'Thou Art Wise for Thyself' / Parashat Shemini

The search for rational reasons for Judaism’s various prohibitions is intended to persuade people that there are concrete reasons for the various commandments.

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

Newly religious Jews, Jews who want to persuade others to become observant, and the like, are continually searching for scientific explanations that help them explicate the logic behind the Torah’s mitzvot ‏(commandments‏). Pork, it is argued, can be harmful to a person’s health; circumcision reduces the chances of contracting various diseases; and observance of the laws related to menstruation help a married couple maintain a stable relationship over the long run. The search for rational reasons for Judaism’s various prohibitions is intended to persuade people that there are concrete reasons for the various commandments, which are not simply ceremonial rituals with religious meaning alone; that there is profound wisdom in the words of the Torah which preceded the modern scientific revolution; and that the source of that wisdom is certainly divine.

In this week’s portion, there is a long list of prohibited and permitted foods, but it does not explain why this or that food is thus categorized. Surprisingly, the sages also do not concern themselves with that question. Quite the contrary, as can be seen, for example, in the following midrash: “You must not allow your baser instinct to mislead you with an observation such as ‘God prohibits Israel from partaking of the good things in life.’ God says to Israel: ‘Whatever I have prohibited to you, I have offset by other things that I have permitted you. How is this expressed? I have prohibited you menstrual blood, but I have permitted you the blood of virginity. I have prohibited you blood, but I have permitted you to eat liver, which is full of blood. I have prohibited you from eating pork but I have permitted you to eat the flesh of the fish known as shirbot [a kind of flat-fish], which is similar to pork. I have prohibited you from having sexual relations with another man’s wife, but I have permitted you to marry a divorced woman, who was once another man’s wife.

“I have prohibited you from marrying a Gentile woman, but I have permitted you to take ‘a woman of goodly form’ ‏(Deuteronomy 21:11‏) from the enemy camp in wartime. I have prohibited you from having sexual relations with your brother’s wife, but I have permitted you to perform the commandment of the levirate marriage, by which you are permitted to marry the wife of your dead brother if he died without fathering any sons − as it is written: ‘her husband’s brother shall go in unto her’ ‏(Deut. 25:5‏). I have prohibited you from creating cross-breeds ‏(such as producing hybrid fruits and vegetables, or blending linen and wool in the same garment‏), but I have permitted you to wear a linen garment with tsitsiot [wool fringes]. I have prohibited you from eating the fat of a domesticated animal, but I have permitted you to eat the fat of a wild animal [but only of one that you are permitted to eat]” ‏(Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Shemini, Section 8‏).

One could argue about the quality of the substitutes that the sages propose as compensation for the prohibitions. However, even if we accept these alternatives as suitable substitutes, I am not sure whether they can serve to neutralize the primeval, baser human instinct to disobey God’s commandments. After all, how can the permitted substitute for the prohibited item be of any real help if the main “spice” in a prohibition − the sin − is missing in the substitute?

Nevertheless, the motivation behind the creation of this list is clear: The sages are arguing that the many prohibitions the Torah places on the individual do not prevent him from having experiences, because, for each of these restrictions, there is either an alternative situation in which it is possible to enjoy an item without committing a sin, or a decent substitute that will enable the individual to enjoy something that is prohibited without being disobedient.

Prohibitions are not intended to protect a person, for example, from the dangers lurking behind sexual relations with a Gentile woman, behind the taste of pork or behind the wearing of a garment that consists of a fabric that is a product of cross-breeding. These things − or rather their alternatives − are permitted under certain circumstances. “Why [i.e., what is the reason for Judaism’s many prohibitions]?” Midrash Tanhuma asks and then replies: “In order to reward Israel for observing the commandments.” Thus, the purpose is solely to help Israel obtain a reward.

The midrash continues with its radical theological reduction regarding the performance of Judaism’s commandments. If a person does not profit from a prohibition, we could then say that God perhaps has a specific reason for preventing him from consuming certain foods. But this is not the case, as the midrash goes on to say: “God does not care if a person slaughters a domestic animal and eats it or stabs the animal in the neck with a knife or a sharp skewer and then eats it. In performing these actions, are you actually doing anything that is beneficial to God − or, alternatively, are you causing him any harm?” This is a rhetorical question for which the answer is obviously no: God does not care whether an individual performs the commandments or not.

The sages nullify the concrete reasons on both sides − that is, man and God − for the observance of a prohibition: A person is not likely to sustain any harm by eating a prohibited food, while God himself does not really care whether or not a person observes that restriction. This logical and nihilistic approach breaks down the meaning of the commandments and changes the very question of the meaning of religious praxis in general.

Regarding the issue of why the commandments should be observed, the midrash supplies the following answer: “King Solomon [traditionally considered the author of the Book of Proverbs] says, ‘If thou art wise, thou art wise for thyself ...’ ‏(Proverbs 9:12‏). After all, the commandments were given solely to purify people and to purify Israel [as one purifies metal with the use of fire], as it is written, ‘the word of the Lord is tried [purified, refined or perhaps even purifying, refining]’ ‏(Psalms 18:31‏). Why [does God purify Israel]? So that he will protect you, as it is written, ‘He is a shield unto all them that take refuge in him’ ‏(Pss. 18:31‏).”

“If thou art wise, thou art wise for thyself; and if thou scornest, thou alone shalt bear it” ‏(Prov. 9:12‏), writes King Solomon in the Book of Proverbs. Wisdom helps no one but the person who studies it, just as, if a person mocks wisdom or scorns it, he hurts no one but himself. Similarly, the sages say, a person’s observance of Judaism’s prohibitions is not intended to please anyone else − neither God nor some other person. “If thou art wise, thou art wise for thyself”: The observance of the prohibitions helps no one but the person who observes them.

The benefit derived from the observance of the prohibitions is limited to the person who observes them; nevertheless, this benefit does not derive from the discovery of the meaning of the details concerning this or that restriction. In order to define this benefit, the midrash shifts the camera lens from the details of the commandments to the very idea of observing them altogether. The commandments and the prohibitions are intended “to purify people,” the ultimate reason being “So that he will protect you.”

The observance of the restrictions purifies the quality of life for the person who observes them. The reason is not that there is anything intrinsically harmful in the list of prohibitions; rather, it is to be found in the very act of the person’s enforcing the prohibitions on himself. The internal transformation that is undergone by the person who observes them, and that is depicted through the chemical concept of “purification,” produces a response from God. A person’s health is protected not by abstinence from eating pork, but rather by God himself in response to that person’s obeying of the commandments.

As is the case with many other prohibitions in other Torah portions, the sages remove from the list of the prohibitions in this week’s reading any practical significance. The commandments have no scientific meaning. Quite the contrary: Their entire meaning revolves around the fact that they are religious commandments. Herein lies their true and only value. They are channels of communication between God and man. Just as the commandments are ritual acts, the committing of a sin is a ritual act, because, if a person chooses to sin despite the fact that he has a suitable alternative that is not sinful − his whole purpose in sinning is to create a dialogue with God. In other words, the list of non-sinful alternatives does not satisfy the sinner.

The sages create a schematic picture of the question regarding the commandments’ meaning, and transform a question concerning content into one concerning form, a question concerning meaning into one concerning manner, a question concerning the message into one concerning the medium.

"The Sin of Nadab and Abihu," from a 1907 card published by the Providence Lithograph Company.