Dear Jew in the City-
I believe in a supreme being that would create the Universe, but it’s hard for me to believe that this all-powerful being would give us these laws and care about whether we keep them or not. Does God really care if I flick a light switch on Shabbos?
Dear B –
Thanks for your question, which is not an uncommon one. There’s a lot one could say about this but we’re really only going to be able to skim the surface here. To discuss this at all, we first have to accept a harsh reality: God is infinitely smarter than us.
Imagine a young child whose parents have all sorts of arbitrary rules: you have to wash your face, comb your hair, brush your teeth, go to bed at a certain time, go to the doctor for shots and, worst of all, you have to eat broccoli rather than ice cream 24/7. So what does the child say? “When I have kids, I’ll let them stay up as late as they want!” or “When I’m grown up, I’ll eat all the ice cream I want!”
The disconnect occurs because the child doesn’t know what the parent knows. The parent understands things like nutrition, dental hygiene and, hopefully, vaccinations. Happily, by the time they grow up, most ex-kids no longer opt to have their own toddlers roaming the streets at all hours or to eat ice cream for every meal.
Just like the child doesn’t understand why the parent enforces all these rules – clearly they’re just being mean! – we don’t necessarily understand why God wants us to do X, Y and Z. But, as with the parent and the child, the rules aren’t for the parent’s benefit, they’re for the child. God doesn’t need our service – He lacks nothing and gets along just find without us thankyewverrymuch. God tells us as much several times in Tanach. For example, regarding sacrifices, Psalms 50:9-10 says, “I will take no bull from your house, nor goats from your corral, because every animal in the forest is Mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills.” Similarly, Isaiah 1:11 says, “Why do I need the multitude of your sacrifices to Me…?” The reason our ancestors brought sacrifices was for their sake, not because God “needed” them in any way. The same is true for all the mitzvos: they’re for our sake. God doesn’t benefit from them; we do.
(I used the same parent-child analogy in discussing a previous topic and a reader took exception to what he perceived to be me infantilizing my audience. “We’re not children!” he protested. In truth, I think my analogy was generous as there’s only a small difference between an adult human being and a child. More apt analogies would have included a human and a chimp, a human and a gnat, and a human and an amoeba. Had I used any of those examples, the things being compared still would have been more similar to one another than a human being is to God, Who is removed from us by infinite degrees.)
If you want to know more about God, I recommend a book that I wrote called The God Book. In it, I share ideas about God as explained by some of the great Jewish philosophers. Here, I will share some ideas on the reasons underlying the mitzvos as expressed by Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed.
We believe that God’s mitzvos are the product of His wisdom and they have purposes whether we know them or not. Psalms 19:10 tells us that “the judgments of Hashem are true and completely righteous.” The mitzvos couldn’t be considered “righteous” if they were arbitrary. If we can’t see the purpose of a mitzvah, that’s a shortcoming in us, not in God.
The reasons for the mitzvos are generally not given because when people know the reasons, they start to justify not keeping the mitzvos. Saying “speed limit 40” applies to everyone without exception but if we say “the speed limit is 40 to avoid hitting pedestrians,” then people start driving 70 and fighting tickets on the basis that they managed to avoid hitting pedestrians. Sorry, but the rule still applies – that’ll be a $250 fine and six points.
All of the mitzvos serve one of those three general purposes: they either teach us necessary truths, remove bad behavior from our midst, or promote good interpersonal relationships. Looking deeper, the Rambam divides the mitzvos into 14 categories, each of which has its own specific purpose. For example, the laws of business are necessary to promote a functioning society. Ritual laws, like prayer, are designed to direct our attentions to God. Special occasions like Shabbos and holidays each carry their own message. The laws limiting food and intimate relations are designed to keep physical pleasures from becoming the focus of our lives.
Like I said, there’s a lot more to this topic and I wouldn’t be devastated if you bought The God Book, but the bottom line is this: “Hashem commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear Hashem our God, for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is this day” (Deuteronomy 6:24). Little Johnny may not understand why bedtime is 8:30 and we may not understand why God wants us not to eat animals unless they chew their cud and have split hooves. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason. There is a reason, and it’s for our benefit. It’s at this point that, if we want to know more, the burden is on us to do the research.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
(P.S. This wasn’t really your question but you brought it up so people may be wondering: the reason we refrain from kindling lights and other acts of creative labor on Shabbos is in recognition of the fact that God is the Creator and the world is ultimately under His control, not ours.)