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"Outdated" Mitzvot?


Rabbi Ari Shvat

Cheshvan 2, 5773
Dear Rabbi, I received a lengthy e mail written by a cynical professor who asked questions about the Torah which sometimes appears to be outdated, and would like some answers to fulfill the writings of the ethics of the fathers:ודע מה שתשיב לאפיקורוס ולקדש שם שמים Thank you!
The issue regarding mitzvot which seem to be outdated, is an old question. In fact, the t’filin found by archeologists at Massada from 2,000 years ago, were not “in style” or seen as “up-to-date” in the gentile world, then either! Were it not for the G-dly commandment, we wouldn’t have dreamt ourselves of wearing these black boxes and straps, even then! The eternal mitzvot are, by definition, above time. In fact, many of the most popular mitzvot today among newly observant intellectual Jews, are those which at first glance, seem outdated. Only after you begin to observe, you’re amazed at the beauty, logic and benefit of these eternal truths. Davka the example which the cynical professor gave of physically separating during the menstrual period, is a classic case in point. Regarding the mitzvot which seem to contradict modern morality, we must remember that “eternity” means not only that the Torah must apply to the modern world, but also the reverse: that it had to be relevant 3,300 years ago, as well! In a both morally and technically primitive world, before the cotton gin and tractor, whose economy was based upon agriculture and slaves, slavery was not seen by anyone as a moral problem at the time of the giving of the Torah. In a period where it was legal among gentiles to kill one’s slave, in order to be relevant and slowly raise the level of their primitive morality, the most the Torah could, and did command, was to treat slaves in a relatively high and honorable way. Our rabbis summarize those laws, that “He who bought a slave, has acquired a master for himself”. It was davka a result of these laws that mankind (first Judaism, and then Christianity, and eventually the entire modern world), slowly but surely began to see slavery in a negative light, until its eventual abolishment in most countries. The Torah doesn’t obligate slavery, yet begrudgingly allowed it, when it was necessary and morally accepted and economically necessary, within exacting moral constrictions. A good analogy is that it would be an exaggerated demand for the Torah to prohibit eating meat even today, although it’s clearly more moral to be a vegetarian. The many “hints” to this affect (e.g. slaughtering painlessly, many detailed halachot which define the prohibition to hurt animals, not making a “shehecheyanu” bracha or even saying “titchadesh” on leather…) slowly and eventually raise mankind until we will be abhorred with the concept, and will voluntarily evolve to be vegetarians, returning to the pre-Noah ideal. The Torah obligates only the minimum, and to “jump the gun” and “over-obligate” morality before its proper time, would be artificial, irrelevant and accordingly, counterproductive. In consequent generations, the rabbis and mankind are meant to continuously add additional obligations, at the pace of advancement of mankind, continuing the direction of the “arrow” which the Torah “shot” long ago. In addition, we must remember that the same G-d who created our moral “conscience”, is the same One who gave us the Torah, and is the same One who slowly guides history. In the example of vegetarianism, the “historical” G-d reveals, at the appropriate time, modern technology (inventing meat-substitutes, refrigeration…), dietetics (encouraging vegetarianism), hygiene (we are more and more disgusted by blood…), military weapons (wars fought today from afar, by pushing buttons, make us more sensitive and squeamish regarding animals), and even internet and transportation (enabling universal NGO’s to function and publicize their humanist and animal-loving agendas), etc. So too, that same “historical” G-d “vanished” Amelek naturally, because that’s not the obligation which should be pre-occupying us at this stage of mankind! Similarly, explains Rav Kook, it’s not a coincidence that we don’t have the death-penalty or animal sacrifice today, because it’s not in our best moral interest at this time. Accordingly, G-d removed these topics from the practical agenda, through technical, halachic and historical obstacles. In addition, the oral law which is “built in” to the essence of the written law (Dvarim 17), is exactly for this purpose, obligating rabbis to explain mitzvot and make them relevant in each and every generation. More than 1,000 years ago, the rabbis basically abolished yibum, and today, the G-d of “history” made even chalitza essentially obsolete (currently, couples don’t marry unless they want children, modern methods of fertility can solve 95% of the problems, and men don’t die as young as they used to). Nevertheless, if by chance, there is ever any mitzvah which may truly seem “out-of-date”, the Sanhedrin (Supreme Rabbinical Court) is usually empowered to alter it, either temporarily or long-range. If Israel has already returned to the Land, revived our State, language, and army, then reviving the Sanhedrin should be relatively easy. With Love of Israel, Rabbi Ari Shvat
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