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Why Observe Torah Laws?

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Why Observe Torah Laws?
By Israel Drazin - July 7, 2009

Marvin, a nineteen year old congregant, enters the rabbi's synagogue office, shakes the rabbi's hand and takes a seat in front of the rabbi's desk. He is very agitated. The rabbi sits next to Marvin, smiles, and asks how he can help him.

Marvin: Rabbi, please tell me why I should observe the Torah's commands. For example, why shouldn't I work on the Sabbath and eat lobsters. I feel sometimes that God never revealed the Torah to the Jewish people, and then I think that if God did not write the Torah I don't have to keep Torah laws.

Rabbi: You raise an interesting question. It bothered many ancient people, Jewish and non-Jewish.

Marvin: I didn't realize that. I thought it was only a Jewish matter.

Rabbi: No. But, quite frankly, I like a Jewish response better than the non-Jewish ones.

Marvin: What were the non-Jewish answers?

Rabbi: Non-Jews usually ask the question this way: "Does morality depend on God and religion?"

Marvin: What answers were given?

Rabbi: There were a lot of answers. Some people insisted that morality is absolute there is a single moral code in nature that does not depend on God. Even an atheist must observe this code.

Marvin: This seems to make sense.

Rabbi: Maybe not. The problem with this absolutist view is that people differ on what they consider morally right. So how can morality be absolute? For example, some groups insist that homosexuality is wrong because it is unnatural, unhealthy and dirty. Others claim that homosexuality is natural and is as healthy and clean as other sex. So, since there are differences, how can one say that morality is absolute?

Marvin: What other answers were given?

Rabbi: Some people argued that morality is relative. Everyone has their own opinions about what is right and what is wrong. Some people, for example, think that male circumcision is a good thing and others disagree. Some of relativists are convinced that this is why people need God to tell them what to do.

Marvin: In other words, according to the relativists, murder is not wrong. It would only be wrong if God told us that it is wrong. Is that what you are saying?

Rabbi: Yes. However, there are individuals who take a third approach. They argue that some things are absolutely wrong, such as murder, slavery and robbery. And some things are absolutely right, such as giving charity and visiting the sick. While other things, such as circumcision, are relative.

Marvin: Are there other views?

Rabbi: Yes, many. For instance, the eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant developed what he called the "categorical imperative." He said that a person should "act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

Marvin: And there were other ideas?

Rabbi: Yes, many.

Marvin: I agree with what you said when we started talking. I don't think that any of these ideas help answer why I should observe Torah law.

Rabbi: No, they don't. Your question implies that we should only observe the Torah if God ordered us to observe it. This is similar to the son who says my father told me not to do a lot of things, but he never told me not to jaywalk. Therefore, I can jaywalk. The boy did so and one day he was killed by a speeding car. The great twelfth century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote that people need to learn to think. He gave good reasons why people should observe Torah laws.

Marvin: What are they?

Rabbi: Maimonides taught that there are three reasons why Torah laws should be observed. The Torah teaches true ideas, it helps individuals develop, and it aids the creation of a good society. The issue of whether God dictated the Torah is, in essence, irrelevant. We observe the Torah because of the three reasons mentioned by Maimonides.

Marvin: Where does Maimonides discuss this?

Rabbi: His discusses the reasonableness of the commands is in his Guide of the Perplexed, in the final chapters of the book, chapters 25 though 54. Among other reasons, Maimonides explains that the Sabbath laws promote rest for body and mind and contribute to good health. He states that there are many values obtained by refraining from certain foods, including health reasons and training our appetites and desires.

Marvin: If, as you say, it is irrelevant whether God dictated these commands because they are, according to Maimonides, rational commands, why then do we need the Torah?

Rabbi: There is a problem. Very few people have the mental ability to see the good that flows from good human activity. The good may not occur until many years pass. They are also blind to the evil that will occur because of a wrongful act. These people, the vast majority of humanity, need wise leaders to guide them. The Torah does this. 

Marvin: This makes sense. 

Rabbi: I hope these thoughts help you. 

Marvin: Thank you rabbi. They do.


Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on www.ou.org/torah and on www.yutorah@yutorah.org. His website is http://booksnthoughts.com.

The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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