Shemini – Rules and Regulations

Stephen Richer
Rules and Regulations
Shemini
Leviticus 9:1 — 11:47
4/6/2010

In this week’s Torah portion, the laws of Kosher are introduced.

“And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, to say to them: Speak to the child of Israel, saying: These are the creatures that you may eat among all the animals on earth:

Any animal that has a cloven hoof that is completely split into double hooves, and which brings up its cud that one you may eat.

But these you shall not among those that bring up the cud and those that have a cloven hoof: the camel, because it brings up its cud, but does not have a [completely] cloven hoof; it is unclean for you” (Lev 11:1 – 11:3)

And so on and so forth.

The laws of Kosher characterize Judaism as a religion of rules and laws.  Unfortunately, rules and laws have negative connotations in today’s society—they connote constraint, restriction, and limitation.  Especially among modern-day American Jews, rules and laws are frowned upon.  We’re the people of academic greatness, the people of unlimited creativity, the people of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. We don’t want a religion of rules and laws to shackle us.

But whether it’s the laws of Kosher, Shabbat, prayer, or otherwise, it cannot be escaped that Judaism is a religion of rules.

The question then becomes: What benefits do we derive from a litigious religion, and do these benefits outweigh the restrictions imposed?

Five potential benefits (This list does not presume to be comprehensive.  Numbers 1, 4, and 5 pertain to the individual; 2 and 3 to God):

1)
Rules instill a strict physical and mental discipline in the Jewish person that allows us to succeed in other areas of life.  Simply put, the man that can discipline himself out of the temptation of a cheeseburger, can surely condition himself into working late hours, taking practice LSATs, or honoring his father and mother.

I like to analogize this to my experiences with bed-making.  My mom forced me to make my bed every morning from age 6 to age 16.  Not being an early-morning person, I of course hated this forced action. Nobody ever went into my room, and it was just going to be messed up the very next night—one of the greatest exercises in existentialism ever created.

But it did instill some personal discipline that I was able channel to other areas of my life that produced perhaps more tangible benefits.  Be it homework, sports, or Nintendo game, I was able to force myself to get up early and stay up late to practice. (Although with the exception of the third activity, this discipline didn’t come until age 17.)

2)  Just as my Mom appreciated it when I made my bed, God has his reasons for appreciating our keeping Kosher or the Sabbath.  We don’t necessarily have to understand what these reasons are.  I didn’t really get why my mom would feel more comfortable and at peace with the world when I cleaned my room, but for some reason she did.  And considering everything that my mom has done for me, it was the least I could do to follow a few of her rules to make her feel better, even if she couldn’t explain why.  Same with God?

3)
The sages (via Rabbis Mordechai and Teitelbaum) tell us that our physical assets, be they books, money, or our bodies, are on loan—they belong to God, and we’re simply borrowing them for a while (hopefully at least 100 years).

Since our bodies ultimately belong to God, and since he is getting back in the end, he wants them back in mint condition.  He’s basically the Hertz of the rental car world.  This is why there’s also rules against tattoos—no scratches on the car.

4)
We can’t necessarily foresee the future value of our actions.  Going back to the bed-making example, it was nice that when I got to college I knew how to be at least a moderately clean roommate.  But potential importance of this never struck me when I was young.  Similarly, we don’t what is going on the afterlife—perhaps some of these seemingly pointless rules are meant to prepare us for that.

5)
Religion requires faith.  By drilling our faith on a daily basis, doing these little exercises, we are better prepared for the larger leaps of faith.  Furthermore, by coming across the rules of prayer, Kosher, and Shabbat on a regular basis, we are constantly interacting with Judaism and the positive benefits (some of them more worldly, such as a moral code) it entails.

These five points seem to muster sufficient force to outweigh the hassle of Judaism’s many rules.  Of course, though I observe elements of Judaism, I don’t keep Kosher, so they’re obviously not convincing enough…