Wednesday, 11 Apr 2012

Written by Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh

You shall not commit murder!  You shall be honest in your business affairs!  You shall not trip up the blind or curse the deaf!  You shall respect the elderly!  You shall not steal!  Surely few people would argue with these commandments or claim that they were difficult to understand or rationalise?  Surely even fewer would disagree with the proposition that rules like these serve a very useful purpose in promoting the construction of a safe and caring society?

There are other commandments, however, that are not so straightforward, and whose relevance is not quite so apparent.  You shall not plough with an ox and an ass yoked together is strange, but just about explicable on the grounds that two such different animals might react badly to each other and make ploughing impossible; but what about the Sha’atnez law, forbidding the combining of wool and linen in the same cloth or garment?  And what, further, about the dietary laws?  You shall only eat fish that have fins and scales!  You shall not eat the flesh of any animal unless it has cloven hooves and chews the cud!  These are commandments which even the rabbis admitted have no rational explanation or intellectual underpinning whatsoever, and must be observed solely on the grounds of faith.

As you may imagine, the lack of such justification in the case of laws of such crucial importance as Kashrut has given rise to a vast range of explanations and rationalisations, some more convincing than others, as rabbis and commentators have sought to provide ordinary Jews with the extra impetus to make these rules part of their everyday lives.  Isaac ben Moses Arama (Akedat Yitzhak, Sha’ar Sh’mimi, 60-end) said:  

The reason behind all the dietary prohibitions is not that any harm may be caused to the body, but that these foods defile and pollute the soul and blunt the intellectual powers, thus leading to confused opinions and a lust for perverse and brutish appetites which lead men to destruction, thus defeating the purpose of creation.

Samson Raphael Hirsch also noted the imagined link between unconstrained eating and moral laxity and stated:  

Anything which gives the body too much independence or makes it too active in a carnal direction brings it nearer to the animal sphere, thereby robbing it of its primary function, to be the intermediary between the soul of man and the world outside (Horeb, 454).

Others have sought to draw an obvious link between the dietary laws and hygiene; Nahmanides comments on the laws about fish:  Now the reason for specifying fins and scales is that fish which have fins and scales get nearer to the surface of the water and are found more generally in freshwater areas…Those without fins and scales usually live in the lower muddy strata which are exceedingly moist and where there is no heat.  They breed in musty swamps and eating them can be injurious to the health (Ramban to Lev.11:9).

John Rayner, ז”צל ,commented nearly forty years ago that the dietary laws lie on the borderline between those practices which are, and those which are not, intelligible and self-commending:  consequently Liberal Judaism leaves it to each individual whether to observe or not according to their judgement…After all, religion is not primarily concerned with eating habits.  To create the impression that this is one of Judaism’s chief pre-occupations is to debase it in the eyes of Jews and non-Jews (Liberal Judaism, 1968, 12).  

Now it would be churlish of me to point out that the Kashrut laws are the chief pre-occupation of many Jews, and that the absurd lengths to which some of them go, and the obsession that they evince with regard to what they eat, when they eat it, what they eat it with and so on, is precisely the sort of debasement to which John Rayner refers, so I will move on.

My favourite comment of all about the dietary laws comes from the pen of Maimonides:  These ordinances, he wrote, seek to train us in the mastery of our appetitesThey accustom us to restrain both the growth of desire and the disposition to consider the pleasure of eating as the summit of human existence.  That appeals to me on two counts; first because it is so absolutely correct and acceptable, and second because (with a few notable exceptions!) I have yet to meet any Jew who failed to view food as one of the most important reasons for living!

The mastery of our appetites is a wonderful phrase, isn’t it?!  It has such a grand ring to it, such a high moral tone!  And yet it is something which we all singularly fail to accomplish.  Partly, of course, we may be excused for our failure on the grounds that we live in a consumer society which encourages us always to take more, not less; which defines us much more by what we have than what we do not have.  Those who are rich in material things we consider successful, those without we dismiss as losers.  Our judgements are superficial because so many of us only look at, and rate, the surface appearance, we have neither the time nor the inclination to consider what is beneath.

We dismiss knowledge, we reject study, we have reduced religion to the role of another leisure activity like swimming or going to the cinema, we yearn for the transient and ignore the timeless; for us, mastery of the appetite means not having fun, it means being disciplined, it means having to think about the needs of others rather than devoting our time and energy to the fulfilment of our own.

We miss out on many things by these attitudes, not the least of which is the opportunity to stretch ourselves, to gain some awareness of what we are, to capture some insight into what we could be, if we only gave ourselves the opportunity.

It would be silly to deny that we have gained many things from the consumer society to which we belong, that in a wide variety of ways the quality of human existence, and the drive to achieve, that is so intrinsic to it, have been other than enhanced by the material rewards that may be ours.  But it is also true that we have paid a price for getting where we are, that in acquiring the chance to gain prosperity we have actually lost a central part of our humanity.

The point of the mitzvot, be they those which have an obvious rational underpinning or those which defy any form of logical explanation, is simple.  They are designed to infuse a whole host of actions with an extra dimension, a dimension beyond ourselves; they are there to enable us to realise that we are not the supreme power in the universe, the be-all and end-all of existence.  

As Rabbi Art Green has written in his new and brilliant book Radical Judaism: [p.95]

Religions emerge to create forms that serve as such reminders.  I do not know a God who “commands” or cares about the fulfilment of specific rites.  I understand that all religious practices are of human origin and evolve within religious communities through history.  But I am suggesting that the creation of such ritual forms is indeed our human response to an authentic single mitzvah, a divine imperative of the immanent presence, a wordless calling forth within us that says: “Know me!” “Wake up!” Be aware!” “I am YHWH your God!”

The structure of mitzvot in Judaism should make us think, even about the smallest things that we do, and they should teach us to sew a thread of purpose through our lives.  

They demand of us that in focussing our minds beyond our own bodies we think of others, especially those in a worse position than our own, and see our possessions, our wealth, as an incentive and an opportunity to work for the betterment of the lot of those whose lives are blighted by poverty and deprivation.

Of course, it should be up to the individual to decide which commandments they wish to follow, but it must be beyond question that to treat them with scant attention, or no attention at all, as so many Jews do, is a massive error; an error which promotes spiritual poverty and moral tunnel vision and does nothing to improve the state of this sad and needful world or the quality of our own lives.

Rabbi Dr Charles H Middleburgh
April 2012

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.