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Are We Obsessed with Prohibitions?

Are We Obsessed with Prohibitions?

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The Torah is seemingly obsessed with the word "no": don't do this, refrain from that, this is negative, and that is dangerous. There are so many more "dont's" than "dos." Take Shabbat, for example. Its only positive commandment is to sanctify the day; all others are negative. Don't drive, don't cook, don't shower, and don't garden. Why are we so focused on the don'ts? Can't we be a little more open-minded?

This challenge was recently issued to me by a Jew who describes himself as "positively oriented." The G‑d of Torah, he maintains, is one of wrath and vengeance, whereas his G‑d is filled with love. He teaches his children the beauty of Judaism and celebrates the rich tapestry of our culture, but doesn't bother much with the prohibitions. "Anything goes," he says, "so long as the children learn to cherish our traditions."

In typical Jewish fashion, I replied with a question: "How many wives do you have?"

"One."

"And how many women are you not married to?"

"All the other women in the world."

Are you defined by the women you are not married to? "So how would you describe yourself – as a married man, or as not married? After all, for every woman to whom you are married, there are more than three billion to whom you are not married."

You cannot be married to one person unless you are not married to everyone else. By definition, the nos outnumber the yeses. Does this mean that you are defined by the women you are not married to?

When Shabbat Becomes Holy

Shabbat is a day of celebration; not self-denial. True, we don't shop and cook on this day, but that is because it is too special a day to be wasted in so prosaic a manner; these trivialities can wait for Monday. Shabbat is not Monday. It is holy. It is special. It is Shabbat.

A friend told me that when his children were younger, he and his wife always made sure to have Shabbat dinner at home with them. Classmates and friends were allowed to go to parties, but his children remained at home. The children, he told me, never felt deprived. On the contrary, they felt that Friday night was holy, too holy for mundane parties – those were for weekdays.

Not being married to four-a-half billion women does not mean you are single. On the contrary, it defines you as a person committed exclusively to one woman. Similarly, saying no to the weekday activities doesn't define Shabbat as a negative day. On the contrary, it defines Shabbat as a holy day. A day that stands alone; apart and exalted.

The Map

Think of a map. The first step in map reading is selecting a destination. Once the destination is selected, only a limited number of the map's routes can be used. There might be only five or ten roads that lead to your destination without costly maneuvers or wasteful detours. There might be hundreds of other roads on the map, but they are not for you; they don't lead to your destination.

Prohibitions serve as landmarks that guide us to holy and G‑dly destinationsIf you map out directions for your son, you will likely show him the roads to take and exhort him not to take any other road. That is not focusing on the negative; that is showing him the way. If you merely show him how to cherish the route that leads to his destination, but tell him to select any route he likes, so long as he cherishes the value of the route, he will likely never reach his destination.

Now suppose your son has no particular destination in mind. In that case you can encourage him to explore all the roads on the map. You might point out the roads with scenic views or the routes that are part of a particular family tradition, but you would not confine him to the roads of your childhood. You would encourage him to explore the entire map and chart his own course.

Until you choose a destination you can travel any road on the map, but when your intention is to reach a particular destination, you must confine yourself to the few roads that lead to your destination. Forays into side paths are counterproductive.

Torah leads us to a relationship with G‑d. There are multiple roads that lead to G‑d; these roads are reflected in the mosaic of traditions that exist within the framework of authentic Torah Judaism. Any path beyond this framework may lead to a pleasant journey, but not necessarily to G‑d. If G‑d is your destination, then this is not the path for you.

This is why the history of humanity began with a prohibition. G‑d placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and commanded them to eat of all the fruits in the garden and then immediately added a prohibition: not to eat from the tree of knowledge. G‑d added that prohibition because the fruit of that tree would lead Adam and Eve away from G‑d. The fruit was delicious, and eating it would be enjoyable, but it would lead to the wrong destination.1

Prohibitions serve as landmarks that guide us to holy and G‑dly destinations. They are set by the Torah to help us avoid the paths that lead astray. Those who tread the paths that lead to G‑d and avoid paths that lead from G‑d are, in fact, positively oriented; they are moving forward. Those who follow the path of whim flounder in the open-minded sea; they ride its precarious waves, but rise and fall at their peril.

Footnotes
1.

You might be wondering why Adam and Eve were permitted every tree in the garden but one, whereas we are forbidden almost every route in the map and are only permitted one or two.
This is because Adam and Eve were already in the garden; they were at their destination. Once you are at your destination, there is only one wrong way to go and that is backwards. Every other path is permissible because they are all part of the Garden; all part of the destination.
Let us return to our earlier example of marriage. Once married, husband and wife are permitted many forms of interaction that were forbidden before marriage. However, the one thing they must studiously avoid is curiosity about what life might be like if they were married to someone else. There is no way to pose that question without compromising the purity and integrity of their marriage, innocent as these musings seem. They are ruinous to a marriage.
The Tree of Knowledge represents the mind's innate curiosity. Adam and Eve could converse with G‑d and intuit His existence on a deep level. But even in the Garden, they could also stray along the path of curiosity by wondering whether it could be proved that G‑d exists beyond the Garden, outside the realm of holiness. Is there room for G‑d in the mundane? Is the prosaic intrinsically holy?
This intellectual curiosity would prove their undoing, for it would entice them to toy with the forbidden in their ultimate quest for an answer. This curiosity, said G‑d, represents the only path out of the Garden and away from the destination; don't take it. Not if you like it here, not if this is your chosen destination.
Once Adam and Eve were ejected from Eden, they found themselves at the bottom of the map. From that starting point there are an almost unlimited number of wrong paths, and very few right paths that lead back to Eden. This is why we have so many prohibitions today compared to the single prohibition in Eden.

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Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA March 7, 2011

Lazer, you made a hasty generalization. In saying that to be a flip flop is not agreeable to anyone, you are saying, actually, you KNOW everyone (every person on this earth) and have personal knowledge that they have told you being a flip flop is not agreeable. Again, I am someone. I am a person. I am important. I think that in your definition of flip flop, I am PROUD to be a flip flop. I can see things in gray instead of stark black and white, right or wrong. There is actually wisdom in being capable of making moral choices from moment to moment rather than having a written blueprint which micromanages one's life. If you stick to the written blueprint, then situations require deviations, it is horrible if you have to then wait until a board of rabbis creates a new mishnah or book explaining their explanations. Sometimes, you have to make choices. If a person is so very stiff and obsessive-compulsive that they can't allow themselves room for turning left or right, and walk through life with blinders on, wow. Not good Reply

Lazer Gurkow (author) March 7, 2011

Delayed at Work As a general rule one many not drive or ride on Shabbos. However, there are exceptional circumstances where particular dispensation is granted by Halacha.

As a general rule this dispensation is easier to come by when one is riding as opposed to driving.

In either case, one must discuss this with a competent Orthodox Rabbi because many factors can affect this particular Halacha.

It is certainly best to arrange one's schedule in a way that permits for early departure on Friday afternoon. One many not initiate activities on Friday that are likely to last into Shabbos. As a general rule one should plan to be home early in the afternoon on Friday.

It is interesting to note that when one makes a firm commitment not to drive on Shabbos it becomes easier to plan Friday in ways that permit it. It is when we waffle on this commitment that we are suddenly faced with dilemmas about what should and should not keep us in the office. Reply

Anonymous London, UK March 6, 2011

start of shabat What if I am delayed leaving work and shabat starts as I am driving home. What should I do if I am really convinced of obeying the letter of the law Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA November 1, 2010

Lazer, I do not believe that G-d spoke literally On MANY items. Including that when we go to war, to kill men. women, children and animals. So, in your opinion, I am a flip flop. That's ok. I don't mind your name calling. No matter what you call me, I know that I love a loving G-d, and that G-d's grace and mercy are infinite, and that I don't have to jump through hoops to get him to approve of me. I am His, and He is mine. No matter what, through thick and thin. To people who have obsessive/compulsive disorder, in their eyes, they are NOT obsessive or compulsive. They're just normal. In society's eyes, they are not "normal". Again, it is in the eye of the beholder and depends on a point of view. Of course if you believe every word literally in the Bible and you believe every statement in every book written by sages and rabbis, then you MUST, MUST, MUST follow the laws literally and compulsively and tenaciously. There is a very dangerous situation, however, in doing so. What if you are not doing it perfectly? Scary!!!!! Reply

Lazer Gurkow (Author) November 1, 2010

To Joyce in Riverside Can it then be said that you are obsessed with doing what feels right to you?

If the word obsession is translated as living by, and devoting your life to, a value you believe in, without compromise, then most of us are obsessed. By this translation one is either obsessed or a flip flop.

While this is a radical (if true) definition of obsession I am willing to go with it and say: we can either be obsessed with doing what feels right to us or with what G-d told us feels right to Him.

I would much rather the former.

The only other alternative is to be a flip flop and that is not agreeable to anyone. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA November 1, 2010

Again, a very honest answer to the question is... Very simple. If you ascribe to the Chabad and Orthodox theology in your belief, then the TERMINOLOGY of "obsession" is not correct. In fact, to a person whose whole career is studying one particular item on an ongoing basis, that person would also not describe himself as being obsessive in his interest. Other people looking in, who do not share the same interest, would say it is obsessive. So, the term "obsessive" is in the eye of the beholder. In my opinion, anyone who studies anything is obsessing over that topic, and in that way, the word has no negative connotation. Do I believe in studying the Torah and the mitzvot AS WELL AS all the books written by various sages, Rabbis and others? No, I don't. To me, it would be obsessive to do so in a negative sense. So, when I learn about a Mitzvot I particularly can relate to and understand and agree with, then I am HAPPY to do that. In fact, Tikkun Olam is a WONDERFUL mitzvah. There are many positive ones I love and love to do. Reply

Anonymous West Chester, OH October 31, 2010

Love and fear Love is not a transient mood. It is constant. When you love your child, you can be angry with him but he is always part of you. You will always care for him. You can not be indifferent.
I do not do things for G-d because I am afraid that if I do not, I will burn in Hell. I would not want a religion like that.
Lazer, I hope you have love in your life which is more than a mood and thanks for the article. Your response to the man's question was simple and brilliant. :-) Reply

Anonymous Albuquerque, NM October 30, 2010

strong boundaries create love not fear if one creates strong boundaries of respect and love then there is no fear. the torah is full of stories of love and compassion. my creator G-d is all loving and kind and creates guidelines to protect his little ones. these guidelines are not prohibitions but healthy boundaries that allow me to be more in the moment every day. Reply

Courtney October 30, 2010

Are we obsessed w/ prohibitions article I did not get time to read it all, but here is my thought as short and as brief as I can make it. Either you believe in the G-d of Israel and are Torah observant out of its being His will and your desire or you don't. I do not see why we are so obsessed with trying NOT to do those things which G-d commands. Thank you so much for the article and for letting me share my thoughts. Reply

Lazer Gurkow (Author) April 16, 2010

Earning Love The Mitzvot are not performed to earn or to prove our love. It is an outgrowth of love. When you love someone you want to do for them what they ask you to do.

A husband that loves his wife wants to buy her jewelery if that is what she wants. If she wants clothes and he buys her jewelery then it is not love for her that drives him to buy it.

If you believe that the Torah was written by G-d then you know that He has told us what he wants us to do. In that case loving him while turning Him down on what He wants is not true love. True love is expressed by being willing to do for our beloved what our beloved wants done.

However, we still need fear. Iif love were the only ingredient than we would only perform the Mitzvot when we were in a loving mood and moods are transient. Fear is the grounding factor that stabilizes the relationship.

It is akin to respect in a marriage. Love is the spark, respect is the stabilizer. With G-d it is love and fear. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA April 15, 2010

Dear Lazer, So, you operate out of fear. If this is what you believe to be true, then you must do those things on an external basis to prove what love is in your heart, much as a man must buy his wife very expensive jewelry to prove his love. Some people do not ascribe to this theory (although you and others say it is factual and true). In fact, there are Jews who disagree that in order to love G-d, you must "prove" it or "earn" His love by doing outward actions which you call Mitzvot. This is what separates the Orthodox from the Reform and from the more modern thinkers in Judaism who wish to remain non-committed to any sect of Judaism, but who maintain their Jewishness. I do understand that your answer is representative of Chabad, of Orthodox Judaism, and I respect your right to believe that. To answer the question above, therefore, it must be: it depends on who is answering the question. To Chabad Lubavitchers and Orthodox, we are NOT obsessed. To many others, we say YES, we are. Reply

Lazer Gurkow, author April 15, 2010

Why the Fear? Love needs to be counterbalanced by fear because love is generated by what feels good to me, whereas fear is generated by what is right by a higher authority.

Love of G-d is central because we need to be self motivated. But we first need to be grounded in obedience to G-d. The emotional expression of this obedience, this acceptance of a higher authority, is fear.

On a deeper level fear is the natural result of encountering true, vast greatness. We feel not so much fear, but awe. We sense our own smallness, our paucity in the face of G-d's greatness - that is the inner fear, ashamed of presenting my insignificant self before infinite majestic greatness.

Returning to love.

Considering the above we further understand why we must have fear. Love is self motivated. A connection with G-d from love will be as as insignificant as myself. Fear leads us higher. it embraces the fact that our relationship with G-d flows from Him and thus exceeds the limits of my capacity. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA April 15, 2010

It seems to me that men need these written rules Much more than women. I think we do have a greater sense of spirituality with us without needing external roadmap signs. Reply

Tal Potechin London, Ontario/ Canada April 14, 2010

Fear based influence It's true, there's an equal balance between love gd and fear gd. But, why the fear. If the love is there? Why does their need to be a fear of things?

That the world should be filled with opportunities to do good and better. Why should thier be a need for negativity?

Full and in love was the garden of eden. The choice that Adam made to eat the apple was available and influenced by not having known what consequence would be fall him. Now we know - So we fear.

Had we not known fear, life would be in the light of G-d.

Can we live in eden still? you say the fulfillment of mitzvot is the road back to eden?

We do have G-d within us, and that whim you speak of, Rabbi, being the potential floundering, could be the path back to Eden. That when we look inside and daven to G-d in love, we are also accessing the road to his favor?

I want to feel I'm doing things right. I too am open to new literature on the topic of mitzvot & charecter building - any suggestions? Reply

Lazer Gurkow, author April 14, 2010

Where to find Positive Commandments Maimonides wrote a book called Sefer Hamitzvot - the book of commandments. It is the best listing of the commandments that i have seen. Each comes with a source citation and a brief explanation.

It is available in English in both print and online. In fact it is available here on chabad.org. You can choose between a translation for adults, an abbreviated version, and a version for children.

Click here for the Sefer Hamitzvot. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA April 13, 2010

Lazer, I TOTALLY didn't know about positive cmndmt Thank you so much. Where can I learn about the positive commandments? Is there a book totally or mostly devoted to teaching the positive commandments? I think that would be so awesome. In which chapters of the Holy Scriptures can I find them? I know in the ten commandments, there are only two. To love the Lord your G-d, etc.,and keep the Sabbath, and to honor your father and mother, Am I correct? Yes, I am very big on faith, having a personal trust in G-d in my life, and feeling happy to know G-d's love. Reply

Lazer Gurkow, author April 13, 2010

I fully agree with the first half of your idea Which is why the majority of observant Jews are not obsessed with fear about not living up to expectations. (exceptions can always be found)
This is also why the Torah's emphasis is on love of G-d as much as it is on fear of G-d.

In terms of the way they are written: There are fully 248 positive commandments in the Torah - all written positively rather than negatively.

Remember again the map analogy. There are many more roads one may not take than roads that one may. That is the nature of reaching one's destination. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA April 13, 2010

Too much obsession with negative commands, Leads to excessive worry about if you are doing the 'right" thing to please G-d. It's like it fills all your days, nights, waking thoughts, and takes away a balanced outlook on life. It can't be harmonious or peaceful. It can lead to a stubborn personality, and cause strife. As Jews, we need, in my opinion, to do whatever we can to STOP strife and glue our fellow Jews into a cohesive whole. There is, after all, strength in numbers. What if the Israeli army kept kicking out people for not following a mitzvot to the letter. How many people would be in that army? How strong would the army be? The reason we need scholars who spin the mitzvot to some rational explanation is because they were written in the negative rather than the positive wording. It helps more to know what to do, rather than be told what not to do. Reply

Lazer Gurkow, author London, ON April 13, 2010

A loving G-d This is a delightful conversation.

Joyce I am so happy for you - not everyone finds G-d and not everyone finds the finding a happy experience. You have - this is great.

The only question is the one posed by Tal (incidentally from my home town, London Ontario) How do we know if this is really G-d or if it is our own sense of G-d? If this is a meaningful question then we must be ready to search for G-d outside of our own impressions. Otherwise the argument becomes circular.

This is why I say to Tal that the orienting signs that tell us whether we are doing the right thing are in the Torah - not a document we made up, but one written and delivered by G-d.

The signs are the same for us all. The Mitzvos were given to us all. When we keep them we are on the path G-d paved for us. If we don't like that path and pave a new one then we are lucky, if like Joyce, we find that our path has led us to G-d.

In any event, the important thing is that we continue to seek G-d and never give up. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA April 12, 2010

Simple answer to your question would be... Yes.

More complicated answer would be: I have found G-d within my heart and soul without knowing about or following literally a written roadmap. G-d, Himself, has guided me and kept me strong thoughout life, has brought me through my breast cancer, congestive heart failure, and helped me survive abusive parents (who my orthodox grandparents said I had to respect because of the 10 commandments and not say such a thing about them). G-d says I am a survivor, and a very precious child of His. The G-d I know is kind, good, generous, loving. The G-d written of in the Holy Scriptures is, in the words of a Native American Indian I knew, a MILITARY G-d, and the religion of which you speak, if I were to follow your map, would lead me to death of G-d's loving spirit within my soul. I would rather follow G-d out of love than out of fear. I would rather pray to G-d from my heart than from a book. That's just me, though. You are different, obviously. Many-most in Chabad are, also. Reply