Essay: TORAH AND TABOO

Rabbi Yisroel Chait


What does the word Torah mean? Many interpretations have been given. Most people understand it to mean teachings or learning. Accordingly, we find in Leviticus 10:11, "ulehoros" and to teach, or more accurately to interpret and legislate. There is no doubt that the word Torah has the same root as "horah" teaching, legislating. But is that all it means? Sometimes we find the word in the singular form as Deuteronomy 1:5 "...Moses began to explain this Torah," or in ibid 4:44, "and this is the Torah Moses placed before the people of Israel." At other times we find it in the plural such as in Leviticus 26:46, "These are the ordinances, the judgements and the Torahs," or as in Gen. 26:5, "my commandments... my ordinances and my Torahs." Why is there a necessity for two forms of the word? Indeed in the above examples the word Torahs would seem to be superfluous since teachings is already included in the terms ordinances, judgements and commandments.

Let us see how the word Torah is used in the Bible. In Leviticus 11:46, after the Bible gives a detailed account of the complex laws of the clean and unclean animals, it states, "This is the Torah of the animals and the birds and of every living creature that moves in the waters, and of ever creature that swarms on the earth." We may clearly infer that the word Torah means a system of laws. Torah means a logically structured, internally consistent and conceptual system of law given by God to man. The Bible contains many such systems. There is a system of laws concerning leprosy (not an exact translation). Accordingly, the Bible states in Leviticus 13:59, "This is the Torah of the plague of leprosy...." Again, when the Bible is giving a detailed account of the laws of the uncleanliness that involve contact with the dead, the Bible states, "This is the Torah, when a man dies in a tent...." God's law contains systems. All individual systems are then subsumed under one major system. The word Torah usually refers to the major system, but sometimes the Bible wishes to connote all the individual systems. Hence, when God praises Abraham for keeping His commandments, in Gen. 26:5, it uses the plural form "Toros." The Bible wishes to convey the message that Abraham kept every detail of all the systems of law that God had given to him.

It is clear to anyone who has read Leviticus, even in a cursory manner, that the systems of the sacrifices, the kosher laws, the laws of uncleanliness, the sexual restrictions, etc., are complex and in need of interpretation. Even the plain meaning of the Biblical text cannot be ascertained without interpretation. Take, for instance, the verse in Leviticus 11:8, "From their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch, they are unclean to you." Does this mean that if a camel dies in the street, no one is permitted to remove its carcass and it must remain wherever it dies until it rots? This is obviously absurd. Or take the verse in Deuteronomy 23:25, "When you come into your neighbor's vineyard, then you may eat grapes until you have satisfied yourself; but you shall not put any in your vessel." Does this mean that people can just go into someone's vineyard and eat to their heart's content? Even the most primitive society could not survive with such a violation of another's rights of ownership and defiance of justice.

Interpretation is indispensable for the laws and the systems of the Bible. But the question is, whose interpretation? It cannot be anyone's, because then there would be no law whatsoever; each person would interpret things to suit himself. There must then be one authoritative body to interpret the Torah. The Bible speaks of such an authoritative body in Deut. 17:8-11. But who is that authoritative body today? Can we identify it? We are fortunate that God has made it singularly easy for us today to know whose interpretation He wishes us to follow. In Isaiah 59:21 God states through His prophet Isaiah, "and as for Me, this is My covenant with them (the people of Israel), saith the Lord, My spirit that is upon thee, and My words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of the seed's seed, saith the Lord, for henceforth and for ever." We thus have God's promise that the words of the Torah and the proper approach to Torah shall never cease among the nation of Israel. Now there is only one group which has consistently studied, interpreted, taught and legislated Torah for the past two thousand years (and before as well) and they are the Talmudic scholars of Israel. Of all the sects of the period of the Second Temple, only the Pharisees have remained. God's promise has been fulfilled to the Talmudic scholars who have kept and established the Torah law throughout the generations. So it is a relatively easy matter to identify, in our day, the ones to whom the interpretation of Torah has been entrusted. In earlier times it would be a more difficult task. One would have to study the claims of the various groups and use his God given intellect to determine which group is authentic and which is fraudulent. In our times, thank God, it is an easy matter. No religious group of any significance keeps the Torah laws or claim they understand them. Anyone who takes the laws of the Bible seriously, that is, as the word of God, must make recourse to the only institution that has meticulously studied the Torah laws throughout the ages the Talmudic scholars.

The oral law, or Talmud, does not merely add facts to the written description of the Torah's laws, it gives us a unique approach to these laws. Talmudic laws result from a specific reasoning and methodology. This methodology gives us great insight into the systems of law of God's Torah. To appreciate the beauty of these insights one must have achieved a level of Talmudic scholarship; much as to appreciate mathematical beauty one must first have attained a certain level of mathematical knowledge. Thus the praises of the Psalmist about the beauty, love and appreciation of God's laws (see Psalms 19:8-11 and Psalms 119) cannot really be understood by the uninitiated or layman. To paraphrase the Psalmist is Psalms 1:2, the delight in God's law goes hand in hand with total devotion to the study of God's law. This is a full time commitment that only very few people are able or willing to make. But just as there is much knowledge a layman can gain even though he is not an expert in scientific methodology, there is much knowledge one can gain regarding Torah without being a Talmudic scholar.

One important principle that emerges from the Talmudic approach is that there is no religious taboo in Torah law. A few examples will help make this clear. We all know that pig is a prohibited food for the Jew according to Torah law. Yet, in Deuteronomy 6:11 we read that when the Jewish people enter the land of Israel they will find homes filled with all kinds of good things which they will be able to partake of. The oral law identifies these good things as inclusive of foodstuffs, even pig. The people were permitted upon entering the land to consume all prohibited foods they find at the time. The Bible, interestingly enough, refers to these very prohibited foods as "good." Thus even though the Torah prohibited certain foods they are not considered "bad." The prohibition is merely to teach man to exercise control over his appetitive desires not that there is anything "unclean" about a pig or camel or horse. God does not, so to speak, like the cow more than the donkey. They are all equally His creation. In a similar vein the Rabbis of the Talmud have stated, "Do not say, I dislike the flesh of the pig, but rather, I like it but God has decreed that I abstain from it." If one abstains from pig because he things it is "bad" in some sense, he is functioning on a primitive taboo level not on the level which God has prescribed for him so that he gain perfection as a human being.

According to the oral law, if one piece of non-kosher meat becomes mixed up with two pieces of kosher meat (under certain circumstances) all three pieces may be consumed. It is clear from this that the Torah does not consider the non-kosher piece of meat to contain any soul contaminating element. What contaminates the human soul is the failure to abide by God's law and gain the perfection it affords man. In a similar manner, it should be understood that the laws of the menses, Leviticus 15:19, 25, 18:19, 20:18), have nothing in common with menstrual taboos found in primitive societies. Even on a practical level, the two are incommensurate. A woman may be menstruating biologically, but not Halakhically, that is, according to the formula of the Torah, and vice versa.

Religious rites and practices revolve around two institutions, taboos and symbolic performances. The former is negative, the latter positive. (A primary example of the latter is the Eucharist). Just as the Torah is free of taboos it is equally free of symbolic performance. About this last point, I know, the reader will express disbelief. Is it not true, he will say, that the unleavened bread eaten on the eve of Passover symbolizes freedom and the bitter herbs slavery? Does not the Bible state that the fringes with its blue thread remind one of all God's commandments? The medrash explains that the blue color reminds one of the sea, the sea of the heavens, and the heavens of the infinity of God. Is not all of the above symbolic?

Here we approach a subtle but fundamental point of Torah philosophy. We must distinguish between an act whose very essence is to act something out, or experience something emotionally, and one which has ideational content related to it. Allow me to elaborate. The Talmudic analysis of mitzvot gives each of God's commandments a very detailed and precise formulation. Each commandment has a logical structure at the root of which is a concept. This concept is structural rather than philosophical. The performance of mitzvot must be done in strict compliance with the formula of the commandment. There is also a philosophical ideational component that is associated with each commandment, for example: In the performance of the eating of the unleavened bread, even if one knew nothing of the exodus from Egypt, as long as he complied with the proper definition of the performance of eating, he will have fulfilled the commandment. Conversely, if one did not eat the unleavened bread in conformity with the proper formula, although he may have had the most profound thoughts about the exodus from Egypt, he did not fulfill the commandment.

The same is true for the commandment of fringes. Even if one never looked at his fringes, as long as he wore them in accordance with the prescribed formula for the mitzvah, he fulfilled the commandment. If, on the other hand, one hung the fringes on his wall, as was the practice of the Karaits, although he may have thought about God every time he entered his home, he did not fulfill the commandment. While this sounds strange to most people it makes perfect sense to the Talmudist. Those who do not understand Halakha Talmudic law, cannot appreciate the beauty of the abstract formulae in God's Torah. They can, at best, only relate to some basic idea. People are usually attracted to performances that symbolize religious notions. God, in His Torah, saw it differently. The Torah's religious performance is the bringing into reality of abstract Halakhic ideas. There is very little explanation given for the vast majority of the laws. (It is for this reason that even gentiles who believe the Torah to be the word of God have never been attracted to the commandments though the Torah repeatedly stresses their significance). Even the oral law is sparse in this area. The Torah has veered away from symbolic performance.

There are two reasons for this: 1) The Torah wishes to reach man primarily through his appreciation of the intellectual world of abstract thought. Only when one's mind and appreciation of knowledge has been developed can one expect to arrive at true religious philosophical ideas. Rather than giving man fixed philosophical explanations, which of necessity would be simplistic, God gave man a system of Torah which perfects his mind and his personality. He then becomes capable of searching out for himself the deep philosophical meaning behind God's Torah. The Torah values most of all knowledge discovered by man through his own creativity. 2) The Torah saw a great danger in symbolic performance even if this performance is associated with correct ideas. Symbolic performance is the basis of the most primitive religious practices, practices which the Torah abhors and warns incessantly against. In Torah, God created an unique institution through which man can worship Him Halachah. This religion stands alone as the only one totally devoid of primitive expression. Through its practice man is converted from an instinctual creature to one who is capable of standing in God's presence.