Friday, June 01, 2007

Talmudic Minutiae and God’s Love for Us


[Child with Lulav by Isidor Kaufmann]

One of my fellow bloggers wrote an interesting article recently, in which he comments:

I'm pretty sure I don't have the personality type to find such absurd rules [certain minor Talmudic customs] meaningful even if I did believe in God. ("Does God really care how I tie my shoes?" I asked as a kid when I first learned that rule.)

What he seems to be saying is that if religious rules are not clearly spiritual, relating to belief for example, then they are absurd. Laws about diet, dress, etc. are unnecessary and even sacrilegious. This attitude is a basic part of modern American Protestantism, and therefore it isn’t surprising that someone raised in American society might feel this way.

One could look at this from a different perspective, however.

First of all, all pre-modern religions tended to be legalistic. Muslims have Sharia. The Catholic Church has Canon Law. The Hindus have a caste system.

Judaism, however, may be the most extremely legalistic. We revel in Talmudic law. The greater an expert a young man was in the fine points of almost totally irrelevant Talmudic laws, the greater a hero he was in the Eastern European shtetl and the more prized he was as a husband. This is still true in many ultra-Orthodox circles. Can one imagine even the most law abiding American citizen fanatically pushing his children to become experts in all of American law, even the most rarely, marginally applicable details? I think it could be correct to call traditional Jews not merely legalistic but hyper-legalistic.

The reasoning seems to be as follows. We see each additional law as being an additional sign of God’s love for us. The Mishnah Tractate Makkos 3:16 states “God wished to increase the Jews’ merits, therefore He increased the number of their commandments.” God in His great love for us wants our entire lives to be dedicated to serving Him and increasing His glory. Therefore He has created the huge body of Torah law to make it possible for us to do just that. In the blessings which we say before the Shema each morning and evening, we ecstatically praise God for the great love He has shown us by choosing us and teaching us His laws. We beg Him to help us understand and observe those laws. We see this as the highest honor; the exact opposite of absurdity.This is a life dedicated to the service of God and therefore eternally, cosmically important.

The absurd life is the life of an atheist, unfortunately. He eats so that has strength to work. He works so that he has food to eat. He continues this cycle until his body no long functions, then his remains may be thrown into a dumpster. A life lived like that is truly illogical and nonsensical. Absurd, in other words.

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