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Illuminating the reasons behind Jewish Law

by Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski M.D.

  

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Not infrequently we come across interpretations of Torah precepts in the light of rational thought and scientific discoveries. There has been a division of opinion since Talmudic times on whether one ought to seek to understand the commandments of Torah rationally, or rather accept them unquestioningly as an act of faith. Proponents of the latter held that there are dangers in rationalizing the Biblical instructions.

Firstly, if we were to observe only because we understand, then the worship of the Divine would be converted into worship of the human intellect. Secondly, there is no assurance that what one understands as a reason for a given Biblical command is indeed the true reason, or that it is the only reason. Hence, we may fallaciously ascribe only one specific reason to a certain commandment and erroneously conclude that altered circumstances render that particular commandment obsolete.

Yet, the human mind cannot be fettered and at times, evidence of the beneficence of Biblical commands or injunctions is so striking that one cannot refrain from reading logical purpose into them. Therefore, one who accepts Torah authority with complete faith may, see many advantages that accrue from their observance, although he cannot be so presumptuous as to claim to understand the Divine intent of Torah commandments. These are seen as "dividends," as it were, and do not preclude existence of other purposes, presently or eternally beyond our comprehension.

In the area of health and hygiene, various scholars have called attention to the remarkable foresight of Mosaic law, pointing among others to the establishing of the eighth day after birth as the time for circumcision, which is appreciated in the light of the recent scientific discovery that the coagulation mechanism of the blood, which is dependent on the presence of Vitamin K, is absent in the newborn until the eighth day; or the extremely low incidence of cancer of the uterine cervix in Jewish women; or the absence of trichinosis in those who do not eat pork.

For thousands of years Jews were mocked for practicing circumcisions, and it was not until the twentieth century that the secular world finally began emulating them
Others, however, have utilized the rationalization of Torah to alter the proscriptions as, for example, in reasoning that the Biblical prohibition against igniting a fire on the Sabbath was applicable only in the times when making fire was physical work, but not in an age when the mere flick of a switch creates light or heat; or that dietary laws were necessary for prevention of certain food-borne diseases only in the days of primitive cooking methods, but not in the modern era of pressurized cooking; or that the proscription of marital relations following the menstrual period until after immersion in the Mikvah was hygienically valid only under the limited opportunities for bodily cleanliness, but is no longer necessary in the era of modem plumbing.

One who adheres to Torah teachings out of faith and trust gives no credence to these arguments, since his observance is not predicated upon his understanding a demonstrable purpose for the instructions. Indeed, he may argue that a system that anticipated modem scientific discoveries by some 3500 years merits his utmost trust. He will recall that for thousands of years Jews were mocked for practicing circumcisions, and it was not until the twentieth century that the secular world finally began emulating them. He thus reasons that it may still be another few centuries before further scientific discoveries validate other Torah practices, and that he prefers to be ahead of the crowd.


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Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Rosh Hashanah
The Jewish New Year. An early autumn two day holiday marking the creation of Adam and Eve. On this day we hear the blasts of the ram's horn and accept G-d's sovereignty upon ourselves and the world. On Rosh Hashanah we pray that G-d should grant us all a sweet New Year.
Kosher
Literally means "fit." Commonly used to describe foods which are permitted by Jewish dietary laws, but is also used to describe religious articles (such as a Torah scroll or Sukkah) which meet the requirements of Jewish law.
Mikvah
A ritual bath where one immerses to become spiritually pure. After her menstrual cycle, a woman must immerse in the Mikvah before resuming marital relations.
Moses
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.