Here's a great tip:
Enter your email address and we'll send you our weekly magazine by email with fresh, exciting and thoughtful content that will enrich your inbox and your life, week after week. And it's free.
Oh, and don't forget to like our facebook page too!
Contact Us

Why Does Judaism Make No Sense?

Why Does Judaism Make No Sense?

In praise of tribal rituals



Yesterday, my sister threw out some scrambled eggs. I asked her why. She said because she accidentally mixed them with a spatula that was used for milk, and the frying pan was used for meat, and that meant the eggs were no good. I asked her why. She said because that’s the halachah. I asked her why. She said, “Because.”

There are so many things like this in the Jewish religion. Don’t play musical instruments on Shabbat. Why? Because you might come to fix one. So what? You’re not allowed. Why? Because. Don’t mix wool and linen. Why? Because.

Tell me, Rabbi, is this a sensible religion?


No, it is not. And your first mistake is to believe that Jews do these things for any particular reason. Jews do these things because they are Jews.Your first mistake is to believe that Jews do these things for any particular reason. Jews do these things because they are Jews. Keeping kosher is not a reasonable act, and neither is Shabbat, or the prohibition against mixing wool and linen. The same with Torah readings, bar and bat mitzvahs, black leather boxes, or dipping in the mikvah. These are neither rational nor religious acts—in the modern understanding of “religious.” They do not speak to the modern mind because they are not of modernity. They are ancient tribal rituals, preserved by a people obsessed with their history and their tribalism.

A few words about tribalism as the sociologist sees it. Sociology became a science with the publication of Emile Durkheim’s monograph on suicide in 1897. Durkheim was a nice Jewish boy who had studied in yeshivah to become a rabbi, like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him, but then left to think for himself and challenge his teachers at the Sorbonne. In his paper, Durkheim blamed most of society’s woes (especially suicide) on the abandonment of tribalism. He coined the term anomie, which means a state of society where nobody knows who they are, what they have to do with one another, or what on earth they’re doing here. Durkheim demonstrated, through the first methodological, scientific study of a social phenomenon, that in turn-of-the-century France, suicide was the realm of the tribeless—meaning the Protestant and the agnostic. Catholics and Jews rarely committed suicide. Because they felt no anomie.

What this runaway yeshivah boy ironically demonstrated, and others after him confirmed, is that a human being without a tribe is like a polar bear without ice—he can survive, but he’ll be awfully confused. It’s through his relationship with the tribe that a human being knows that the earth beneath his feet is solid ground, that tomorrow is a day like today, that he is who he is and it’s okay to be that way. Take the tribe away, and none of that remains necessarily true.

Ask any social worker: Take an aboriginal person off of skid row and plop him back in his tribe, and he’s a healthy specimen of life. Rip a wild kid out of that stolen vehicle and make him part of an extended, cohesive family, and he calms down, becomes manageable.

Most social illnesses arose when society grew beyond the tribe. As Jared Diamond points out, tribes are egalitarian. It was chiefdoms and states that gave one man power over another. Communism, socialism, the checks and balances of the modern capitalist state—all of these are attempts to make up for the primal trauma that society experienced as it emerged from its cocoon of the tribe.

That is the best description I have of this enigma we call the Jewish people: A Bronze Age tribe residing smack at the vortex of modernity.
Ancient Middle-Eastern tribesmen performing rite of passage ceremony.
Ancient Middle-Eastern tribesmen performing rite of passage ceremony.

Which is the astonishing thing about the Jewish people: We never left the tribe behind. Actually, that is the best description I have of this enigma we call the Jewish people: A Bronze Age tribe residing smack at the vortex of modernity. That’s also the best way for me to explain those rituals, sacred objects, sacred spaces and mystic occasions that are such an anathema to the modern mind. It’s true—they are absurd within the framework of the rationalist mind, just as polar bears would be absurd hunting for walrus in the Sahara. Kosher garments, Shabbat technicalities and taboo scrambled eggs are downright bizarre outside the context of tribalness—as are the thrice-daily incantations, the black leather boxes, the dip in the mikvah, the candles before sundown, perhaps the entire gamut of the Jewish experience. But tell me, just how much are you in love with the anomie of the modern mind? In Yeats’ classic portrayal of the modern mess:

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned . . .

The center cannot hold because there is none. Because modern man is a figment of its own imagination. He defines himself, his world and his place within it each day anew according to the temperament of that day. He is his own point of reference, and therefore he has no center, only periphery.

Let’s back up. What is the place of ritual within the tribe?

Richard Sosis, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, has put a lot of thought and research into this question and published prolifically on the topic. Sosis observed tribe members who maim their bodies in initiation rites, others who risk their lives in celebratory dances, and even one particular Middle Eastern tribe in which male members would stand for hours shaking back and forth, dressed in fur hats and hot woolen clothes, reciting ancient incantations before a stone wall under the blazing sun of Jerusalem. Sosis was bothered by the seeming counterproductivity of these rituals. “Why,” he asked, “does human society universally develop rituals that do not contribute, but rather severely detract from reproduction and accumulation of food and resources?”

Rituals deal with something more essential than intellect. Rituals deal with identity.

His answer: Rituals deal with something yet more essential, something that precedes the intellect. Rituals deal with identity, the context in which intellect functions. Identity in turn is the glue by which a tribe is held together. Specifically, Sosis demonstrates, we’re speaking of rituals that are attributed meanings that cannot be falsified (read: can’t prove it, can’t disprove it), involve significant risk or sacrifice on the part of the individual (“too risky to fake”), and are performed together or in concert with other members of the tribe. If there’s no risk, you haven’t proven anything to anyone, not even yourself. And if it all makes perfect sense, then you did it because it makes sense, not because of who you really are.

It’s like bringing your wife flowers or buying her diamonds. Now does that make sense? Good money gone to waste on items that provide no utility. But that’s just the point: If it would make sense to you, it would mean nothing to her. It’s only when we do the irrational that we establish firm bonds of commitment and joint identity.

Within the Torah cosmology, non-falsifiable ritual has yet a greater place. The mitzvah-rituals not only bind the people together as a cohesive whole, but also bind the people to an underlying truth that is wholly transcendent and unknowable, sometimes known as G‑d. That is really the essence of Jewishness, and the secret of Jewish survival as a tribe: The covenant. Yes, other tribes have their particular deities, totems and worships. But with the Jewish people, that covenant with the Unknowable Maker of Heaven and Earth is our defining truth. That is who we are, and without it we are not.

So, how do I establish, sustain and perpetuate a covenant with a transcendent, unknowable G‑d? If I cannot affirm my commitment to another individual through something that I do because it makes perfect sense to me, all the more so can I not establish an eternal bond with an infinite entity by means of cute little acts that fit neatly within my puny brain. The only true bond is through the super-rational. Like those black leather boxes on my arm and head.

All the Jew, from head to toe, must be involved. That includes the brain and heart. But the prime motivation is “I’m a Jew.”

Does that mean nothing is allowed to make sense? Not at all. This Infinite G‑d desires a bond with the entirety of each one of us—with our hands, our feet, our hearts and, yes, even our brains. If nothing would make sense, then the brain and heart would be left out of the equation. So, He provides opportunities to bond through mitzvahs that make sense as well, like don’t steal, visit the sick, honor Mom and Dad. Even the ones that transcend reason—the ones we call chukim, such as the prohibition against wearing wool and linen mixed together, or eating meat cooked with milk—these as well have been provided a kind of reasoning that works within a certain realm.

Yet nevertheless, when it comes down to the prime motivation for all of them, for everything Jewish a Jew does, it’s because “Hey, I’m a Jew, and this is what Jews do.” In other words, it comes down to our covenant with a G‑d that we never quite figured out, and don’t really expect to. But we do His stuff because, hey, we’re His tribe.

Like throwing out those eggs. It’s a bonding experience. Do it with love.

© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with's copyright policy.
Join the discussion
1000 characters remaining
Email me when new comments are posted.
Sort By:
Discussion (121)
February 1, 2017
To Rabbi Tzvi, whose wisdom I admire--
I apologize for using the word "meaningless". You said that they made no sense.

To me, sense and meaning are the same. I used what I thought was a synonym. But I see that your point was that there is another kind of meaning which does not make sense but serves a deeper purpose.

Do forgive me. I did not intend to misrepresent your point.

I hereby assert that the commandments are all meaningful, including the chukim that "do not make rational sense".

How's that?
January 31, 2017
I'm having a hard time understanding how someone could read the article and believe I've said that there are mitzvahs that are meaningless.

Is establishing identity meaningless? Is giving your wife a diamond ring meaningless? Is binding the community together meaningless? Is a super-rational bond with a G-d who transcends our understanding meaningless?

Those are all meanings and analogies that I provide in the article. I searched the article, and cannot find the word "meaningless" even once.


oh well...
Tzvi Freeman
January 29, 2017
To Ruth
Your October post quoted from Leonard Cohen.

In November he died.

But his line, "there is a crack, a crack in everything--that's how the light gets in"--is, as you know, Cohen's brilliant summation of Kabbalah.

That is, Gd had to make an empty space within Gd's Self in order to make room to create the universe. But when Gd poured Gd's self into the Sefirot, they broke, and the shards as well as the godliness fell into the created universe. And so everything, including the negative things, contain the holy sparks (the Divine light) which we reclaim and lift back up to Gd.

And one way to reclaim the holy sparks is to do these meaningless mitzvot, as well as the meaningful mitzvot.

Yes, we are a tribe, and we have these harmless unique customs (I would not call them rituals) that create our cohesion and keep us focused on Gd. It doesn't mean we judge anybody. Some are tempted to judge others. But the righteous of all nations enter Olam HaBa. Nobody goes to eternal hell.
January 25, 2017
Doing something that makes no sense because it's senseless is...senseless. If it's a meaningless tic that has no real effect on anything, so what? But when the nonsensical rituals require time, energy and intelligence that could be spent instead on improving one's life, they are destructive, even if everyone on the block is doing the same thing. "You don't know what you're talking about because you're not part of my tribe/gang/other group" is not an answer.
November 26, 2015
I know plenty of observant Jews who remember that the righteous of all nations
have a place in Olam haBa (in the afterlife).

They are generous in inviting gentiles and less-observant Jews to their Shabbos tables. Gd bless them for sharing with us a joyful, meaningful, restful, companionable way to spend Saturday afternoon with friends & children.
Los Angeles
October 18, 2015
the Tribe
I understand the argument for what often makes no sense, as in rituals, but when rite takes over from right, as in that feeling of being more righteous than others, we have a real problem. There are many kinds of Jews, many ways to practice Judaism, and it's important to know the rituals, to respect the past, but it's also important to respect the diversity of religious and spiritual ways of being. And then there's a greater Tribe, to belong to this, too. I find many very religious Jews do not read widely, are judgmental, and seem to not understand, we're all part of that Creation, and that everyone has be longings, and belongs to that Universal ONE. As for mitzvoth, I totally believe in Tikkun Olam as the healing force of the universe. We need the cracks, that's how the light gets in. Do not give me things unbroken.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
October 14, 2015
For Yehuda in Beverly Hills
Breathing also came before Judaism. As did prayer and celebration.

What Torah does is to take human behavior and raise it up to the divine. The same with the "chukim"—supra-rational mitzvot. Rather than assisting us to "explain our world and control it," they provide us a sense of that which is wholly transcendent and beyond understanding, and a connection with that transcendence.

As for Nietzsche—a bright man, but certainly not my guru. There is a balance that must be struck. It's true that tribalism has it dark side. You need to live a life that embraces all that is precious about the tribe, while retaining your own sense of personal mission.
Tzvi Freeman
October 14, 2015
Tribes came before Judaism, so what now?
The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself. - Friedrich Nietzsche

To the extent that the system of beliefs and rules are codified, they are called dogma; religions vary in how much dogma they include and how strictly they define it and enforce it. Religious mythology are the stories that develop, largely from oral tradition, to explain and describe the worldview of the religion. Religious beliefs tend to arise from humanity's attempts to explain their world, and where possible, to control it.
Beverly Hills
February 17, 2015
Judaism Makes No Sense
I love Rabbi Tzvi Freeman's explanation to this question. It is fantastic. Just love it.
I've learnt more about Judaism and the beautiful way a Rabbi thinks.
May G-d bless Rabbi Tzvi and his family.
November 16, 2014
Outdated mitzvahs?
The mitzvahs were just as "outdated" a thousand years ago as they are today.

The only difference between then and now is that we are no longer living in separate Jewish communities. Instead, we are swimming upstream in a non-Jewish world, and it is difficult to swim upstream all the time.

I do not know which mitzvos you find lack meaning, but it was long ago noticed that many mitzvos are "chookim"--meaning there is no way to understand their point.

Their point is that we do them simply to express love for Gd because that's what he asked us to do. To look for a heksher on a can or box is to say, "I love You, Gd, and I have faith that You have Your reasons for asking us to do this."

The very fact that it makes no sense--not that we can see--makes it an act of faith and love to do it anyway.