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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.

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Григорий Phila June 28, 2017

After a hebrew crowd which few days ago wanted to go back to Egypt said "naase venishma", ("we will first do what we are told and then later. think why") a mountain was raised over them and G-d said "here will be your mass grave'. Meaning "really, you're now like "obedient"? Shut up!
This is why in Deuteronomy it says exactly the opposite: "Shamanu veosinu": "we will hear and then do".
As far as "tribal religion" concern, G-d wanted to destroy the whole hebrew tribe twice. His purpose was to deliver universal light and values to humanity. Maybe by means of some group of priests. This is even reflected in Isaya ch.2 idea of Zion as light for the world.
Do mitzvot because it's tradition and it's written so and you're part of tribe, but Rambam who has codified them was not thinking this way. Reply

Jonathan Brooklyn 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? Reply

Tzvi Freeman January 31, 2017

Meaningless? 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... Reply

Jonathan Brooklyn 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. Reply

David NY 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. Reply

Barbra Los Angeles 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. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma 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. Reply

Tzvi Freeman 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. Reply

yehuda Beverly Hills 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. Reply

Margaret Australia 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. Reply

Ann Tulsa 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. Reply

Shhh November 14, 2014

But is it okay not to? Can we not observe the more symbolic or outdated commandments and still have our face towards G_d? I don't feel those types bring me closer to G_d, or lack of lead me further away. I feel I am closer to G_d than many who practice strict adherence. Is it okay to forsake some of the more symbolic or outdated mitzvah? Reply

Chana Austin June 23, 2014

Anonymous If you read the article, you noticed that he said that Jews do things which are neither rational nor religious.

It's not religious to throw out the eggs. It's not rational either. It's just that this is something we do.

Be here now. Be aware of what you are doing and thinking. That's actually very modern. But it is also a by-product of living Jewishly.

Notice which spatula you are using on those eggs.

And do it lovingly. Reply

Anonymous June 22, 2014

! Does any religion make sense anymore? Reply

Ann Houston November 28, 2013

My only disagreement with your wise discussion is your definition of ritual A ritual is a process that must be done exactly just so in order to bring about a certain result. Among Christians, these rituals are called sacraments and the desired result is to go to heaven.

Abstaining from this or that is not a ritual. A ritual is something one DOES, not something one abstains from. Calling it a "taboo" fails to make it a ritual.

E.g., shopping for kosher food. Each individual does it on her own, using dozens of hekshers (besides OU which all accept). I do it by cooking from scratch.

Wearing this or that is not a ritual. A ritual is something one DOES, not something one wears.

We are a tribe with a certain way of life, with few rituals.
OK, the bris.
But we avoid defining ourselves as the only humans. (In many tribes their name for themselves is the name, in their language, for "humans". Ask who they are and they will reply with something which means, in their language, "We are THE people.")

As you say, we see ALL as human. Reply

Phyllis Los Altos November 28, 2013

It's a great way to express love for Gd. It's difficult; therefore it's real; therefore it feels wonderful. I was cooking an egg for my toddler and I was careless: I assumed the egg would have no blood in it, and opened it directly into the hot butter in the frying pan. But it did have a spot of blood. I said, "Oh, no, serves me right, now I've got to throw it out." But I had a guest who was not Jewish and she said, "Maybe MY toddler will eat it." So she served it to him on a paper plate and her toddler, who had rejected scrambled eggs, ate it and enjoyed it." My friend said, "I would never have known how to get him to eat eggs if not for that bloody egg."

But I would have thrown it out if nobody had been around to eat it.

With the same attitude as the way I shop for kosher food or for utensils.

With the same attitude as the way I choose a kosher restaurant.

With love.

I could remark on the way our children turned out, but she can't help the fact that she, not being a Jew, has no tribe.

I will note that she later wed a nonobservant Jew. They seem very happy together.

Why? Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA October 28, 2013

Speaking of Food and Chuckim Some chuckim make sense to me. Where I spend most of my days, the milk and milk products in the food eaten where folks around me have been served is not separated enough for me to be safe, so usually this means I eat vegetables for lunch, such as rice or potato, as I or my wife aren't cooking. This sensitivity has real meaning in my life for I happen to be extremely allergic and chemically intolerant to milk and milk products. I would not be able to eat meat cooked inside a container used for milk and milk products unless that container is completely sterilized. Just being around people with milk and milk products on their breath can be problematic for me. I also have the same problem with gluten. Terrible things happen to me should I eat gluten. However, smelling bread is not a problem. I often wonder if the doctor who was able to cure me had a relative over that noticed an improvement in his/her health during Passover due to the restrictions with regard to wheat. Reply

Sarah Rivka :) Cincinnati, OH October 28, 2013

wasted eggs: I second that I just want to point out it's also a mitzvah to not waste. ("Bal tashchit," literally "Don'g destroy.") Sometimes when you want to be strict with one mitzvah you end up being lenient in another. And as the other "wasted eggs" comment pointed out, you don't even have to throw out the eggs if you can't eat them yourself. Worse come to worst leave them outside for an animal to eat. I don't think Hashem wants us to waste His resources just because someone wants to be extra-strict with kashrut. Recently I had an issue with something dairy cooked in a meat container but instead of immediately throwing it out I asked a rabbi what to do. Turned out there was no problem with either the rice or the container; I just have to kasher the container again, and the rice was fine, because no meat had been cooked in the container in the previous 24 hours. Reply

zeynep October 15, 2013

reasonable, unreasonable, rational, irrational, diversity etc. (1) There is one single Reason/Rationale behind this and all other universes and that is DIVINE LOVE. It is NOT a wishy-washy kind of love. It is Intelligent, Strong, Intense, Demanding Love, unyielding in its core Principles. And this Love - sorry to offend the ears of the 'inclusionists' among us - is exclusively directed to the Jewish Soul in all its diverse manifestations. The non-Jewish existence and the Divine sparks invested in it are mainly functional in that they are intended to facilitate the elicitation of the adequate Jewish response to Divine Love. (The Response will of course improve the prospects of the non-Jewish dramatically also.)

Eventually the Jews will all unite around the core idea of Chassidic Judaism. The ways to get to this point are as numerous as the Jews are. Yet time is pressing and some of us are getting restless.

If the Jew, even for a fraction of a nanosecond, would sense, even intuit, the Divine Love behind the most puzzling chukim, those laws without rational explanations - and he/she CAN, because that's what being Jewish essentially means and that's the Response G-d really is after- he/she would drop every inquiry as to the reasonableness of it. There might, - and as Rabbi Freeman hints to - there probably is an "explanation" behind the chukim ( I personally suspect that it is a Pure and Simple 'I LOVE YOU'), yet it completely would lose its urgency for the Jew touched by Divine Love.

If all this sounds arrogant and/or pathetic to your ears dear friends, then you have no inkling of an idea how it feels for a Jewish human heart to be exhaustively dedicated to its G-D. But you will, eventually you will. Reply

Bubbie October 13, 2013

Obviously these are heartfelt comments by many concerned individuals. It's always helpful to know what people are really thinking and feeling. Reply