Why Do I Have to Keep Rabbinical Decrees?
by Braha Bender
“Sure, I want to keep the Torah. I just don’t want to keep all that stuff the rabbis added on to it. Why do I have to do all that stuff anyway?”
This is a sensitive subject because people aren’t usually asking this question out of open-minded curiosity. They’re usually asking this question with an agenda to get out of as much religious obligation as possible. Even the words sound oppressive: religious obligation. Let’s try that in caps: Religious Obligation. Oooh, I can hardly breath. RELIGIOUS OBLIGATION. Whew, I’m sweating, can somebody open a window in here?!
It’s a personal question because it’s a personal issue. As personal as it gets. No healthy human being wants to feel restricted. (Dare I say especially Jews?) Healthy men, women, and even children want to feel able to exercise their independence and to be respected for it. Revolutions the world over tear apart monarchies designed to undermine this basic human need. “I am a human being, not an animal. You can’t cage me!”
To say that the commandments of the Torah, including the rabbinical decrees, don’t undermine but rather encourage the development of liberated, healthy, fully independent adults would be true – but it wouldn’t be enough. You wouldn’t believe me. You wouldn’t believe me because this isn’t a simple matter of two people debating down an issue to a fine point of clarity and mutual agreement. You and I live in different realities. There is a fundamental difference in how we each see our worlds.
This article will invite you into my world, but I only want you to come if you come willingly. It is not the Torah way to manipulate anybody. Consider this a test-drive. If you feel good with it, we’ll take down the convertible top, go for another spin, and shake our hair out laughing.
Are you in love? Have you ever been in love? Some say love is a cage, but others could tell you what happily married folks around the world know. Love is liberating. Love can motivate and support you to achieve accomplishments that otherwise would not be within your reach. Love wakes you up and vaults you over the barriers keeping you from your own potential.
Best of all, love is its own reward. Fall in love, and the world feels rosy. Can’t keep that cheeky smile off your face. You walk down the street and you notice all the butterflies. The only reason love is scary is because the person you love might hurt you, but let’s say that you were in love with someone truly kind and trustworthy, someone who loved you back unconditionally. Who wouldn’t want to be in love?
Sign me up! Or, more accurately, I am signed up. When you’re in love, it isn’t a burden to meet the needs of your beloved. It’s a joy. Not only that, but you want to go above and beyond in showing your caring and sensitivity. It’s not just that you like to bring her a cup of hot chocolate when she’s sitting and reading quietly in the evening. It’s that you happily grab the keys and drive over to the supermarket once a week to make sure that you don’t run out of cocoa powder. It’s not a burden, it’s a pleasure. That’s love.
How do I say this without sounding trite? The truth is, you buy it or you don’t. To some of my readers, the statement I am about to make will sound trite, but that doesn’t take away from the big smile on my face when I wake up every morning: living a Torah life is living in love.
I don’t keep Torah commandments because of some antiquated, superstitious religious obligation! I believe in a God who loves me unconditionally. That means that every event that takes place in my life, no matter how joyous or painful, is entirely for my good. It doesn’t matter what I do – the love stays unconditional. That pretty much takes care of superstition. I don’t keep the Torah to “earn divine favour” or some other perverted form of paranoid spiritual manipulation. I already have divine favour just because I’m me and God loves me. Period.
So why do it? I keep the Torah because I am in love. Believe it or not, I am deeply in love and that is why I find no commandment, Jewish law, or rabbinical decree anything like an oppresive “religious obligation”. I know God gave the Torah. (How I know that is a different discussion. An important discussion, but a different one.) Because I know that God gave the Torah, I don’t find it burdensome. Again, some will find the next statement trite, but I get to live with it: He gives me flowers every spring (and every week for Shabbat), and a sunset every evening. He gives me the beauty of the ocean, and the majesty of the woods. He gives me my smile, and the smiles of all the people I love. He gives me meaning when things look bleak, and hope when despair would threaten to engulf me. He gives me growth out of pain, a miraculous alchemy, and lifts my simple pleasures from just that – simple pleasures – to profound expressions of a deep, precious relationship. I don’t find it difficult, annoying, hard, or tiresome to fulfil His wishes.
For one thing, I know that He only commands me as He does because it’s good for me. He has no needs or selfish interests, only love for me, so there goes my great self-sacrifice. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, His commandments are a gift. They are an opportunity to, excuse the anthropomorphism, to make Him smile. And that is worth everything. How could I not want to do that? He is so good to me, all I want to do is express my love and gratitude in return.
Okay. Ride over. Hand over the keys. Like it? I told you that it was a little bit of a different world-view than the norm.
Most people think Judaism is a religious, but it’s not. It is a relationship. Rabbinical decrees are called fences – they protect what is precious. Keeping mitzvot is precious, and in order to make sure that I don’t stumble, the rabbis very considerately established practices to ensure that the bottom line is never overstepped. For example, I don’t light Shabbat candles at sunset. I light them at least twenty minutes beforehand. Is that more difficult? No. It’s my way of saying, “I love You. What is important to You is important to me.” (It’s also a way of making sure that I don’t get carried away in the pre-Shabbat rush and miss the deadline!)
Now we can get into the discussion of whether love is ever difficult. Anyone happily married would agree that the answer is an unequivocal yes. But it’s a different kind of difficult. It’s difficult in the context of love. It’s a difficulty that you want in your life. It’s not something that you want to get out of, or get rid of; it’s an essential part of your identity. Gotta love the hot chocolate.
Gotta love the Torah – including every last one of those rabbinical decrees.