“Jumbo Shrimp.” “Honest Politician.” “Middle Initial.”
It’s not that we shouldn’t engage our minds in Judaism. It’s not that we shouldn’t struggle to make sense of the tradition of our fathers and thereby (and only thereby) make it our own. But to pretend this is anything more than the subjective struggle of Jews, to say that our understanding and our rationalizations and the arguments we throw out in Internet debates are the entirety, or even the main part, of Judaism — this is sacrilege of the highest order.
The strange desire to make Judaism make sense is, I admit, partially Judaism’s fault: it seems such a sensible religion, with many laws and texts and codes and numbered principles, etc. But while these are part of Judaism, they do not get to the core of what Judaism is or ought to be. They are, in fact, tangential, a facade, almost in the category of a necessary evil, and the motivations of those who seek to force Judaism to make sense are suspect.
But that’s not the place to begin. The place to begin is with a fundamental mistake you may remember from your high school English class.
Everyone who took English in high school was forced to read Shakespeare (I hope). Most people didn’t come away with a positive impression. The Bard is more than just boring, they’d tell you. The Bard is enciphered. He speaks in a strange English from a distant time and we just don’t see the point in working hard to understand what he says.[i] What (and I honestly couldn’t answer this question) is the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? What happens in the story? Why should I keep turning the pages? How are iambic pentameter and blank verse relevant to my life or anyone’s life?
I know these questions because I had them myself. I could tell there was more to the matter than met the eye (he is after all pretty much the most famous and lauded writer in my language, and it’s been like four hundred years) but this only compounded my frustration.
I didn’t “get it” until, perhaps in desperation, they took us to see a play. I think it was The Tempest. It blew me away. Even though there was so much I didn’t understand, it was beautiful. There was a certain grace, a cadence, a subtle rhythmic power to the words. I sensed, in a word, the poetry.
Why did it work on the stage when it did not work in the classroom?
Because Shakespeare wrote plays. He never intended for his words to be endlessly picked apart and for their first reading to take weeks or months. By the time we got to the good stuff in the classroom, the stuff that Dumas described as “Adam’s first sight of Eden,” the play already lay cut open on the surgeon’s table, dead in dissection.
Crazy that Shakespeare could be appreciated in play form without academic study, right? As simple as it sounds, we often forget it. We have a strange tendency to use the wrong parts of our minds and souls on the wrong material. We get mathematical with Shakespeare; we get scientific with philosophy; we get rational about Judaism.
Many Jews take a little time each year to, er, swing chickens. Most of us find this pretty weird.
If it’s too weird, if it’s beyond your threshold, if you just can’t do it — I think most of us could appreciate that, too. Don’t do it.
But imagine for a moment there were people who wished to change the tradition, to abolish it from Judaism, to uproot it retroactively by somehow proving that it’s inauthentic or some strange imposition on true Judaism by outside parties or circumstances. Let’s call them the rebels.
These people would eventually become very frustrated, because the hard-hearted traditionalists would ignore their outcry and their protest and for the most part not argue with them. The standard position would be: ignore the haters. Who are the real chickens here? the rebels would wonder, feeling superior in their ability to at least put the idea in the open, to debate it, to confront it.
They don’t realize that the reason the flesh-and-blood human beings who love to argue (seriously) don’t feel like arguing with them is because no one believes their contentions are rooted in purely rational arguments and a desire to find the truth. The traditionalist feels intuitively that the motivation of the average rebel is simply “this is weird.” And the traditionalists have already decided that they don’t care.
The rebel, reassured and seeing and opening, would point out that this is the purest sort of logical fallacy, that the traditionalists aren’t meeting the challenge to their ideas honestly, that they are willfully ignoring logical alternatives and, so blinded, will discern neither the best course of action nor the truth.
“We don’t decide the course of our own actions early in the morning the day before Yom Kippur,” answer the traditionalists, “and ain’t that the truth.”
There is literally nothing the rebel can say to this, except that they refuse to partake in something that does not make sense to them. It is sad, they think, that some people will forfeit their G-d-given intellects. Just sad.
But sad is not the word. The only word to describe the actions of those immovable traditionalists that will not even sit at the debating table and their forays over the edge of rationality is “essential.”
It is a well-known phenomenon to those who work with Baalei Teshuva, Jews who come to Judaism later in life, that they lack a certain klugkeit. Klugkeit, n. (Yiddish) – cleverness; smarts.
The old saying goes: To be religious is to be a priest (read with negative connotations), to be happy is to be a clown (same), and to be klug is to be a heretic (play along). To be all three together is to be a Jew.
In other words, cleverness is the magic preservative that lets religiousness and happiness coexist (no easy feat, many will testify). It is what allows a human being of flesh and blood with a flawed personality and a beating heart full of love and fear live under the rule of an inanimate system of laws without going insane. It is the skeleton key that transforms cages into parlors, prisons into homes. And it is problematic.
The problem with klugkeit is that it’s by definition ephemeral. It’s not written down anywhere, and cannot be written down anywhere. Being klug is antithetical to being orderly and intellectual. A Jew could sit down with holy texts for eighty years and personally build up Judaism from the Chumash and from first principles, and never run into klugkeit. It is what’s written between the lines; it is what’s written on the blank page at the front of all the books. Klugkeit is the mortar that takes millions of inky letters and turns them into a window illuminated by G-dliness.
Klugkeit is anathema to the Shulchan Aruch Jew, the purist whose Judaism begins and ends with the Code of Jewish Law. The Rav back in the shtetl (and nowadays) finds a heter, a dispensation, a “way around” the law, because he’s klug[ii]. The beautiful rainbow of Jewish customs that bend and warp Jewish laws are functions of klugkeit. A lesser form of klugkeit is what makes religious Jews freak out if their children watch movies and not freak out if their children speak gossip or slander, even though some movies may not strictly be an issue at all in Jewish law and slander is as bad as the three cardinal sins combined. If you ask the parents about this inherent contradiction, they’ll have a very hard time explaining it.
It gets worse. Though it makes some heads explode, the Gra broke Shulchan Aruch. The Alter Rebbe, first Rebbe of Chabad, broke his own Shulchan Aruch, the version he wrote. Chassidim break Shulchan Aruch when they daven late; Litvishers break Shulchan Aruch when they don’t do the full repetition of Shemoneh Esrei. Now understand, these changes are justified; there is room for them, there are explanations for them. These explanations are very good explanations. I certainly wouldn’t want to argue with the Vilna Gaon or the Alter Rebbe, and neither would you. Nevertheless, one needs klugkeit for this to work, for the brain to tolerate the tension between The Rules and the reality of the Jewish religion. Why, one wonders, would the Alter Rebbe not sleep in his Sukkah, but write in his Code that one must sleep in the Sukkah? There are ways of understanding it. But the fact that there is a real Yiddishkeit that wasn’t put in the Code is telling.
Judaism is ultimately a religion of people, not of books, and can often make as much sense as people do. Judaism is more than a book, and, more importantly, it’s more than what can be in a book.
Why can’t Judaism be systemized and written down?
Because systemization is death. Literally.
At first, there was no logic and no system. There was only the Truth, the Holy One, Life of Life, Blessed be He. A system could not exist. By definition a system is impersonal, rules created to deal with discrepancies because dealing with things in an ad hoc fashion costs too much time or resources. This is not a problem for the Deity, who is quite capable of dealing with everything personally. A system would mean separation from the Creator, inherent death. It is the death contained in every untruth, in every smothering system that knows no living being, in every sad story you have ever read, in every cubicle.
The downside of the non-systematic personal mode is that there is no way to escape its intimacy, no privacy, no true individuality. An invasiveness that prevented all finitude was the norm, before.
After, G-d created the systems. First, he made logic itself, then the system we call the laws of nature. Both of these were based off of a uniquely divine system called the Torah, which was later brought into the world in the form of 613 general directives which in turn contained zillions of sub-rules.
The goal of Torah was not to teach people how to behave in a G-dly fashion; this was achieved long before Sinai, and practically to perfection. In fact, if the point were merely to have something G-dly, perhaps the Torah would come unwritten and uncodified, without rules, for the system with its numbered laws seem to be artifacts of G-d’s concealment, of his personal aloofness from creation.
Rather, the goal of Torah was/is to smuggle G-dliness into the system, and teach the system how to be G-dly at every level, on its own terms. The idea was to take the infinite, free, personal G-d and show Him to be the defining truth of this limited, bound, rules-driven, systemized, dead rock we call home. And like all smugglers, the Torah must be a master of disguise, a disguise that doesn’t break the system.
But can the person ever be reduced to the mask they wear?
What do we stand to lose, if we forget there is anything under the mask at all?
And so we must be discerning. We must look for the little signs that show there is more to the Torah and to Judaism than its codified disguise.
We have to be just a little clever.
So, a Jew makes an error, forgets his klugkeit, and mistakes Judaism for something that makes sense. What’s the prognosis?
At first glance, the patient appears healthy. A rational Judaism is, in fact, a very close approximation of the real thing, not just a caricature but a lifelike sculpture that is hard to distinguish from the living, breathing original for some time.
The reality, however, is that the life has been strained out of the religion of his forefathers, and only clay remains. The demand for rationality is a subtle and pernicious selfishness. It brings one to petulantly hack at tradition; that which makes sense stays, that which does not, falls. This is done, of course, in the name of objectivity; he is trying to fix what he’s received, to preserve it in perfection for posterity. But instead of improving it, he unknowingly forms it in his own image, to his own needs.
This itself is not so bad at first. He will argue (correctly) that this is the Judaism that works for him and that speaks to him, which is infinitely better than the irrational things foisted on him by the irrational Jews of the past without rhyme or reason[iii]. All of this is well and good; it is the picture of a Jew struggling with his Judaism. Lovely.
But he is in danger, a danger that has shown itself to be empirically real. As I mentioned at the beginning, it is the danger of thinking that what you have done with Judaism reflects the Truth. One runs the danger of thinking one’s own preferences or logic contain some sort of objectivity, an obligating objectivity that will convince those crazy Ashkenazim to embrace their leguminous desires for one week a year. If enough things don’t go one’s way, this stress between the person’s understanding of what Judaism ought to be and what Judaism is can culminate in dropping the whole thing entirely, for one’s devotion to any higher truth has been replaced with self-importance; one has become the very arbiter of truth who decides whether those “higher” things conform to oneself.
Worst of all is the heaviness, the burden he must bear if he demands rationality from his Judaism. There are, after all, certain responsibilities that come with this approach. Firstly, whenever anyone is arguing or challenging your way, you must participate, you need to fight or suffer feelings of doubt and inadequacy. And if there is no disagreement (what universe are you from and how do I move there?) there is still a need for polemic, to teach the world, to help them reach enlightenment as you have.
Ultimately, when Judaism will cease making sense (which will happen), when there are hiccups – Judaism will in effect cease to exist. After all, it is only the constant explaining and striving to understand that generate it in the first place, and only its intellectual elegance that sustains its worth. If you stopped thinking about it, it would cease to be. You would literally have taken on the role of the creator. Life as any sort of private citizen enjoying the boons of your beliefs is over; there is no time to enjoy the poetry of G-d’s creation. You are too busy creating heaven and earth.
But what about the actual rational foundations of Jewish law? At some point, all of these rules were put forth with arguments, and had to make sense to those who established them. In fact, they have to still make sense to us today. Is not Judaism predicated on Jews being able to understand its laws and mandates? If most Jews can’t keep something, or the Rabbis of the generation can’t understand something, isn’t Judaism subject to change?
The answer is yes, with a caveat – we must remain klug, as all the great Rabbis in history were. One must be sure of one’s devotion to the unwritten human tradition of one’s father before one dares change a word.
Am I in fact telling you that there are principles of and influences on all our great Rabbis that aren’t really written anywhere as if in some great conspiracy? Yes. Is this mad? I think the alternative is madder. The alternative is that the Rabbis worked only off what it says in the books yet themselves contradicted what is written therein and the entire millennia-old religion is a hypocritical joke played on the miserable Jews. It is hard to imagine even the greatest cynic backing such a proposition. Besides, the oral law is called the oral law for a reason.
As with most of the truly tricky issues, the problem is one of balance. The question of whether to approach Judaism as something that must make sense to me reduces to the broader question of whether to think of myself as the reason for the entire world’s creation, or to think of myself as dust and ashes. Is the world intended for my manipulation and my conquering, or am I player with a bit part?
The answer is obviously both, and you must learn when each approach is required from you by G-d. It’s another annoying trait of these tricky issues that the answer in the end is, “Do what G-d wants; it is what it is.”
Could there be more ad-hoc answer, a more personal answer, a less systematic answer?
Could anything be more frustrating to the blanket rationalist?
Yiddishkeit/Judaism is meshugge. There is no fully rational version of it, and there never has been. Jews use intellect for G-d’s purposes, rather than use G-d for intellect’s purposes. We are not the drivers, arbiters, or creators of truth, and that is a wonderful thing.
One might argue that this cheapens the great intellectual achievements of our glorious tradition – geniuses fighting geniuses in verdant Babylon, the sparks cast by their sabers illuminating minds unto eternity. One might argue that Judaism may not be rational, but I’ll never surrender my intellect; I will never relate to G-d like an animal; I shall cling to the human dignities of cognition and discernment.
There is one answer to these two objections, in the form of a question: What is man, and why does he walk this earth? If your answer is that the highest good is rationality and intellect and this ought he pursue, you are in good company. But this is not the ultimate truth.
The ultimate truth is expressed as a story[iv]. Once upon a time, there was a people called the Jewish people. They were and are chosen for a mission by G-d. You were born into this people. Everything you possess has been gifted to you for the purpose of that mission. To use your abilities, no matter how great, for other ends, is to waste them. And that includes your intellect.
In other words, the question is (once again) whether you are in charge of your fate or whether you are in fact the last chapter of a very old tale nearing its completion.
Now, the story doesn’t make sense. The story doesn’t have to make sense, since it’s a story. It’s ultimately just a tale of what happened to Him and what happened to us, and how we dealt with it, and how we grew, and things got better.
The story is what it is. If it is mad, so be it. If Life is mad, Judaism can be mad. After all, the former flows from the latter.
Yiddishkeit is also wonderful. It is wonderful on its own terms, as simply the greatest story ever told. And it is wonderful for us specifically, who get to step onto the stage right near the end, and bring the waiting audience and the eager Playwright the glorious conclusion they have so patiently awaited.
One thing is certain: You won’t need to understand the plot when you hear the applause.
Note: There is a deeper way of framing this issue whereby a lot of what I’m saying in this essay isn’t technically true. From that point of view, though Torah doesn’t need to make sense, it in fact always does. In other words, there is a level at which a conscious abandonment of one’s own rationality actually brings one to see everything in Torah, klugkeit included, as the greatest and truest rationality. Though it is alluded to above, it is ultimately beyond the scope of this essay.
For another (shorter) piece I wrote on the role of intellect in Judaism, check out “The Rebbe, The Chief Rabbi, And The Fossils.”
[i] And we can’t even use the normal motivation of appreciating a different culture, ethnicity, or gender; he is the dreaded white male; he is even Anglo-Saxon; he is the very evil we hope to escape.
[ii] Only in the right situation, of course. How do you know which situation is right? Because you’re klug.
[iii] Kitniyot on Pesach is a great example I’ve heard people gripe about recently.
[iv] Or, as we modern people call them probably because they terrify us on some deep level, narratives.
Originally posted on Hevria.