Rationale Reasons Illuminating Jewish Law

Rationale Reasons Illuminating Jewish Law

Not infrequently we come across interpretations of Torah precepts in the light of rational thought and scientific discoveries. There has been a division of opinion since Talmudic times on whether one ought to seek to understand the commandments of Torah rationally, or rather accept them unquestioningly as an act of faith. Proponents of the latter held that there are dangers in rationalizing the Biblical instructions. Firstly, if we were to observe only because we understand, then the worship of the Divine would be converted into worship of the human intellect. Secondly, there is no assurance that what one understands as a reason for a given Biblical command is indeed the true reason, or that it is the only reason. Hence, we may fallaciously ascribe only one specific reason to a certain commandment and erroneously conclude that altered circumstances render that particular commandment obsolete.

Yet, the human mind cannot be fettered and at times, evidence of the beneficence of Biblical commands or injunctions is so striking that one cannot refrain from reading logical purpose into them. Therefore, one who accepts Torah authority with complete faith may, see many advantages that accrue from their observance, although he cannot be so presumptuous as to claim to understand the Divine intent of Torah commandments. These are seen as "dividends," as it were, and do not preclude existence of other purposes, presently or eternally beyond our comprehension.

In the area of health and hygiene, various scholars have called attention to the remarkable foresight of Mosaic law, pointing among others to the establishing of the eighth day after birth as the time for circumcision, which is appreciated in the light of the recent scientific discovery that the coagulation mechanism of the blood, which is dependent on the presence of Vitamin K, is absent in the newborn until the eighth day; or the extremely low incidence of cancer of the uterine cervix in Jewish women; or the absence of trichinosis in those who do not eat pork.

Others, however, have utilized the rationalization of Torah to alter the proscriptions as, for example, in reasoning that the Biblical prohibition against igniting a fire on the Sabbath was applicable only in the times when making fire was physical work, but not in an age when the mere flick of a switch creates light or heat; or that dietary laws were necessary for prevention of certain food-borne diseases only in the days of primitive cooking methods, but not in the modern era of pressurized cooking; or that the proscription of marital relations following the menstrual period until after immersion in the mikva was hygienically valid only under the limited opportunities for bodily cleanliness, but is no longer necessary in the era of modem plumbing.


One who adheres to Torah teachings out of faith and trust gives no credence to these arguments, since his observance is not predicated upon his understanding a demonstrable purpose for the instructions. Indeed, he may argue that a system that anticipated modem scientific discoveries by some 3500 years merits his utmost trust. He will recall that for thousands of years Jews were mocked for practicing circumcisions, and it was not until the twentieth century that the secular world finally began emulating them. He thus reasons that it may still be another few centuries before further scientific discoveries validate other Torah practices, and that he prefers to be ahead of the crowd.

Simply for the sake of discussion then, the arguments for obsolescence of Torah practices might be looked at. It is of interest that those who claim that modern methods of food preparation have obviated the dietary laws do not seem to be aware that there is no field in which there is so much controversy as to benignity vs. malignancy as in nutrition, and that there is simply no authoritative scientific position on nutrition that one can espouse. It is of further interest that they are unaware that at this very moment in modern living, autopsy findings indicate up to a 15 percent incidence of Trichinae infestation in the general population. It might be further noted that federal meat inspection criteria fall far beneath the Rabbinic requirements for kosher consumption. It is an everyday practice that federal meat inspectors will condemn a vital organ such as the liver or lung as inedible because of disease, yet approve the remainder of the carcass as "choice" or "prime." According to Rabbinic law, however, a diseased vital organ renders the entire animal non-kosher and hence unfit for consumption. It takes only a bit of logical thinking to recognize that serious pathology within a vital organ may so distort the metabolism of the entire organism that it may all be unhealthy. Although the latter may nor yet have been scientifically demonstrated, let us recall that scientific meat inspection is still in its infancy, having been initiated some forty years ago, whereas Rabbinic inspection has been practiced for over three thousand years.

The limitation of activities on the Sabbath, far from being obsolete, can serve as an illustration of the new applications of immutable Torah laws under varying circumstances. One of the most difficult problems for persons in the behavioral sciences, which is a recent phenomenon and is assuming more serious proportions daily, is that of the inactivity and boredom of persons retired from work. Clinically, this is manifesting itself in a higher incidence of depressive diseases and alcoholism in the late middle aged or early elderly population. Two unrelated factors have combined to bring about this phenomenon. Firstly, medical science is constantly extending the life span and an ever increasing number of people were surviving diseases which would have been fatal only decades ago. Secondly, the enormous progress in mechanized labor-saving devices, particularly in the fields of electronics and computers, has sharply reduced the demand for human labor. We thus have not only shorter work days and work weeks, but also a progressive lowering of the retirement age. Persons in their early sixties are finding themselves pushed out of work, and it is not at all uncommon to find retirement being encouraged in the late fifties.

Individuals whose adult life has been essentially centered upon work find themselves in a most distressing predicament, with an amount of time that appears to them an eternity, but little or nothing to do with it. A brief analysis reveals that nowhere has there been any preparation whatsoever for constructive and enjoyable utilization of leisure. Non-working days of vacations were always spent doing something; hunting, fishing, washing the car, mowing the lawn, remodeling the basement, going to the ballgame, etc. Whereas these activities can indeed be enjoyable as a respite during the working diet, they cannot be tolerated as a regular diet. Furthermore, various physical infirmities that are apt to develop in the later years do not permit many activities which were easily performed at an earlier age. Nowhere in the person's life has there been a repeated experience of absolute inactivity; an experience which could serve as a prototype; an experience which could compel him to develop interests which are not work or activity-oriented. Nowhere, that is, except in the rigid observance of the Sabbath, where the proscription is not only on work in the usual sense of the word, but also on many types of activities which do not require physical exertion. The observer of Sabbath is forced into learning how to use his time enjoyably and constructively when there is little that he can do. After completing a weekly course in this experience for fifty or sixty years, he has a distinct advantage in adjusting to years of sharply reduced activity; he at least has the tools with which to do so. Perhaps, this was the Psalmist's intention in his Song of the Sabbath when he states, "They shall flourish in their older years." From the psychological and sociological aspects, I do not know how necessary the rigid Sabbath laws were in the days of Moses, but today they are indispensable.

The laws regulating the sexual relationship may, indeed, have had physical hygiene as an important dividend, and this can hardly be said to be obsolete. Even from the purely physiological perspective, no one with any knowledge of the intricate complexities of sexual physiology will state that all is known. The recent discoveries of previously unknown hormone mechanisms lead the scientist into an ever increasing sense of humility, as he again experiences the time-proven truism that every bit of knowledge gained enables us to appreciate how much more is yet unknown. Again, however, aspects of sexuality other than the purely physiological must also be considered.

There is hardly anyone these days who has not reacted to the attitudinal changes toward sexuality that have taken place in recent years, perhaps because sexuality had been thought of only in physiological terms. Some of the most liberal advocates of sexual non-restraint have begun to publicly acknowledge, "Perhaps we have gone too far." One need not be a prudish arch-conservative to be revoked by the hawking of flesh on all newsstands and the degradation of a human experience not to a subhuman, but to a subanimal level. Lower forms of life, at least, do not have the human ingenuity to create perversions, and are guided by their innate instincts, whereas some humans appear to be guided by nothing at all. An aspect of human behavior of enormous emotional potential has been openly desecrated in store-front pornography and street corner parlors of perversion. Not only are legislatures entertaining bills for legalization of prostitution, but it has also come to pass that one of the requirements of licenses under the proposed legislation is that they be "women of good character." Selling oneself in the market place has no longer become incompatible with noble character. The latter is but an indicator of the consequences of sexuality being considered as purely physiological.

The concept of the mikva ritual is a most vital one. mikva immersion is prescribed in Torah law as a purification in preparation for events of great spiritual significance. It is a ritual of sanctification for participation in something sacred. In Torah practice, mikva was a requisite procedure for the High Priest before entering the Sanctuary.

The ritual of mikva as a precursor to sexual relationships following the completion of the menstrual period, carries with it a meaning that cannot be conveyed in hundreds of sermons or reams of philosophical writings. It indicates that there is to be a preparation for an act which, far from being profane, is beyond being mundane and must be considered sacred. It places the necessary emphasis on the value of the human sexual experience as a meaningful relationship of closeness and intimacy between husband and wife, rather than as an act of mutual masturbation, to which it is relegated when seen only as a physiological act. Mikva is the antithesis of the current desecration of human sexuality.

Modesty dictates that the observance of mikva be kept most private within the family, known only to husband and wife. Yet, in the observant household, mikva is not an unfamiliar phenomenon. The children are aware that prior to Rosh Hashona and Yorn Kippur, father visits the mikva to prepare himself for the most sacred days of the year. They observe that when new utensils are acquired for use in the kitchen or dining room, they are first taken to the mikva for ritual immersion.

The concept of mikva for sanctification of our food utensils is far-reaching. Historically, man has dichotomized his life into spiritual and corporeal. Various faiths have felt. these two aspects to be mutually antagonistic, and have advocated various degrees of asceticism or self-denial in order to achieve spirituality. The Torah philosophy abhors this dichotomy. It teaches that every facet of a person's existence can be elevated to become a spiritual experience. Eating is more than a physical act for survival; it is the means for sustaining a life that is goal-directed and, as such, becomes an integral part of an overall goal-directed existence. Whereas others have sought the sublime in the purely spiritual realm, totally negating man's physical habitat, or at best achieving a peaceful co-existence with it. Torah teaches that every facet of man's life can be sublime. This concept finds its ultimate expression in mikva, which is an absolute renunciation of a body-soul dichotomy. Again, 1 do not know how important mikva may have been in the days of Moses, but it is certainly indispensable today.

The above is not intended as an apology for practices that appear obsolete. The observant Jew hardly requires rational explanations for his religious observances. He is careful to avoid transgressing Biblical commandments as, for example, wearing a garment of wool interwoven with linen, although by the farthest stretch of his imagination he cannot detect any practical value in this. The above remarks are in the same vein as those one would make were he to see someone discarding priceless objects of art, in ignorance of their value. It is only moral to alert him to what he is doing.


The content of this page is produced by mikvah.org and is copyrighted by the author, publisher or mikvah.org. You may distribute it provided you comply with our copyright policy.