Before responding to your specific concerns, I would like to make some disclaimers: 1) Please bear in mind that whatever reasons I advance in response to your questions will not be definitive. 2) My column is not a forum for halachic discussion – that is in the purview of our rabbis.
Since I am writing to you during this Pesach season, I thought it might be appropriate to respond through the answer that our sages give to the wise son of the Hagaddah. Very often, a person can be defined through the questions that he asks, so let us try to remember that which renders this son wise: a) His ability to distinguish between our various mitzvot and his discernment in recognizing that the Almighty G-d commanded them all and b) While he seeks information and enlightenment regarding them, he nevertheless clings tenaciously to their observance – all the while remaining unwavering in his commitment even if he does not fully understand them.
The answer that the Hagaddah provides for this son is rather puzzling. Instead of being offered the reasons for the various commandments, we are advised to inform him about the laws of Pesach and that we may not eat after the final taste of the afikomen. The afikomen is symbolic of the Paschal offering and teaches us that after all is said and done, the final “taste” that must remain with us is the awareness that our mitzvos are Divine commandments and we need no better reason for their observance than that.
It is that awareness that lends meaning and purpose to our lives; it is that awareness that renders the fulfillment of the commandments our only reality. So while we can advance many reasons as to the whys and the wherefores of our mitzvot and traditions, at the end of the day, there is only one reason, and that is that we do and we observe, because we live by the dictates of our holy Torah.
It is as simple as that. Had we been left to our own discretion, we probably would have opted for something sweet and cool to conclude our heavy Seder dinner, but the Hagaddah reminds us that the last taste that must linger in our mouths is that of matzoh – mitzvos – the afikomen. There is a world of wisdom inherent herein – wisdom that has enabled our people to survive the centuries, for no matter how the winds of time, culture or society blew, no matter what was in vogue or suited our palates, we remained steadfast in our adherence to the commandments, and we have not deviated one iota.
I write this preface before responding to your question so that we may all understand that our mesorah, our traditions, are holy. They have been bequeathed to us from time immemorial, and there is only one definitive answer that describes them, and that is that they are our Divinely ordained way of life. You might of course object, saying “Don’t we have the right to seek reasons for the commandments?” And “Would we not be more committed if we were given reasons for their observance?”
We do not object to searching for their meaning as long as we follow the example of the wise son who remains loyal even as he questions. If and when however, our observance becomes subject to our personal preference and logic, if we become the sole arbiter of the relevance of the mitzvos, traditions and rituals, then we will feel justified in passing judgement on their validity and will discard them when no longer “inspired.” Thus, our sages challenge, “Who is on a higher level? He who observes because he is commanded to do so, or he who is impelled by the inclinations of his heart? Clearly, he whose service is based upon G-d’s command is on a higher spiritual plane, for he subjugates his will. But when it is man’s will that prevails, then in no time at all, our heritage will evaporate. So the argument that you advance on behalf of some people who claim that, since women are in the professional arena the dynamics of their Jewish observance should also change, holds no water.
Our way of prayer, our gender roles, are rooted in our Torah and are therefore immutable. (Parenthetically, we would do well to remember that, from time immemorial, Jewish women have been in the vanguard in the workplace, many of them supporting their husbands while they studied Torah. So there is nothing new about women being out there.) By all means, let us search for added meaning in our observance, but that search must remain independent of our commitment.
Our sages have written extensively on Ta’amei HaMitzvot – reasons for mitzvot. The literal translation of ‘Ta’am” however, is not “reason”, but “taste”. In order to make the observance of commandments more attractive, more precious in our eyes, our sages have made us aware of the many benefits to be accrued by upholding them, so that we might acquire a greater love for them. But again, I must emphasize that these reasons are in no way definitive. It’s like a mother saying to her small child, “Taste this orange sweetheart. It’s so juicy and delicious – you’ll just love it.” Surely that’s not the reason why the mother wants the child to eat the orange. The real reason is that the orange is chock full of vitamins. It’s nourishing and good for the child.
Similarly, when our sages advance Ta’amei Mitzvot” – reasons for mitzvot, it makes us appreciate and desire the many pleasures that are accrued by those who follow a Torah way of life, but the real reasons for their observance remain beyond the scope of human understanding.
(To be continued)