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The Reasons for the Commandments: Premodern Jewish Self-Reflections on the Irrationality of Religion

If religious norms are considered to be rational, how are they different from secular ones? This essay revisits this question through the prism of the Jewish discourse of the reasons for the commandments.

Judaism is a religion of laws. The centrality of law to this tradition is evident already in the Pentateuch, with its three detailed codices. In the bible, however, the law is but one genre alongside other genres, such as narrative, wisdom, prophecy, historiography and more. The early rabbis, who created the substructure of Judaism as we know it today, elevated the legal focus to an unprecedented level by greatly expanding the scope of legal material and according it primacy over any other literary style or content. In the conversion ceremony, shaped by the early rabbis, a key part is the subjection of the newcomer to the commandments, while also informing them of the potential rewards and punishments for fulfilling or violating the laws. The emphasis on law as key to Jewish identity is probably not entirely a novel rabbinic idea; the discovery of the dead sea scrolls, two-thousand-year-old documents written on parchment and papyri and preserved by the dry weather of the Judean desert, has demonstrated that the schism between the various Jewish groups that flourished during the first few centuries before the common era was rooted in their different perception of the certain Torah laws and their interpretation.

Pagan societies in late antiquity took this Jewish focus on law for granted, but Paul the Apostle challenged the emphasis on law as an essential component of a true biblical religion. There could be chosenness without laws, he contended; For Gentiles, the preservation of law is not a necessary aspect of joining the community of faith. Belief, rather than law, was seen as the marker of sincere religious belonging. Admittedly, Paul did not deny the religious nature of biblical law for those who were of Jewish origin, but his novel approach nevertheless opened the door to new conceptual option of worshipping the biblical God without submitting to biblical law. This innovation called for a new question to be asked: What is the true role of law within the biblical religion, as it is portrayed in the Old Testament and in the tradition that followed it? Why is it considered an essential element of the Jewish religion, and what is really ‘religious’ about it? 

This question is further complicated by the fact that Paul’s nullification of the requirement to abide by the law only applied to ritual law. While it is not stated explicitly, it is unambiguously clear that Paul never intended to challenge the aspects of law that pertained to the structure of a decent society, such as the prohibition on murder and theft, nor claim them to be irrelevant for the new members of the church. These laws were to stay in place. In fact, such laws hardly need a divine command to be accepted by most people: decent societies would see themselves bound by them, as they seem to draw on reason. 

In his willingness to retract (some of) the commandments, Paul became the first to create a division, however implicit, between two parts of Jewish law: ritual law on the one hand, and all other parts of the law on the other. Indubitably, nothing in the biblical text supports such a division. The codices in the Pentateuch make no stylistic distinction between the two different types of commandments, and there is no literary difference in how they are set forth. For the most part, early rabbinic literature similarly treated the entire corpus of laws as forming unified texture: they allowed analogies and cross-references between all kinds of commandments without distinction, and generally handled them as an interconnected web. However, after Paul, this one body of laws nevertheless came to be perceived as comprised of two distinct parts, only one of which is irrelevant to the Gentiles that had come to believe in Jesus. 

To date, this early division between two parts of Jewish law has gained little scholarly attention. Thus, it was not compared to another dichotomy found in the Sifra, a 3rd century Palestinian rabbinic composition:

“My judgments you shall do” (Leviticus 18:4): These are the things, which if they had not been written would be required by reason to be written, such as (the interdiction of) theft, illicit relations, blaspheming [God’s] Name, and bloodshed. Had those not been written, they were required by reason to be written. “[A]nd My statutes you shall heed” (ibid): These are the things that one’s evil inclination (yetzer hara) queries, and other nations query, such as (the prohibition against) eating pork and wearing sha’atnez (a garment made of a mixture of wool and linen), ḥalitzah (the levirate-refusal ceremony), the cleansing of the leper and the scapegoat. It is, therefore, written (in response to such “queries”:) “I, the Lord,” have decreed them, and you are not allowed to call them into question.” 

Sifra Aḥare Mot 9:13

The homily is composed as an interpretation of Leviticus 18:4: “You shall follow my judgments and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am Yahweh your God.” As is typical of rabbinic literature, it is terse and concise, but clearly distinguishes between two types of commandments: the “judgments” and the “statues.” The first category includes all the commandments that make sense as a product of reason: those are the laws that human minds would have come up with regardless of divine guidance. The second category includes laws for which the reason is unclear. Notably, for the rabbis this is merely a theoretical distinction, with no consequences for the applicability of the laws; nevertheless, it seems close, in some respects, to the Paulin division. It is probably safe to say that the category of intelligible laws includes all the commandments that Paul did not mean to nullify. After all, if these laws are commanded by reason, there is no sense in denying their validity. The second category includes the ritual laws, the same laws seen as dismissible in the Pauline division. What the homily adds in its explicit account, beyond the implied division by Paul, is the straightforward criterion for the division into these two categories: the adherence to human reason. If a law seems to have an intelligible purpose, it belongs to the first group of laws that “ought to have been written.” The other group of laws is a residuary category, open to include any law that cannot find its place in the former. 

The residuary nature of the second category of the unintelligible commandments as shaped by the rabbis suggest that for them, the primary and more straightforward way to address the commandments is to perceive them as explainable by reason. The rabbinic discourse includes various investigations into the reasons for different commandants, setting the course for what would later become a central genre of the literature of Jewish thought: the search into “the reasons for the commandments” (ta’amei hamitzvot). The rabbinic early version of this discourse suggests that a reason is to be expected;[1] whether it is successfully discovered or not is a different issue.[2] To be sure, one should obey all commandments, even if one fails to understand their reasoning, as if they were the decrees of a king, “gzeirat melekh.” However, framing the law as binding in the same way that a king’s decree is binding does not necessarily undermine the presumption that the commandments are rational in nature; the metaphor of a king’s decree refers merely to the reason for obeying the commandment, not to the reason for commanding them in the first place. while the relationship between a king and his subjects is such that it is not for them to question his motives and reasons, this is not to suggest that a king operates arbitrarily or that such reasons do not exist. Thus, the portrayal of certain laws as the decrees of a king does not suggest that the rabbinic authors of the homily in the Sifra saw tension between the divinity of the law and its rationality.[3]However, other rabbinic homilies suggest that the question between divine law and rationality was already being debated in the early rabbinic period. In an influential book on the rabbis and their contemporaries, Christine Hayes concisely pinpoints the stressing question when she asks, “What is divine about divine law?” Hayes argues that some rabbinic sources should be read as defending the view that divine law need not follow reason.  Thus, the position that views rationality as a parameter of divine law is conveniently attributed, according to some sources, to heretics or foreigners. An example of this strategy is found in the Palestinian Talmud, in a homily that paraphrases the story of the rebellion of Koraḥ against Moses and Aaron: 

He [Koraḥ] went and made a tallit that was entirely purple. He went to Moses and said, “Moses our rabbi: a tallit that is entirely purple, is it liable to the law concerning fringes?” He said to him, it is liable, for it is written, ‘You shall make yourself tassels’” (Deut 22:12).

[Koraḥ said], “A house that is entirely filled with torah scrolls, is it liable to the law concerning a mezuzah?” [4]He said to him, “It is liable for a mezuzah as it is written, ‘And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house’”(Deut 6:9).

[Koraḥ] said to him, “A bright spot the size of a bean—what is the law [is it impure]?” He said to him, “It is a sign of impurity.” “And if it spread over the entire body of the man?” He said to him, “It is a sign of purity.”At that moment Koraḥ said, “The Torah does not come from Heaven, Moses is no prophet, and Aaron is not a high priest.” 

p. San 10:1, 27d–28a

In this homily, the heretic position of Koraḥ is manifested in his association of divine law with reason. It makes no sense to require purple fringes on a garment (tallit) that is all purple; it defies reason to require a mezuzah for a house full of Torah scrolls; it is not logical that a bright spot on the skin, the size of a bean, defiles a person, but if it grows to the degree that the entire body is covered by it – then the person is pure. The heretic conclusion would then be that the law introduced by Moses could not be divine law. This position is structurally contrasted with the orthodox position, which seems to hold that rationality is not a factor in evaluating the divine nature of the law. A few hundred years after the rabbis, even stronger position that will develop, according to which rationality will not only be considered unnecessary for determining the divine nature of the commandments; it would be seen as undermining it. 

The Pauline – Rabbinic division of the laws into two groups based on reinforced their intelligibility marks a watershed moment in the history of Jewish thought. A close variation of it is has been presented by the ninth-century rabbinic author R. Sa’adia Gaon (Egypt, Babylonia), who wrote in Arabic and labeled these two categories as “commandments of reason” (ʿal-ʿaqliyya) and “commandments of obedience [to god]” (al-samʿiyya). Notably, what this categorization allows some flexibility regarding the exact classification of each specific commandment. While some commandments might have seemed intelligible to the early rabbis in the second century CE, later thinkers could easily move them to the unintelligible category, as their reasoning became less and less apparent over time. Thus, according to the rabbinic homily cited above, illicit relations would fall under the intelligible commandments “that ought to have been written;” however the eleventh-century R. Yehuda Halevi (Spain), classifies these laws as “divine commandments”, a category which is closer to “commandments of obedience” (The Kuzari, 3:11). Some medieval Jewish thinkers attempted to overcome this division of the commandments into two categories; strikingly, they too could not avoid addressing the issue through the parameter of the adherence of the commandments to human reason. In the twelfth century, Maimonides (Spain, Egypt) sought to provide rational reasons for all the commandments, rejecting the idea that some may lack an explanation accessible to human reason. On the other hand, kabbalistic authors, beginning with the thirteenth-century R. Shlomo ben Aderet (Spain), argued the opposite, seeking to deprive even the most straightforward rational commandments of their intelligible reason. In response to the reasons provided by Maimonides for some of the commandments, he writes: “One should not pay attention to these [intelligible] reasons provided by the great master [Maimonides], for almost all of them raise great problems… Blessed be He who knows the [real and concealed] reasons of His decrees.”[5]

In recent research, Yair Lorberbaum has shown that R. Shlomo ibn Aderet’s premise of the concealed reasons for the commandments is rooted in a new type of religiosity that arose at the time, which he labeled a “religiosity of mystery and transcendence.” In our context, this position is of special interest because it demonstrates a reflection on the nature of the divine as superior – and thus inaccessible – to human reason. From here onwards, this becomes a prominent position in Jewish thought. According to authors who belonged to this school of thought, if the commandments are explainable by reason, this would deprive them of their divine nature; presumably, if God is beyond human, then the godly nature of the commandments means that they too are beyond human reason. In pushing the commandments past the limits of human rationality, this early medieval position antecedes the modern post-secular view that juxtaposes religion with (secular) reason. It is, of course explicitly contrary to the early Jewish view, which saw no tension between the divine nature of the commandments and their adherence to human reason.[6]

The debate between different voices in the Jewish tradition over the reasons for the commandments thus reflects a debate over the nature of religion and its relation to reason. Is reason one with religion? Or are these to be considered exclusionary categories? While this is too often mistakenly perceived as a modern discussion, I have shown that these reflections are centuries old. In other words, the deliberative discourse over the boundaries of religion in the Jewish tradition is an ancient one; And what should we call what falls outside of religion? Is it not the secular? 

[1] They debated over the reasons in their scholarly discourse, as in following examples: “R. Chanina said further: I asked R. Elazar: What is the reason that the children of Israel sought to redeem the first-born of asses, and not those of horses or of camels?” (Mekhilta d’Rabi Yishmael, on Exod. 17:8); “Rabbi Shimon says, what was the reason they said that the domestic animal and the wild animal is impure [in the amount of] an olive’s-bulk, but of a sheretz [only] the bulk of a lentil?“ (Tosefta Shevut 1:7).

[2] Sometimes the reason is found; other times the rabbis reluctantly admit it is not known. In the Tosefta cited above, the reason is given: “just as the domestic animal and the wild animal at the beginning of their creation are an olive’s-bulk, the sheretz is at the time of its creation a lentil’s bulk.” In the mekhilta, however, as in similar other cases, no rational reason is provided, and instead the laws are said to be “the decree of king”.

[3] In this line of argument, I depart from the analysis by Hayes, who attributes to the rabbis a stance that views the irrationality of the commandments as indicative of their divine nature. While Hayes makes a strong case for the claim that the rabbis struggled with the irrationality of certain commandments and sought to preserve a position that despite their irrationality, they are nevertheless divine, and it is less clear that they saw irrationality itself a virtue indicative of their divine nature. I hope to address this matter in more detail in future research.  

[4] Mezuzah: a piece of parchment inscribed with specific biblical verses affix to the doorposts of a home.

[5]  Shlomo ben Adret, Responsa, Jerusalem 2015 [Hebrew] no. 366, p. 236-237

[6] Arguably, this point of view is manifest already in the words of Moses, in Deuteronomy 4:6: “For that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’”

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The Reasons for the Commandments: Premodern Jewish Self-Reflections on the Irrationality of Religion

If religious norms are considered to be rational, how are they different from secular ones? This essay revisits this question through the prism of the Jewish discourse of the reasons for the commandments.

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