Sometimes Arbitrary Is Good

I put a lot of thought and energy explaining that Halacha, religious law, isn’t arbitrary, that it’s directed to stimulate growth both in each individual and in the world at large.  And for the most part, that is true.  But, as this past Shabbat, Shabbat Parah, reminds us, there are laws and rituals which will never make sense in a logical way.  The entire matter of the red heifer has always left us baffled.

To begin with, the likelihood of a purely red calf being born is almost zero.  Secondly, as it’s processed and utilized, all with the aim of removing the ritual impurity which is associated with proximity to death, everyone involved, who must be ritually pure to begin with, becomes ritually defiled and will require their own purification, all so the “end-user” will become pure.  This is the template for the class of halacha known as חוק, Chok, which, by definition, cannot be rationalized.  It’s related to the word, חקק, chakek, to engrave, as being an integral part of the fabric of the world, far beyond our limited ability to understand.

Thus, in terms of not being explainable, it is arbitrary.  But there is a major difference between arbitrary and capricious.  Arbitrary, in this sense, means without an explanation we can understand beyond the fact that it’s integrated into the structure of reality.  Capricious, of course, means “as a whim”, not transcending reason but, rather, defying it.

Because some highly visible “religious authorities” have, in fact, developed capricious חומרות, chumrot, stingencies and present them as do-or-die baseline halacha, many people mistakenly conclude that all halacha is, indeed, arbitrary, merely reflecting the urges of some people to relish the power of controlling others.  And if, chas v’shalom, that’s all our spiritual path is–an arena for one small group to oppress us all, we wouldn’t have much to talk about.

But that attitude not only steals our free will and our map to reality, it also misses the distinction between that which is and that which isn’t arbitrary.  And, furthermore, it loses the value of having some truly arbitrary elements built into our tradition and what we can learn from them.

The intentionally arbitrary, and there are very few of them, mandates in Torah are there to help us overcome and transcend our lowest, ego-obsessed selves.  The force us to confront our very finiteness.  This is echoed in the long-standing argument between the two early hasidic masters, the Rebbe Reb Zusia and the Rebbe Reb Elimelech.  One argued that we should approach God with a sense of our own limitations which would lead to awe and wonder at God’s infinite One-ness.  The other argued we should begin in awe of God and realize, from that, our own finite nature.  When the holy Maggid of Mezeritch was asked to decide the matter, he answered that both are, indeed, the words of the Living God, but starting with our limitations first is higher.  These chokim, in carefully measured doses, serve to free us by reminding us that we are not, indeed, God.

Through the years, I’ve been amazed with many fellow Jews who, finding nothing comfortable or profound in Judaism, have turned to eastern spiritual paths.  Often they’ll sit silently for hours, or they’ll repeat a foreign phrase over and over as a mantra.  I’ll certainly grant that one can experience deeply and receive profound insights with these methods.  However, many of these same people will refuse to leave their cars or their cellphones or their computers for a day, often because they resent being told what to do or not to do by their own leaders who, unfortunately represent a culture even more foreign to them than those of India or Japan.  Macrobiotic, veganism or raw food are all reasonable alternatives, but kosher is, at best, superstition and it limits freedom!

I was always struck by the arbitrary actions of the historic Zen masters in their tales.  Somehow, I always found them very Jewish.  The point, at least in the stories I read and studied, was basically to silence our ever-running egos.  Part of my painting studies many years ago with Hisashi Ohta, Living National Treasure of Japan in sumi-e (black ink painting) and a profound Zen scholar, comprised his marking up by best and most careful painting efforts with his ubiquitous red magic marker!  But when confronted by the same lessons, often told by someone wearing a dark business suit and spoken with a New York accent, these same messages too often become unpalatable, pathetic attempts at control, manipulation and coercion.  I’ve always been fascinated by this disconnect.

I’m not, and the Torah doesn’t advocate mindless obedience.  But it is valuable, as an exercise or, perhaps, a discipline, to some times just let go, to fall into the mikve (ritual bath) of action without demanding a full explanation before starting.

It’s been taught throughout our tradition that Avoda Zora, idol-worship, generally consists of worshiping ourselves as gods.  One of the many reasons it’s such a bad practice is simply because we are not God, and trying to live with the illusion that we are guarantees a life of always falling short, of always seeing ourselves fail.  As soon as we’re able to see ourselves as the magnificently limited, flawed but filled with potential humans that we are, the happier and healthier we’ll naturally feel.

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