May 2017, Parshat Emor

Dear friends,

In my mid-twenties, some millennia ago now that I’m 40, I studied the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. He had many interesting things to say not least the idea that objective truth is, by definition, unattainable. One of my favourite quotes of his was when he said that David Hume awoke him from his dogmatic slumber.

The image that comes to my mind is one of an inflated opaque balloon, as close to the eyes as physically possible, that entirely blocks out ones’ surrounds. Along comes a pin prick and bang, lo and behold, the environment is filled with colour and variety.

Never mind what it was that caused Kant to shake off the darkness of the dogmas he had mindlessly accepted up to that point; to get into that would take a lot more than this modest little piece. What I would like to share though is a moment I had some years back when I came across a piece of writing from the Rambam which awakened me from my own dogmatic slumber.

I had been brought up to believe was that God was beyond laws of logic and morality, which are merely man-made. One’s responsibility was the adherence to the word of God, not to rationality or reason.
And then the Rambam burst my little bubble. And I quote:
“There are persons who find it difficult to give a reason for any of the commandments, and consider it right to assume that the commandments and prohibitions have no rational basis whatever. They are led to adopt this theory by a certain disease in their soul… But the truth is undoubtedly as we have said, that every one of the six hundred and thirteen precepts serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits… these principles suffice for assigning a reason for every one of the Divine commandments.”

In one fell swoop the Rambam turned my religious upbringing on its head. The Rambam said God is not only bound by laws of rationality and morality but every commandment, at its core, is designed by God to promote rationality and morality.

The Rambam explains that this ‘disease of the soul’ is based on the following idea: If God’s commandments are rational then they may be the product of human being who are capable of rational thought; the only way something is truly divine is if it makes no sense at all.

There is a problem with this, as he outlines, being that “according to this theory of those weak-minded persons man is more perfect than his Creator. For what man says or does has a certain meaning, whilst the actions of God are different; He commands us to do what is of no use to us, and forbids us to do what is harmless. Far be this! On the contrary, the sole object of the Law is to benefit us.”

From this we can understand the idea that God’s commandments have no rational basis is not only demeaning to God, it also contradicts what the Torah tells us “it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations who shall hear all those statutes and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” 

The Torah specifically mentions Chukim – those laws which have no readily apparent explanation – and claims that even every one of these ‘statutes’ convinces all nations of the wisdom and understanding it includes. But in keeping with what the Rambam says it begs the question: if no reason could be found for these statutes, if they produced no advantage and removed no evil, why then should he who believes in them and follows them be wise, reasonable, and so excellent as to raise the admiration of all nations?

The Rambam concludes that all commandments have a rational basis, which for yours truly was a most liberating concept with far reaching consequences.

To draw but one highly relevant implication to do with this week’s Parsha, Parshat Emor, which begins with laws of purity specific to a Kohen. A Kohen may not come into contact with a dead body aside from that of his immediate family; a Kohen may not shave smooth any part of his head; and a Kohen may not marry a divorced woman, a harlot, a desecrated woman, a convert.

These last laws concerning whom a Kohen may, or rather may not, marry pose an incredible challenge in today’s world. Who has never heard of a tragic situation in which a Kohen and a divorced woman are deeply in love, and yet they cannot get married? Or a case where a Kohen is in love with a non-Jew who desperately wants to convert but whose path is barred?

The predominant view is that the Torah doesn’t allow a Kohen to defile himself in these ways and, therefore, there is no room to manoeuvre.

But it may be argued that this ignores what the Rambam tells us is the reason for these laws. A few chapters down from the passages quoted above the Rambam explains that the reason for these purity laws was in order to foster awe, reverence, and respect to the Temple and its priests amongst the common man. By not allowing people who have come into contact with a dead person, or those who have just engaged in sex, to enter the temple the average person will not be given entry into the Temple thus ensuring that familiarity does not breed contempt. It also is basic psychology that we want what we can’t have and so denying entry is a great way to stimulate a deep yearning for it.

This reminds me of one of my favourite South Park episodes which is a take on the book of Job, in which Cartman inherits a million dollars which he promptly uses to buy an amusement park. He hates lines for the rides so he makes ads showing how great it is but that no one is allowed in which of course has everyone desperate to get in, which turns it from a failing business to a great success.

The idea in relation to the prohibitions of who a Kohen may marry is similar. Why, according to the Rambam, may a Kohen not marry those mentioned? Simply to set them apart from the common person so they will grow to greater respect for the Temple and its priests.

It is, perhaps, based on this that certain illustrious rabbis go against the current in relation to this matter. Most famously the late R. Moshe Feinstein, one of the greatest Rabbis of our time, found an innovative way of permitting a Kohen to marry a woman forbidden to him. He argued that since the Kohen’s father and grandfather were not observant this technically renders them useless as reliable witnesses. He says by extension we, therefore, have no reason to suppose this man actually a Kohen.

Others have similarly found other creative ways to, within the framework of Halacha, legitimately address this problem. The common denominator is that today the reliability of anyone claiming Kohanic ancestry is highly questionable. This in itself is not a radical idea. It is commonly held that were the Temple to be rebuilt today and the priestly class back in business, we would need God to point out a family or two of ‘true’ Kohanim. Yet despite this, many rabbis appear content to condemn a Kohen to live a loveless life.

While the idea of finding a Halachic loophole as such can be less than desirable we know we often use Halachic tools to make life liveable. After all, what is an Eruv if not a legal concept imposed on reality? Or the selling of Chametz? Or the growing of vegetables in raised garden beds in Israel to ensure certain agricultural laws don’t apply?

The Rambam is seen as a very strong advocate of finding ways to permit rather than prohibit. And it is no wonder. At the end of the day when you understand the reasons for things you are more likely to apply them correctly.

In our day, when religious fundamentalism, i.e. anti-rationalism, predominates universally, we especially pray to God to cure us of this ‘disease of the soul’.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur