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.
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.