Reasons for the Mitzvot (2)
2. is It desirable to seek out the reasons for the mitzvot?
We know that seeking out the reasons for the mitzvot was very acceptable to the sages of Israel, starting with Chazal, through the Rishonim, and down to the most recent Acharonim. Rambam explicitly encourages the believer to ponder the reasons for the mitzvot:
It is fitting for man to meditate upon the laws of the holy Torah and to comprehend their full meaning to the extent of his ability. Nevertheless, a law for which he finds no reason and understands no cause should not be trivial in his eyes. (Hilkhot Me'ila 8:8)
We shall later return to the words of Rambam, consider them in their entirety and discuss his reservations. What interests us now is the very assertion that it is fitting for a person to occupy himself in the reasons for the mitzvot. Why is so much importance attached to searching for the reasons of the mitzvot? We can suggest two answers: 1) Occupation with the reasons for the mitzvot can stir up religious enthusiasm and spiritual motivation. This refers primarily to motivation and enthusiasm to observe those very mitzvot whose rationales are being uncovered, but also to excitement with respect to the worship of God in general. The better a person understands the light and the wisdom of the mitzvot, the more his excitement and joy in the Torah and the worship of God will grow. 2) Through the study of the reasons for the mitzvot, we can learn important conceptual principles. By occupying ourselves with the reasons for the mitzvot, we can reach an understanding of God's will and of the basic values to which He is directing us.
We have seen that Rambam encourages the student to search out the reasons for the commandments. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi has a different approach. After describing the reasons for the mitzvot relating to the Temple, he concludes with the following:
I do not, by any means, assert that the purpose of the service is the order expounded by me. On the contrary, it entails something more secret and elevated. And I say that it is God's Torah. He who innocently accepts it without scrutiny or argument is better off than he who investigates and analyses. He, however, who steps down from the highest level to scrutiny, does well to seek the reasons for these matters that are founded upon Divine wisdom, instead of abandoning them to evil opinions and doubts which lead man to perdition. (Kuzari, II, 26)
Rambam finds religious value in the search for the reasons of the mitzvot, because they can clarify the moral and spiritual foundations of the worship of God and enhance a person's religious commitment and enthusiasm. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi does not accept this approach. According to him, studying the reasons for the mitzvot is only necessary as a prophylactic cure for heresy. He whose faith is unblemished has no need for an investigation into the reasons for the mitzvot. This is only necessary for one whose faith is weak and must therefore be reminded why the mitzvot have value and meaning. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi's argument is accompanied by the recognition that it is reasonable to assume that we are incapable of uncovering the true reason for a mitzva. We can, at most, speak of different layers of reasons, only the outermost of which we manage to understand. It is not clear from the words of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi whether a connection exists between the two arguments. He may be of the opinion that there is no value in searching for the reasons of the mitzvot, because in any event it is impossible to fully understand their rationales.
The fear that we may misunderstand the reasons for God's commandments is a significant concern: if we hope to derive from the mitzvot spiritual and ideological principles, then a mistake can be of great significance. And if we think that there is little chance of hitting upon God's true reasons, then it is surely possible that the entire effort is superfluous and void of meaning. This concern requires us to exercise extreme caution when we try to understand the reasons for the mitzvot. This care should express itself in the method used to derive the reason from the commandment, as well as in the awareness that any rationale that we come up with is merely a conjecture.
Certain statements of Chazal raise doubts whether or not it is advisable to inquire into the reasons for the commandments, because of another concern altogether:
Why were the rationales of the Torah not revealed? For surely regarding two passages where reasons were given, the greatest man in the world stumbled. It is written: "Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, [that his heart not turn away]" (Devarim 17:17). Shlomo said: I will take many [wives], but not turn away. And it is written: "For it came to pass, when Shlomo was old, that his wives turned away his heart" (I Melakhim 11:4). And it is written: "But he shall not multiply horses to himself, [nor cause the people to return to Egypt]" (Devarim 17:16). Shlomo said: I will take many [horses], but not cause [the people] to return. And it is written: "And a chariot went out of Egypt" (I Melakhim 10:29). (Sanhedrin 21a)
Chazal point here to the danger that a person's commitment to a mitzva may be undermined when its rationale is revealed to him. When a person knows the rationale for a mitzva, he tends to regard it as reason for his commitment to observe it. This leads to the practical concern that people will come to be lenient regarding the mitzva or change it in accordance with their understanding. We see what happened to Shlomo, when he thought that the reason for the mitzva did not apply. He serves as classic proof for the extent to which the reason for the mitzva is still valid.
We are dealing here not only with a practical concern, but with a spiritual concern as well. Even if a person does not effect an actual change in the mitzva, the very recognition that he is observing the mitzva not because of his commitment to God, but because he recognizes its value and benefit, involves a great spiritual flaw. The Tur alludes to this concern:
As for the prohibition against shaving the corners of one's beard – Rambam said about them as well that this is forbidden by Scripture because the idolaters acted in this manner. This, however, is not explicit, and we need not look for a reason for the mitzvot. For they are like royal decrees, even if we do not know their reasons. (Tur, YD 181)
When a person delves into the reasons for the mitzvot, there is grave concern that he will observe the mitzvot only because he identifies with them and feels at ease performing them. It is difficult to say about such a person that he is serving God. The Chatam Sofer clearly identified this concern (after having also explained at length the practical concern about halakhic rulings based on false reasons):
For we observe God's statutes and teachings as statutes without reasons, the Torah being the decree of the King, may His name be blessed. Even if a person observes the entire Torah and all the commandments as he is required, if in his heart he does so for some particular reason, it is not received by God with favor. (Derashot ha-Hatam Sofer, Klausenberg, 1889, I, p. 19b)
How can these two concerns be overcome? Chazal distinguished between two types of mitzvot:
Our Rabbis taught: "You shall keep my judgments" (Vayikra 18:4) – matters that had they not been written should have been written: idolatry, illicit sexual relations, murder, theft, and blasphemy; "and you shall keep my statutes [chukkim]" - matters that Satan argues against [and the nations of the world argue against], such as: eating pig, wearing garments made of a mixture of wool and linen, halitza, a leper's purification, and the sent-away goat. You might say they are meaningless acts. Therefore the verse states: "I am the Lord" – I am the Lord who enacted them, you have no right to criticize them. (Yoma 67b)
Part of the Torah – the "statutes" [chukkim]– is very hard and, perhaps, impossible to explain. As we shall see, the Rishonim emphasized that this does not mean that the statutes are void of reason, but only that the reasons for the statutes are beyond our understanding. Chazal have said (Yoma 14a) that even King Shlomo, the wisest of all men, said about the mitzva of the red heifer: "I said I will be wise; but is was far from me" (Kohelet 7:23). The statutes have great educational value; they diminish the concern that learning the rationales of the mitzvot will create a connection between the reason for the mitzva and a person's commitment to observe it. Rav Yehuda Amital, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, was once asked at a seminar for ba'alei teshuva which mitzvot should a newly observant person observe first. Rav Amital answered (following Rashi regarding the mitzvot commanded to Israel at Mara) that a person should choose one mitzva pertaining to the relationship between man and his fellow, such as honoring one's parents, one mitzva pertaining to the relationship between man and God, such as Shabbat, and one mitzva regarding which there is no presumption whatsoever that we understand the rationale, such as kashrut or family purity.
We have spoken about the danger that exists that a person will observe the mitzvot only because of their reasons. The Gemara also draws our intention to the reverse danger, namely, that a person who has learned the reasons for certain commandments will come to treat lightly those mitzvot whose reasons he does not understand. The concern exists that instead of the "statutes" influencing a person's attitude towards the "judgments," the "judgments" will fashion his attitude towards the "statutes." There is a danger that a person will scorn those mitzvot whose rationales he is unable to uncover. The Gemara finds it necessary to emphasize: "'I am the Lord' - I am the Lord who enacted them, you have no right to criticize them." When a person succeeds in uncovering a satisfying reason for a certain particular mitzva, the danger exists that he will view the reason as the source of the obligation, and he may even refrain from observing the mitzva in situations where he thinks that the reason does not apply. When, however, he is unsuccessful in finding such a reason, the danger exists that he will scorn the mitzva. Rambam was also aware of this danger. On the one hand, Rambam encourages us to study the reasons for the mitzvot and try to understand them; on the other hand, he is aware of the educational danger of scorning mitzvot whose rationales have not been uncovered, and he struggles with this danger:
It is fitting for man to meditate upon the laws of the holy Torah and to comprehend their full meaning to the extent of his ability. Nevertheless, a law for which he finds no reason and understands no cause should not be trivial in his eyes. Let him not break through to come up against the Lord, lest the Lord break forth upon him (Shemot 19:24). Nor should his thoughts concerning these things be like his thoughts concerning profane matters. Come and consider how strict the Torah was in the law of trespass! Now if sticks and stones and earth and ashes became hallowed by words alone, as soon as the name of the Master of the universe was invoked upon them, and anyone who comported with them as with a profane thing committed trespass and required atonement even if he had acted unwittingly, how much more should man be on guard not to rebel against a commandment decreed for us by the Holy One, blessed be He, only because he does not understand the reason; or to heap words that are not right against the Lord; or to regard the commandments in the manner in which he regards ordinary affairs. Surely it is stated in the Torah: "Therefore shall you keep all My statutes, and all my judgments, and do them" (Vayikra 19:37). The Sages said: To give keeping and doing to the statutes as to the judgments. Doing is known, namely, that he should do the statutes. And keeping – that he be watchful regarding them, and not imagine that they are inferior to the judgments. (Rambam, Hilkhot Me'ila, 8:8)
Let us then summarize the problems and dangers regarding searching out the rationales for the mitzvot: 1) a violation of religious innocence; 2) mistaken understanding of the true reason for the mitzva; 3) disregard of a mitzva when the supposed reason seems not to apply; 4) observance of the mitzvot because of their value and meaning, and not because of the divine command; 5) making light of mitzvot which have no apparent rationale.
We have also seen ways to confront these problems. The bottom line is that many Torah giants have occupied themselves with the rationales for the mitzvot, for it was clear to them that the potential benefits outweigh the possible dangers.
(Translated by Rav David Strauss)