Reasonable Reasons for Performing Mitzvot — Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

At the end of last week, Rabbi Hyim Shafner addressed the question of ta’amei hamitzvot,. I too have the question of the efficacy of discovering the reason behind performing mitzvot on my mind. 

I work with a lot of people going through the conversion process, as well as Jews who are exploring observant Judaism.  In our learning together, the inevitable question of “why” comes up.  Why do Jews keep kosher? Why can’t Jews and Non-Jews drink wine together?  Now some laws have logical explanations for why we do them—mishpatim, for example are mitzvot that are universal, ethical laws (Thou shalt not murder).  However, chukim, has no logical explanation. 

Rashi (Vayikra 18:4) explains that chukim are unfathomable by human intelligence, and because these laws are beyond human logic, the Torah tells us “I am the Lord your God.”  We are compelled to perform the mitzvah because God told us to.

I always wonder whether I would be doing a service or a disservice to people new to Judaism by giving them this explanation. On one hand, the explanation that we do them because God told us to should be enough of a reason. After all, often the reasons that some people come up with for motivations behind mitzvot are often lacking. One convert explained that she didn’t mind the prohibition of eating shell fish, because they are “bottom-feeders” and God in God’s wisdom clearly didn’t want Jews to be eating the dregs of the earth.  This may be a reasonable explanation, but what if shell fish were suddenly determined to be the healthiest food in the world?  Now her logical argument has disappeared.

On the other hand, doing things simply because “God says so” is also a difficult concept.  After all, we live in an era of information. Learning facts about any topic, delving into reasons behind anything tends to be our modus operandi.   

So how are we meant to react when we are told to do a mitzvah, a command without any logical reason?  Is it actually necessary to determine reasons and motivations behind mitzvot? Or is it more commendable to accept God’s word as it is?

This is a question that has concerned chazal for centuries.  I want to explore with you a few texts that support seeking deeper meaning and reason for each mitzvah, as well as those who warn against the potential danger of doing so.

The following midrash does not condone finding reasons behind mitzvot

ב אמר לא נתנו המצות אלא לצרף בהן את הבריות וכי מה איכפת ליה להקב”ה למי ששוחט מן הצואר או מי ששוחט מן העורף הוי לא נתנו המצות אלא לצרף בהם את הבריות

What difference does it make to God whether a beast is killed by cutting the neck in front or in back? Surely the commandments are only intended as a means of trying man; in accordance with the verse: the word of God is a test” (Psalms 18:31) (Bereishit Rabba 44:1)

In fact the Torah itself, with a few exceptions, seems to avoid giving reasons behind commandments.  While the Rabbis in the Talmud ventured a little into the field of rationalization, they still fell far short of propounding an elaborate systemized study of the reasons behind the commandments.  To them, the cardinal rule was that mitzvot were presented le-tzaref et ha-beriyot, to refine the character of people. Thus, as the midrash says, there is no point in discovering the reason behind cutting the animal’s throat. We may be tempted to say that the cut is the most humane way to kill an animal… whether that is true or not is irrelevant.  The mitzvot are God’s will, and we are naturally better people for acting upon God’s word.  We should do mitzvot in order to act in accord with God’s word, without questioning God’s intent.

Maimonides on the other hand, championed the movement to find reasons behind every law.  In the face of severe criticism, he embarked on a methodical approach to the rationalization of mitzvot.   In his Guide for the Perplexed, Moreh Nevuchim, Rambam dedicated many pages to describing why it is important to ask how a mitzvah functions, and unabashedly delves into some suggested reasons for performing them. 

לא יאמין המון החכמים שהם ענינים שאין להם סבה כלל ולא בוקש להם תכלית, כי זה יביא לפעולת ההבל כמו שזכרנו, אבל יאמין המון החכמים שיש להם עלה, ר”ל תכלית מועילה על כל פנים, אלא שנעלמה ממנו, אם לקצור דעתנו או לחסרון חכמתנו. כל המצות אם כן יש להם סבה,

Our sages generally do not think that  [chukim] have no cause whatever, and serve no purpose; for this would lead us to assume that God’s actions are purposeless.  On the contrary, they hold that even these ordinances have a cause, and are certainly intended for some use, although it is not known to us; owing either to deficiency of our knowledge or the weakness of our intellect. Consequently there is a cause for every commandment… (Moreh Nevuchim, part 3:26)

Rambam proposes that the reason for each mitzvah is right before our eyes, and if we learned hard enough, tried hard enough, we would find the reason behind each mitzvah. What’s more, if we say that there is no reason, it is as if we are desecrating and insulting God’s name. Rambam greatly influenced other scholars, and tried to convince others to emulate him in his effort to probe into the deeper meaning of mitzvot.  In our age of information, many of us who are seeking greater spirituality are not satisfied with “we do it like this and don’t ask questions.”  We are ravenously hungry to learn, to understand.  Rambam and others believed that we must be ready to give soul-searchers and truth-seekers answers that are both spiritually invigorating and intellectually palatable.   

Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik, however, strongly criticizes Ramabam’s attempt to rationalize every mitzvah.  

The reluctance on the part of the Jewish homo religious to accept Maimonides rationalistic ideas is not ascribable to any agnostic tendencies, but to the incontrovertible fact that such explanations neither edify nor inspire the religious consciousness.  They are essentially, if not entirely, valueless for the religious interests we have most at heart.  (Halakhic Mind p.92)

The Rav poses that certain religious types have a hard time with Rambam’s over-rationalization of mitzvot, and strips them of their fundamental passion to perform God’s commands.  Enhancing ones own spiritual self, and using mitzvot as a way to come closer to God is in itself enough of a reason to do a mitzvah. We may be sidetracked, or even misguided if we attempt to seek out a reason to a mitzvah.  There should be no need to identify the function of the mitzvah. 

So we see so far that we run the gamut ranging from those who are unafraid to face the consequences of lacking a legitimate rational for the mitzvot to those who are deeply concerned about diluting the impact of ‘thus saith the lord”—the commandments are to be obeyed because they are God given.

So where do we go from here?

Do we accept God’s law, because God told us to do it? Or do we have an imperative to seek out meaning?

As with most polemic philosophical discussions, the answer is probably a compromise position. 

For Pascal, a 17th century French philosopher, it is imperative that we strike a balance between needing to know what lies behind every mystery, and suspending ones disbelief.

If we submit everything to reason, our religion will have no mysterious and supernatural element.  If we offend the principles of reason, our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.  Pensees, by Blaise Pascal (1623):

We should not be satisfied with accepting truths without attempting to find meaningful rational behind each precept.  And the educational aspects of probing into each mitzvah are of inestimable value.  But we must not lose sight on the source of each mitzvah, and the true intent of each mitzvah—to feel a connection to God above, and to enhance our own personal religious selves.

So when my students and congregants ask me “why”… I will attempt to give them every rational reason. But I am certainly not above saying… because God said so!

8 Responses to Reasonable Reasons for Performing Mitzvot — Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

  1. Hyim Shafner says:

    Recently after reading Yeshayahu Leibowitz and his extreme approach to taamey hamitzvot, that no mitzvot have any reasons except to do God’s will, I felt conflicted. On one hand his approach solves many theological problems, retains the Rambam’s God Who has no needs, no changes of mind, no definition (very different than Moshe Rabbaynu’s God; on the other hand Prof. Leibowitz’s approach sucks all the meaning out of my davening. He of course would say that is the point, davening has no meaning other than to accept the yoke of heaven by saying the words, on the other hand its hard to buy and I find I have to learn some Sefat Emet to take the edge off!

  2. Sarah says:

    Interesting post, thanks for writing about this.

  3. Michael Feldstein says:

    Excellent article!

    I think there is a difference between the reason for a mitzvah and the meaning behind a mitzva. One can believe that the reason for a particular mitzvah is because Hashem commanded us to do them, but still find significant internal meaning to performing this commandment, thereby gaining a greater appreciation.

  4. Gedalia Walls says:

    I respectfully disagree with the assertion that the Rambam gave reasons for the mitzvos in order to perfect a person’s devotion or commitment to their performance. Look at his comments on Hilchot Me’ilah 8:8 regarding the importance of performing those mitzvos “whose reasons are not given and whose purpose is unknown”: that one should not tread lightly with chukim because he does not understand them, for they are not like “divrei ha’chol”- secular matters.
    The impetus for performing mitzvos does come from an external place, as it is mentioned for example in the first chapter of Mesillat Yesharim: A person works in this world for his station in the next, quoting a very similar statement in Eiruvin.
    Also noteworthy is the Gemara Shabbos 58a on “Naaseh v’Nishma” and the story of Rava and the min. The nations of the world rebuke the Jewish people for not having read what was inside before signing on!
    One final point from the Rambam- he makes the point very clearly in Hilchot Teshuva ch. 9 and 10 that the performance of Mitzvos brings us closer to Hashem and we do it out of love for Him and our desire to grow closer. I do not understand why these cannot be the impetus for anyone to convert. It is not our job to understand why we do it:
    “Hayom La’asotam, u’Machar l’Kabel s’charam” Today we do them, tomorrow we worry about the payback (which is in contrast to the normal worker who according to Halacha must be aware of his wages to receive them at days end).

  5. […] Reasonable Reasons for Performing Mitzvot — Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz […]

  6. hjbfdlfdbhdfb says:

    i still dont understand reasons for following the mitzvah

  7. me loves me says:

    i still dont understand reasons for following the mitzvah
    help i think that a reasonable mitzvot leads a jew to a sensible

  8. Steve Greenberg says:

    Thanks to Rabba Sarah Horowitz for this sharp and thought
    article. Just one additional thought. The hesitation to locate the
    authority of mitzvot in their reasons is well known. Such a move
    shifts the center of normative power from the law giver to the
    presumed purposes of the laws. Once that happens control is placed
    in the hands of individuals who interpret for themselves, and on
    the basis of reasons decide if and when the law applies to them.
    Every parent knows that when asked why, the most effective answer
    is often, ‘because I said so ” So it should be clear why reasons
    weaken law. However, the opposite is true as well. If the lawgiver
    can demand obedience on a whim, then we soon experience the law as
    oppressive. Unless we trust that the lawgiver has our best
    interests at heart, unless we understand that the law is right and
    useful, good and wise, the law becomes an alien imposition and God
    an irrational and imperious dictator. Rationales restore our sense
    that the Torah is “our wisdom and understanding in the sight of the
    nations who upon hearing of these laws will say “Surely that great
    nation is a wise and discerning people.” Lastly, while law is
    probably enforced best without reasons, it cannot be adjudicated
    without them. There is no formal means of textual interpretation,
    of rule making with its exceptions and conditions, of navigating
    conflict between different rules, and applying broad rules to
    individual circumstances without some intuited or reasoned sense of
    the purposes at play and the outcomes desired. While the faith of
    the rank and file may well require divine service as a primary
    motive, such a limit would not have worked at all for those
    empowered to insure that the Torah is read and applied in wise and
    understanding ways.

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