No explanation

In Parshat Shemini, following the account of Nadav and Avihu, the section dealing with dietary laws begins – “to distinguish between the pure and the impure, between the living creatures that may be eaten and the living creatures that may not be eaten.”1

The distinction between the permitted animals and the forbidden animals raises a question that has occupied many commentators: What distinguishes the permitted animals from all the prohibited ones? Why is a hyrax worse than some other animal? What is wrong with camels and pigs? Why is sturgeon caviar worse than salmon roe caviar?

This question is not a new one, and similar questions can be asked regarding many other Torah laws. On this subject, however, the question is glaringly conspicuous. One of the reasons for this is the prominence of these laws in our daily lives and in halachah. Ever since we were exiled from our land and thus unable to fulfill most of the Torah’s commandments, the dietary laws form a central part of Jewish life. Separating milk and meat, avoiding non-kosher foods, and using the appropriate silverware for each meal take up much of our time and attention.

There have been various attempts to resolve this question. Some have claimed that eating non-kosher animals is physically harmful, and from time to time claims arise regarding the danger of eating pork. It is true that pigs’ meat is sometimes infected with worms, which can cause one who consumes the meat without sufficiently cooking it to contract a parasitic disease called trichinosis. But if that were the reason for the prohibition, instead of prohibiting pork the Torah could have given much better advice – that one must cook the meat thoroughly before eating it. Others have claimed that pigs are prohibited because they were used for idolatry, while still others have claimed the reverse, that pigs were not considered fit even for idolatry, so they are certainly unfit for our consumption as well.

There have been similar attempts to explain tzaraat, the leprosy-like condition described in the Torah. Maimonides, for example, explained that tzaraat is a type of disease. Ultimately, however, even he reached the conclusion that the tzaraat described in the Torah cannot be identified with any of the diseases known to him. On the contrary, especially in light of the fact that it can appear on houses as well as on flesh, tzaraat more closely resembles a miracle than a disease. In fact, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi writes that only supremely exalted individuals can be stricken with tzaraat, for only a spiritually exceptional person is worthy of experiencing such a miracle on his flesh.2

The same is true regarding tumah and taharah: no clear explanations exist. We do not know why hedgehogs, chameleons, lizards, and snails are tamei, while frogs are pure. There seems to be no reason why a frog, which is pure whether alive or dead, should be considered more exalted than a weasel or a mouse. However, the Torah distinguished between them, and we have no logical explanation for it.

Generally, attempting to justify mitzvot by portraying them as intended for physical or even spiritual benefit ultimately proves futile. This does not mean that such a justification is necessarily unfounded, nor does it mean that one should argue the reverse, namely, that pig meat is actually better than cow meat, only that G‑d, knowing how good it is, nevertheless prohibited it to us. What it means is that this type of justification can never be the central consideration. It is better simply to rely on G‑d and not attempt to give explanations.

Tamei and tahor

In the parshah, the words tamei and tahor appear in two completely different senses: in the list of animals that may or may not be eaten,3 and in the list of creatures that impart tuma when they are dead.4 These two lists are juxtaposed, even though there is no practical connection between them. Clearly, the statement, “it is impure for you,”5 regarding the camel and the hyrax has no relation – neither conceptually nor halachically – to the statement “it shall remain impure until evening; then it shall be pure”6 regarding the creeping things. The first statement denotes that the animal may not be eaten, while the second denotes that these creatures convey tumah.

Animals that may not be eaten are not, as a result, tamei. When they are alive, they certainly are not more liable to convey tumah; when they are dead, some are more liable to convey tumah, and some are less liable. For example, even though a snake may not be eaten, it is one of the creatures that do not convey tumah, neither when they are alive nor when they are dead.

Sometimes the two different senses of the terms tamei and tahor intermingle in the text, as in: “To distinguish between the impure and the pure, between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten;”7 “Do not eat them, for they are things that must be avoided…and do not make yourselves impure through them, lest you become defiled through them.”8 Throughout the section, the laws of tumah and tahara and the dietary laws are intertwined.

This mixture demonstrates, first of all, that any attempt to explain these laws in a practical or rational way will prove extremely challenging.

But it is important to stress that this mixture is intentional, and signifies that although halachically and functionally the two concepts have nothing in common, they nevertheless belong to one common idea. The terms tamei and tahor refer neither to the cause of things nor to the way they work but to the distance that must be kept from them. There are things that we avoid, and there are things that we do not avoid, and the distancing of the tamei – in all of the various senses of the term – is the subject of this section.

Why was the Torah given?

In every generation and in every age, there are matters that a person simply accepts, without expressing any objections or casting any doubts. In Maimonides’ generation, for example, what was written in philosophy books was sacrosanct. In our generation, by contrast, philosophical literature causes no one to tremble, even philosophers themselves. To be considered a cultured individual, it is sufficient to pepper some of these ideas into one’s conversation, without needing to acknowledge them as the basis of the world’s existence.

Our generation is a generation of psychology rather than philosophy. Today, the study of the mind is what determines the essence of the human experience in the world. No one claims today that one should avoid pork because it causes intestinal worms, since all the mitzvot of the Torah can be explained as spiritual dimensions, relating to the human personality. According to this approach, the sole purpose of all mitzvot is to develop one’s personality, each mitzvah in its own way.

In this context it is worth quoting Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who said that the Torah was not given to mend the personality’s torn pants. There is an element of truth in this. Whoever thinks that the exalted Torah was given so that man could attain peace of mind, lead a happy family life, love his fellow man, find favor in the eyes of society, or succeed in his affairs diminishes the Torah greatly.

It is true that one who is steeped in the world of Torah generally does not suffer corruption of character, but that is not the primary purpose of the mitzvot. On the other hand, the Torah would never command us to do something that clearly damages or destroys the body. The Midrash states, “Nothing that is evil descends from above.”9 In other words, no mitzvah would be given that causes damage, whether physically or spiritually. That said, it is still quite a stretch to then pin everything on this point and search for each mitzvah’s physical and personal benefit. G‑d did not descend on Mount Sinai to provide information that can be found in a cheap psychology textbook – to explain how to improve one’s life and how to behave better.

The psychological explanations for mitzvot are even worse than the medical explanations, which the Maharal criticized sharply, asking if it is conceivable that the Torah amounts to an article in a medical journal.10 In his time, at least, medical and psychological texts were expensive and difficult to access. Nowadays, most of this information can be found easily, for free, on the Internet. If this is the case, could it be that for that purpose alone G‑d Himself descended from the heavens?

A kernel of truth

To try to interpret the laws of tumah and taharah as expedients for personal development diminishes the Torah’s glory. Moreover, one must also remember something that is true of the Torah in its entirety, from “In the beginning” to “before the eyes of all Israel.” Although no individual can always uphold the truth, one must always remember that “the seal of The Holy One, Blessed Be He, is truth,”11 and it can never be forged. One explanation for this, in the name of the Kotzker Rebbe, is that G‑d’s seal is truth because a seal must be something that cannot be forged, and truth is the only thing that cannot be forged: The moment it is forged, it ceases to be truth. It is possible to make forged peace, forged wisdom, or forged beauty, but there cannot be forged truth.

To be sure, there are times and situations in which it is impossible to appeal to truth. There are people who are not satisfied even when they are given a true explanation, because they are stubborn and short-sighted. Torah educators, from both earlier and later generations, have had to take this into consideration. Often the bald truth is not as exciting as a brilliant innovation, even if the latter idea may be faulty and questionable. Brilliant theories may appear to be the absolute truth, even when they are actually false. A person can live for twenty years on these falsehoods, satisfied with the lure of their cleverness, and never bothering to seek the actual truth.

When someone sinks to psychological or medical explanations, he need only peruse the section discussing the eight creeping things – for once, human psychology has little to say. What is the benefit of avoiding hedgehogs, chameleons, lizards, and snails? Why are the weasel and the mouse worse than the cat and dog? Why is it that earlier in the month of Nisan, this food is not harmful to one’s body or soul, whereas a few days later, when the 14th of Nisan arrives, if one eats it, one’s soul is cut off? Any attempt to impose artificial explanations on these laws – explanations relating to physical health or mental health – not only is problematic in itself but is a perversion of the truth, and that is truly unforgivable.

Four entered the Pardes

The Talmud relates that “four entered the orchard (pardes). They were Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher [Elisha b. Avuya], and Rabbi Akiva…Ben Azzai gazed and died…Ben Zoma gazed and was stricken…Acher gazed and became a heretic…Rabbi Akiva left in peace.”12

Maimonides explains that this “orchard” refers to the study of other wisdoms and other disciplines,13 but the Vilna Gaon sharply criticizes this explanation. He argues that besides the fact that the explanation is fundamentally incorrect and constitutes an affront to the G‑d of truth, it reduces the Torah to a mere antechamber leading to a great hall, a preparatory stage leading to the study of the other branches of knowledge. This interpretation sets as the highest level, as the goal, something that is not worth pursuing.

Rav Hai Gaon says that “it is not our way to cover up [the true meaning of] a matter and interpret it in a way that is not in accordance with the intention of the one who said it, as others do.”14 When we set out to interpret words of Torah, we try to explain them strictly in keeping with the true intention of the one who spoke them.

This principle applies not only to methods of interpretation but also as a way of life. Sometimes, for various reasons, people build questionable, contrived explanations for the ideas in the Torah, reducing it to an antechamber that leads to a wretched hall. When, after several generations, a person finally understands that the glorious castle of his dreams is no more than a hovel, he asks himself: Was it all worth it?

Maimonides indicates that the lofty Pardes refers to Aristotle’s metaphysics. However, several problems arise. First, this idea does not appear in the Torah at all. Second, it fails to explain the mysteries of the Torah. Finally, and most importantly, is it worth living and dying for this purpose? Is it for Aristotle’s metaphysics that we sacrifice our entire lives?

And even if we argue that, in truth, whoever keeps the Torah and the mitzvot will succeed in his business dealings, in his marital life, and in his interpersonal relationships – still, is even this success worth living and dying for?

This idea can be seen, in the extreme, in the narrative sequence of the parshah. The parshah begins with the dedication of the Tabernacle, the fire that descends upon the Altar and the terrible tragedy of the sons of Aaron. On the day of the great revelation of the Shechina, Aaron’s two sons died “when they drew near before God,”15 as it says, “I will be sanctified through those near to Me; thus I will be honored before the entire people.”16 And what follows the revelation of G‑d’s presence and the great tragedy that befell Aaron? What does the Torah offer as a reward? “These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the animals that are upon the earth.”17 If the Torah commands all this simply for the sake of a diet – whether for the body or for the soul – then the dietary laws and their reward are truly not worth the cost.

When approaching the Torah, there is no point in considering the personal benefit to be gained, nor does one always find meaningful ideas. It is therefore good to recall the words of the Kotzker Rebbe to a man who came to him with questions about G‑d: “A G‑d who can be understood by anyone is not worth serving.”