can only be ultimately captured in their actual experience and practice. Therefore it was natural that you were stumped when trying to “put it simply”, because the only way to do so is by actually living the experience, as these are things that far, far transcend the confines of words. Words are only the boxes the Torah, and thus life, comes in (in Hebrew, the word *”teivah*” means both “word” and “box”). But we need to receive the package that comes in the box and open them up with actual experience, following the instructions of course, to even begin to understand.

With blessings of “living outside of the box”,
J. Kolakowski

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