It depends on who you’d ask
Judaism prescribes a laborious lifestyle dictated by an interplay of the 613 main/root Biblical Commandments. They are typically divided into those that make sense and those that don’t. Most of our Rabbis urge each of us to research the Divine Directives for their rationales or objectives. Yet, Maimonides has the ingenious suggestion that we look for as many ways as possible to understand them (to support our motivation), but then give up on all reasoning and just obey them because G^d says so. (If following the Commandments would depend on us understanding them, we’d open the door to rejecting them one by one. Who understands anything? Alternatively, we could say: Back then, this made sense, but not now …)
I think that we can safely say that every Commandment makes sense. How so? King Salomon is said to have understood all of them but one. And there are many ways to understand that one—so much so that we should wonder what about that one he couldn’t understand.
Let’s have a detailed look at some examples of several of its categories.
Immediately Understandable Commandments
You shan’t murder. How can life be good for anyone if that’s not obeyed?
Understandable Commandments After Some Contemplation
● Honor your parents. When we’re young, we think faster, are stronger, more flexible, in a better mood, and though we know less, we don’t know what we are overlooking. It’s natural to think of older people as rudiments of past glory. My mother once told me when I disagreed: “When you’re so old as I am now, you’ll think back on what I said [and see I’m right].” Most cultures in the world hold by honoring parents, even after their demise, but that is not enough reason. Without honoring the elderly, we have no wisdom, humility, or gratefulness to the ones we should feel indebted to.
● Don’t put two different species of animals before a cart. For having different instincts, they won’t understand each other and will both suffer.
● Don’t drink non-Jewish wine. It could lead to partaking in non-Jewish religious wine libations and to getting too close to Gentiles at parties, which might end up in a mixed marriage, reducing our numbers. Other strong drinks are not forbidden, because the Torah doesn’t want to ban too much. It’s just making one statement for us to remind and guide us.
● The stronger a societal leadership role a group has, the more Rules and Commandments the Torah puts on them. The opposite of natural societies where the mighty get/take more privileges, ruining equality and fairness.
● Many forms of incest are forbidden, even with consent. If you think, in general, what this creates, you’ll get it. It makes a non-sexual environment for small children. Older ones can (almost) impose ‘consent’ on younger ones. We want families where this can’t be done, no questions asked.
● For humans, it’s not good to be alone [with G^d]. There might be exceptions but the Torah only gives rules needed for most people.
Understandable Commandments After a Lot of Contemplation
● A Jewish child created in a sexual union forbidden to the Jewish man may not marry most other Jews. But such a child is innocent. Everyone agrees it is. But this is done to frighten men away from such kinds of behavior. It’s as ‘irrational’ as building a nuclear arsenal to destroy the whole planet seven times until you understand it’s done for deterrence.
● Jews, don’t drink milk after meat. Gentiles, you can. But we have the same body, no? Yes, we do. But kosher meat has been emptied out of blood, so it contains much less iron. The same enzyme in the intestines that uptakes iron also absorbs calcium, but it binds stronger to the latter. So, consuming the two together makes that most iron is not absorbed into the body. That is (only) problematic to someone keeping a kosher diet. Yet, if we first drink milk and then eat meat, the milk has passed already the place of uptake before the meat arrives: no problem, which is Jewish Law.
● When we finally understand these kinds of Laws, we don’t only see how brilliant they are, but this also strengthens our belief in the Torah.
● You cannot save someone’s life at the cost of your own life. It’s not something that’s yours to throw away. If this rule didn’t exist, every time there is such a conflict, always, the least-generous one would survive.
● A man should not lie with a man as with a woman. For homosexual men, who need another man to adhere to, this makes no sense. Well, read it again. It only addresses heterosexual men, who’d lie with a man as they would do with a woman. For a homosexual man, sex with a man is not a replacement for women, who’re not on his radar at all. Only replacement sex is outlawed. And that is brilliant because that leads to addiction, no closeness, no commitment, and in the end, the guy leaves wife and kids for an easier life going from man to man (as the Talmud explains). This way, it doesn’t only make sense; it shows the Wisdom of the Author of the Law.
Should we throw out most Rabbinic Commandments?
Maybe the Rabbis overdid it, or perhaps we don’t need this anymore?
A friend of mine is a deeply spiritual, highly committed Orthodox Jew. He tells me: “Most of the Commandments are not from the Torah but from our Rabbis. If it were up to me, I’d abolish them. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do.” Is he right?
I’ll tell you (and him, later) why he’s mistaken.
1. The greatest Rabbis, like Rav Ovadia and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, love the Jewish People as no one else. If they didn’t take away most of the Rabbinic Commandments, it must mean they’re here to Profit us. Men should listen to a Torah reading at least once every three days so it stays alive in our heads, which keeps us Jewish. Men should pray with a quorum to train us to be friendly with men. What the Rabbis say about honoring one’s wife teaches men to behave properly with women. Jewish life makes Jews live close to a synagogue, which creates caring physical communities. They created dozens of Blessings to help us stay grateful and humble.
2. The Rabbis are obligated to make fences around what is forbidden by the Torah so we don’t come to violate those inadvertently. Just imagine that moving a pen would be allowed on Shabbat. Then we would be less Protected against the Biblical violation of writing. We should not cook on Shabbat or a ‘woman’s work’ would really never be done.
3. Many of the Rabbinic Prescriptions make life simpler if not livable. They made the Main Standing Prayer for festive days shorter. If you’re eating or drinking something and you’re not sure if you made the Blessings before doing so, the Rabbis say: leave it; just, next time, pay more attention. The Rabbis explain that Jewish Women are exempt from most of the Positive Commandments (generally, they are fine the way they are), and which things they don’t need to do. They explain bit by bit what our obligations and restrictions are on Shabbat, the Festivals, and weekdays or we could never be sure if we’re doing a good job and in which aspects to improve.
4. Rabbinic Enactments prescribe what G^d wants from us too. But not writing them explicitly into the Torah, and letting the Rabbis derive them from the Text or Tradition, He clarifies which Commandments to Prioritize when they conflict, and logic can’t help (Of course, keep Torah goes before honoring parents). They put gray between things that are obligatory and forbidden. The Rabbis also explain that potentially saving a human life has priority over keeping Shabbat and other urgencies. But in any case, G^d wants us to obey Rabbinic Instruction too; just, He didn’t record them.
5. The Rabbis bring us many valuable aspects of Jewish life. They tell us not to waste our lives chasing hoarding useless piles of money or Property, honor, competing against others instead of against our former self, etc.
6. Do you really want to change the Picture of Judaism? No more Purim, Chanukah, Sh’ma’, or Hallel, and no more set ideas about Torah readings, Biblical Texts, Talmud and Mishnah studying, or body of Jewish Law, including lulav, Chatunah, Seder Evening, Siddur, and Machzor?
7. In the end, the division between Rabbinic and Scriptural is largely academic. Many of the Rabbinic Laws just come from the Rabbis explaining the Torah. And many of the Scriptural ones are passed down by the Rabbis only. In practice, they both are G^d’s Directives to us and binding.