Oy Bay!

"My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west." — Yehudah Ha-Levi

Catch 22 or 23,24,25…

Posted by whitefrodude on August 2, 2007

As I sat at my friend’s house during Shabbas dinner the typical Jewish argument came up. Now let me explain what I mean by “the typical Jewish argument”.  Every week as we eat our dinner some topic about Judaism pops up between talk of the newest movie release and the weekly gossip.  Now I love to argue, let me rephrase that, I love to discuss the opposite side of whatever the current topic happens to be.

So getting back to the argument, I mean discussion that was discussed this week. One of my friends mentioned that a Jew is supposed to have meaning behind the laws that they follow.  The two examples used in this situation were keeping Shabbas and repenting on Yom Kippur. He said that keeping Shabbas should have meaning to the person doing it. Also he said that one cannot just apologize on Yom Kippur without actually meaning it when they apologize.  I argued that since if I kept Shabbas it would have no meaning (I’m not that religious) I should not be doing it because it has much more meaning not to do it for me.  Also on Yom Kippur if I do not have meaning behind the apology that I am giving someone then I should not be doing it.

True problem lies in this, the Talmud also says that if one is made aware of a law then they are responsible for keeping them (thanks lchaimlover).  So if I am aware of the laws, but would only do them because it says so and I would have no real meaning behind them, what am I supposed to do?  I ask you good readers, what do you believe? Should I be following the laws without meaning? Should I not follow the laws because I am aware of them?


16 Responses to “Catch 22 or 23,24,25…”

  1. biggerlongeranduncut said

    If you do not believe in the laws in the first place, why would you follow them? Would it be out of fear or peer pressure?

    Why do you care about the religious point of view?

  2. FriarYid said

    My bottom line is that I don’t do anything unless I get something out of it. By which I mean, I’m upfront about my Judaism, as a practice, being focused on myself. I’m fairly agnostic about the whole God thing, and I could really care less about halacha. So I do as much Shabbos as I care to, I go to services for some community, and I follow some holidays in some fashion essentially because I feel like it. At some point I might venture beyond that, say, to putting on teffilin on saying prayers regularly. But when it comes to laws, I’m not too interested. Part of it is my natural reaction to the lack of wiggle room a “law” seems to suggest, and part of it is a general lack of respect for the laws themselves. It would be one thing if I could actually be convinced that there is a reason to care about eating chicken over pork, or not shaving my beard. But if it all essentially comes down to, “because that’s the custom and the tradition,” then I’m fine with that, but I’m also not going to feel bound by it if I don’t want to follow it.

  3. drwilly said


    I am an Antwerp (Belgium) Jewish physician and I discussed some essential messages of the bible in modern society.

    We had the chance to inherit 5000 years of bible wisdom.

    Don’t throw it away by a neurotic religious behavior without content, or by selfhate withoud pride, but try to understand it by analysing those messages using all the knowledge we have today. As I answered to one of my critics “the bible is not the monopoly of the rabbis”

    This is what I tried to do in my blog: “Judaism, cage or deliverance?”


    I hope it could answer some questions you ask on your blog

    Shabbath shalom from Belgium

  4. lchaimlover said

    This is difficult. But you pose a good point in that without kavanah, it is like a blessing said in vain. We are supposed to say “Naaseh Vanishma” meaning we will do and we will understand later. This includes the idea that later on the kavanah will come.

    It is also important to remember that first and foremost, these are laws. They are things G-d commanded us to do. Like a citizen of any other country, it is something we have to do, and as time goes on we see why it is good for us to do them, as we learn more we are more comfortable doing them. In essence, having the intent is secondary to the action.

  5. FriarYid said

    I think that some of the issues with the laws would be easier to get around if the reasoning behind them was clearer and more transparent. I have no problem with visiting the sick, for instance (on the other hand I would think it was a good idea even if it wasn’t a mitzvah). But I take issue with seemingly arbitrary rituals, particularly when their explanation is either “we don’t have one” (the hok), or so abstract as to amount to the same thing.

    If someone doesn’t care, or doesn’t accept, that these things are what G-d supposedly said to do, what is the next step? I’m not opposed to mitzvot on principle; I’m opposed to doing them without any real reason/understanding. Why does it MATTER if I wear tzitzit? What are the benefits? At least if the rationale was clearer I could be in a better position to make a decision about it. Instead it seems to come down to, “the Torah says so” or “the rabbis decided” or “we don’t get it either, but God wants you to do it.” This may work for some people but leaves a lot of others out in the cold.

    Part of this can be resolved simply by Jewish education, but there’s a problem when your starting point is already outside the box of halacha and commandedness. Aside from “halacha says so” and a sense of tradition or custom, there don’t seem to be that many answers for people wanting actual reasons to keep mitzvot.

  6. whitefrodude said

    Thank you all for responding. While I posed this post as a question, I already knew what stance I would take. I agree with FriarYid on his points. It seems easier to answer the question when one is not orthodox though. I would like to know what someone who follows these rules says outside of “becasue the Torah says so.”

  7. TheEternalQuestionPersists said

    My 5 year old wants to have a piece of chocolate before dinner. I must tell him no. He begins to argue with me, saying that he wants it, and that i’m a bad daddy, and that its mean, and unfair. I try to explain to him that by eating the chocolate his digestive system will be filled with sugar and he won’t want to eat the dinner. Unfortenatley, my 5 year old, doesn’t understand this and keeps persisting for the chocolate, making havoc, screaming, yelling, and causing trouble. You can’t blame him, he wants chocolate, and my reasoning most certainly doesn’t make sense. It is of course very funny that in 30 years time he, himself, will have the same reasoning as myself, arguing with his own child, understanding very well why he can’t give him chocolate, but at this point in time, there is no understanding! Back to the present… the 5 year old is upset, and only under a threat of punishment, stops wining, and goes back to playing with his toys until dinner time. He has no understanding, or intention, or as you put it “kavanah” behind his actions of not eating chocolate, and by your argument, he should just go, fight me, and get to the chocolate and eat it.

    Last night i went out to a club (i’m a single father), and met a very lovely lady. We wound up coming back to my place (i had to let the baby-sitter go), and got a little “bussy bussy”. When it came down to it, i had to put on a rain coat (a condom) but i had no kavanah what so ever behind it. I don’t like sex with a Condom, it just doesn’t feel right, and i always have this nagging feeling that if i don’t use it, nothing bad will happen. By your reasoning, i shouldn’t wear the condom, since i don’t have a real “kavanah” behind it, and risk getting STDs, passing STDs, or giving my 5 year old a half-sibling in 9-months time.

    I also have another horrible habbit, and for this you most certainly will think less of me. I have a very stressful job, i’m a professional poker player, so when i have a bad night or two, i might go through a whole pack of cigarettes. Everyone tells me i should quit, that its bad for me, and that it causes harm. I always respond by saying that the late queen of england lived until she was 92, she drank whiskey every day along with her cigar. Look around you, there are plenty of people that live perfectly healthy and long lives while smoking, so, i don’t exactly believe this “myth” that smoking kills or ever harms you in any way. So, as you can conclude most likely at this point, i don’t have any real “kavanah” behind quitting smoking simply because my doctor tells me i should or my friends try to pressure me into it. So, i guess i should just keep smoking…

    My point is:
    – Simply because we don’t understand or have the desire to do something, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it
    – If we don’t have the “kavanah” today, it is the hope that by study of torah, its laws, mitzvot, talmud, commentaries, and thousands years of texts, philosophy, and scripture, one will come to have the understanding
    – Unfortenatley, i don’t think that you are smarter than the people that have come before you, or at least not smarter than the unification of all the great minds of the talmud, tanya, and other writings, and to simply not do what they say because you don’t have the answer as to why, available to you at this moment in time, in my opinnion, is not a very good reason.

  8. TheEternalQuestionPersists said

    A quick response to “torah says”. Regarding tzitzit, here are the reasons:

    1) We are to seperate our-selves from other nations
    2) By wearing tzitzit we are visibly showing that we are different
    3) Being aware that you are “different” and showing it so will lead you to act differently and not be afraid to be jewish publicly
    4) In religious court, when an issue comes down to making a coin-toss, i.e., its a split decision, and the two people on whom the judgement is to be made are such that one is a jew, and another isn’t, the argument is to come on the side of the Jew. By wearing tzitzit your are publicly signaling to other Jews (“here i am, look at me, i’m on your side!!!”).
    5) By being different, and being aware that people look at you differently, it will help you to gain understanding of those people that are “truly” different, i.e., very visible minorities of society, people with disabilities, or for some other reason, people that “jsut don’t fit in”. You will thus treat these people more fairly, and will have greater compasion for the greater humanity.

    Some quick answers… If you’d like to have more reason’s for wearing tzitzit, let me know… I have plenty more!!!

  9. whitefrodude said


    First let me say that your response was not only one of the best argument I have heard for this bust also one of the most amusing. I do have some points I would like to make in response.

    I must say that when arguing with your 5 year old, you are giving him the reason to not eat the chocolate. Sure, he doesn’t understand it but at least your telling it to him. Now as far as my knowledge goes (which is not very far so I apologize in advance for my stupidity) the Torah does not say why we have keep Shabbas, besides G-d rested so we should too. If a meaning was explained at least i would have something to try and understand instead of just doing something hoping that one day it will have meaning.

    Secondly, I would argue that you did have meaning behind wearing the condom. You knew that you did not want an STD or a new child so even though you like sex with out it, you did have meaning behind wearing it.

    Finally, I am actually in the process of writing next weeks post which talks about Jews that smoke so I encourage you to stay tuned until next week and please leave you thoughts on that post as well.

    Once again, I applaud you on your comments and look forward to others that you leave.

  10. FriarYid said

    Hi Eternal,

    Thanks for the response. Here’s mine:

    I understand the argument of, “just because we don’t understand it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it”- in theory. But it really only works as long as we’re accepting that God actually made these rules and had a reason for them. I’m not saying that I’m waiting for Elijah to show up and show me schematics of how each mitzvah gives me extra soul-points, but your argument really does seem to boil down to, “we don’t know, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t somehow good.” Fair enough, at least that’s honest. But it also makes the whole thing arbitrary. If the only practical function of tzitzit is to advertise my Jewishness, I could wear a yarmulke and accomplish the same thing, or a giant chai necklace, or a “Jew’s your Daddy?” T-shirt, or tattoo a star of David on my forehead.

    The arguments about smoking, sex, and chocolate are different because they deal with documented physical phenomenon. The problem with things like mtizvot is that a lot of them don’t seem to have specifically physical rationales behind them. Keeping kosher, for instance. Does eating pork have a physical impact on the body? Hell, does it have a spiritual one?

    It is easier to make the adult in your smoking and sex cases see “the light” because there are actual arguments, based on physical evidence, to convince them that what they are doing is actively harming them. In the case of, for instance, tzitzit, you have the challenge of convincing someone that doing this other thing is somehow good for them, spiritually or otherwise, and basically based on the premise of “so-and-so says so.” Yes, the medical chain of command works similarly, but the phenomenon can be checked. We don’t know what spiritual result wearing tzitzit is supposed to produce, so we can’t even tell if it succeeds.

    On the other hand, if your criteria for keeping a mitzvah is “I get something out of it,” then at least there’s some kind of quasi-tangible result you’re looking for. Conversely, wearing tzitzit simply because someone told you so doesn’t seem likely to produce any real effect.

    The issue is not about intelligence or 21st century Jews being “smarter” than their predecessors, it’s about trying to figure out what the reasons and arguments for doing it are and whether they resonate. If they work for the individual Jew, so much the better. But you can’t blame people for not being convinced that they should wear string underwear, avoid cheeseburgers and throw away their razors just because a lot of dead rabbis thought it was a good idea (particularly since the rabbis were fallible humans whose own ideas didn’t always make sense). Tradition can only go so far. If all you can say is, “do it, even if it doesn’t make sense, because maybe it somehow makes sense and you just don’t know it,” you open up the door to them performing all the rituals of every religion. Once you’ve passed the point where there’s some logical explanation or quasi-practical reasoning behind it, you turn Judaism into an exercise of “we do weird crap because someone said so.” The only reason people would adhere to such a system, aside from nostalgia, is the belief that somehow, even if it makes no sense at all, they’re keeping their fingers crossed that the Jews got it right. I just don’t see this kind of Pascal’s wager working for us.

    “Just do it” works for sneakers, but for mitzvot it just isn’t enough, and in my mind, it shouldn’t be. Maybe it’s just a function of the times, but people want reasons to do things, particularly things that don’t seem to have very logical explanations, and if Judaism can’t at least offer some compelling hypothetical explanations (your tzitzit one is a good start), then a lot of people just aren’t going to keep them. It’s the marketplace of ideas model: saying Jews should do things because we always have isn’t a reason, it’s an excuse.

  11. ArchangelinAmerica said

    Let me begin by welcoming you to the fold. I recognized your photo immeadiately!

    Next, let me say that I am not very traditional or observant myself.

    That being said…

    There definitely is value and meaning in performing traditional mitzvot and ritual. The observance of the commandments is one of the things that links us together as a people. Sometimes the virtue in an act is simply the engagement in it. Sometimes the value in an action is in what it does for the group, rather that the individual.

    For example:

    Sometimes we apologize for hurting someone’s feelings, or upsetting them, or causing them difficulty even if we don’t regret the action that we took. This is not to make ourselves feel better but to make the person who feels hurt feel better. (That was a confusing sentence.) All religions, cultures, nationalities, groups etc…have traditions which may no longer have much meaning to the individual. Or sometimes, the value is completely different from what it was originally intended to be. How many of us spend our Veterans Day appreciating our veterans? If most of us don’t use the day for its original intention, should we abolish the observance? What about Thanksgiving?

    I’m not trying to say that everyone has to observe all the mitzvot all the time. But there is beauty and meaning in tradition. And there are so damn many traditions, one them must mean something to you. And last but not least, “if you never tried it before, how do you know you don’t like it?”

  12. Oyster said


    That’s right, everybody. You can spot FriarYid on the street by the oddly-alluring Star-of-David tattoo that he has on his forehead. :-p

    We don’t know what spiritual result wearing tzitzit is supposed to produce, so we can’t even tell if it succeeds.

    True, we can’t hold religion up to the same exacting standards as medicine or science. Good thing that life is larger than even both science and medicine. 🙂

    So let me pretend to be a social-scientist for a second, here. I’ll make a statistical argument. A very large percentage of Jewish communities that have continued to wear tzitzit throughout the centuries have remained intact and survived. This is an argument for correlation; I am not asserting a causal relationship. Though we might come up with some hypotheses… showing how Torah study leads to increased mitzvot (in this case, tzitzit), as we are told in Pirke Avot.

    saying Jews should do things because we always have isn’t a reason, it’s an excuse.

    [ Oyster puts on his crown of thorns ] “May the first person who lives his life 100% by the dictates of pure logic and reason, be the first to pick up stones against Jewish practice.” 🙂

    The truth of the matter is that there’s a lot of senseless, arbitrary, and weird things that we do in our every-day life, but we just never pay it any heed, because it’s the same senseless, arbitrary, and weird things that every other person does. We just put a microscope to Judaism because it’s different, and therefore we need to justify our knee-jerk reaction to its foreign practices…

  13. Oyster said


    Let me relate something that a rabbi once told me. He confessed that not every single time that he prayed did he have some sort of amazing religious experience.

    But sometimes he did.

    And if he didn’t have the practice and discipline of regularly trying to pray, and elevate his soul from the mundane every-day experience of his life, then the odds of him experiencing those moments of elevation and clarity would be few and far between.

    So, his ritual and practice of prayer is a method to try to make those experiences more likely to occur.

  14. whitefrodude said


    Has this rabbi ever gone a long period of time without praying? I only ask because how can one tell that everyone doesn’t have an amazing religious experience even if they don’t pray. He prays all the time so when he does have a religious experience he can just chalk one up to prayer without knowing if he would have had it without prayer.

    This is almost like when people have loved one in the hospital and they pray for them to heal. In a few days the person gets better and they person that prays will say it was because they prayed while I would say thanks to doctors and medication.

  15. FriarYid said


    Absolutely most of the things we do in our lives are arbitrary. But again, is this really the best argument we can come up with in support of mitzvot- “Judaism: it’s no weirder than rituals people do before a football game”? I don’t mind that Judaism is in some ways strange, in fact I kind of like that about it, but it’s not a compelling reason for me to follow its system. In fact, quite the opposite- as you point out, there are tons of other weird rituals and traditions in the world. If I just want to do weird things, why pick Judaism? Why not mix and match?

    There is inherent value in tradition and ritual, but I don’t think that tradition alone can be enough of a reason to sustain mitzvah observance. You either have to actually believe that God wants you to do them, OR, the case for keeping them, or at least some of them, has to be made. I’m still not hearing any good reasons to keep mitzvot aside from the fact that Jews have always done so and the suggestion that if you do, it will be more likely to get you Jewish grandkids (which, if you’re doubting the validity of the whole practice itself, might not be so big a selling point).

    My observation is that the sad truth is that for post-modern Jews, there really do not seem to be any compelling arguments for keeping ritual mitzvot aside from a sense of tradition or nostalgia- which is certainly how I relate to the few ritual mitzvot I keep. The problem is that this just encourages nominal engagement with mitzvot, and quite possibly a sense of religious complacency: I keep what I want, I do what I like, or somehow feel some obligation towards, and discard the rest. I don’t have a “problem” with Cafeteria Judaism per se- hell, I live it- but I think it’s unfortunate that there isn’t some way to bridge the gap more. Which is to say, I want to *want* to do more. Does that make sense?

  16. andrw9r said

    One of the most interesting pieces that i have come across on Oy-bay, and i can actually picture this being discussed around a shabbas table.

    You should embrace any part of judaism in which you feel comfortable. That is the great part about judaism. As Jews we are allowed to have our own connection with gd unlike our christian brethren who need to get their gdly fix through the intellect of others i.e, priests,reverends…. as Jews are rabbi’s are hear to give us an insight into the complex world of torah, but their opinions are not the end all be all.

    Take the mizzuzot for example. From this weeks parshah. Now we are supposed to bind it on the doorposts of our houses and our gates, but in which direction is it supposed to be binded. One rabbi, would argue that we should post it vertically, because in the v’haftah it states “When thoust rises up” When you rise up you are making a vertical movement. While another might argue it should be binded horizontally, because it also says when thoust liest down, which is a horizontal act. In reality it is binded at an angle, or a compromise between the two rabbinical philosophies.

    In essence your judaism is what you make out of it, and your Jewish experience will not be a positive one, if you yourself are not enjoying and connecting with it.

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