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Does Everything Need a Reason

Raphael ZarumFilmed at South London Limmud

When Raphael Zarum was fresh out of Yeshiva, 19 years old, he thought he had the answers to everything. He thought he could save the Jewish world. He thought he could explain all the deep meanings behind all our traditions using our great treasure house of Jewish texts. But then he started to question this position and ask, does everything need a reason? He used to believe it was the texts he taught that made all the difference. But maybe it was his relationship to, and love of, the texts that mattered most...

Raphael Zarum is Dean of the London School of Jewish Studies, the UK centre of modern orthodox teaching and learning. A graduate of the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem and author of the Torah L’Am crash course, Raphael has an MA in education, a PhD in theoretical physics and is studying to be a rabbi.

When I was fresh out of Yeshiva, 19 years old, I thought I had the answers to everything.
I thought I could save the Jewish world if I could just explain the deep meaning behind all our traditions using our great treasure house of Jewish texts. What Shabbat is really about, the ideas behind the festivals, why we miss the Temple. I was passionate and I was convinced
That everything in Judaism had a reason. Given the chance I could help people to believe and could help people to keep (observe).

You see, I saw Judaism has sensible and eminently reasonable and I think I’m now known as a person who always teaches Jewish texts in that way and that’s what I do at the London School of Jewish Studies, we are based around text teaching and bringing it to life and making it meaningful for people. In my teaching I’m always looking for is what I call a Killer Text…What’s a Killer Text? A killer Text is one that wins people over, it is just so good…
It has impeccable credentials (i.e. who said it, when it was written) it is clear, punchy, relevant and straight to the point.

I’ll give you an example of one I found recently to help explain.
It’s from a midrash in Bereishit Rabbah (44:1) which goes back at least 1500 years and it’s based on a verse in Psalms (18:31):

הָקֵל תָּמִים דַּרְכּוֹ אִמְרַת ה’ צְרוּפָה
“God’s way is perfect; the word of God is refined”

What does the Midrash say: This is said in the name of Rav a famous Amora of Talmudic era
The commandments were only given so that a person may become refined by them.
For what does God care whether someone shechts an animal at the throat or at the nape of the neck? Rather, the purpose of the commandments is to refine humanity.”

That’s Brilliant! That’s quite a shocker, it doesn’t really matter to God exactly how you shecht so the whole issue of Kashrut is only for us to refine us but it doesn’t matter to God. Modern Hebrew when you say “what do I care”? You say ma ech patli and the phrase in the midrash ‘ma ech pat l’Hashem’ “what does it matter to God”. It’s the mitzvot that refine us. That refine our senses. We need to be careful how we cut the animal, to make us more sensitive and aware but the specifics don’t really matter to God. Now this is a Killer Text because it explains brilliantly the intricacies of Judaism, brilliantly in one line, it’s over 1 and a half thousand years old, impeccable source and from Rav. I love texts like this, they really explain and I would say I have built my career on finding sources like these which are intelligible and reasonable and make people enjoy Judaism.

But, at the same, time, I have come to see that not everything has or even needs a reason. Let me tell you why, you see back in yeshiva, all those years ago, something else happened to me.
But that was more of what I’d say is a slow burner…I had a very special teacher, Rabbi Yehoshua Engelman and he said to me at the end of my year;

Rafi, May your 120 years not just be of mind, but of heart too.

He gave me a great book to read, I only had it for a week, so I would get on a bus because I had read this article that if you read things in different places then you would remember things according to the places where you were. So I got off at one stop and read a chapter, and got off at another stop and read a chapter until I finished the book. It kind of worked when I visited the place the stories would come to my head but it was a good way to finish the book. What was the book? Souls on Fire, by Wiesel the Nobel Prize winning holocaust survivor. A brilliant book about the Hassidic masters and the era of Hassidic Judaism and that book I must admit, changed my life.

The opening of the book says: “My father, an enlightened spirit believed in man, my grandfather, a fervent Hasid believed in God. One taught me to speak, one to sing…and both whisper to me from beyond the storm…”

You see Hasidim weren’t so into finding reasons for things. They were in love with God and in love with life. One of my favourite stories in the book, actually in the sequel, Somewhere a Master, but I had a two volume edition, really summarised this and will help me explain “does everything need a reason” and it’s about the Karliner Chasidim, the Chasidim of R. Ahron of Karlin and it is a wonderful story that Wiesel tells. He says, “when two Karliner Chasidim meet what should they do?” “Well they should be learned and they should study Chassidic Kabbalah and share their insights and ideas from the Kabbalistic world but if they don’t know kabbalah then they should study Talmud together and bring out new ideas that they have learned form their teachers but if they don’t know so much then Karlin Chasidim when they meet should learn Torah and talk about the Sedra that just happened, but if they don’t know Torah then they should tell each other Chassidic stories or sing to each other Chassidic songs but if even that, if even they forgotten those, if for some reason they weren’t able to remember stories or sing songs, what should they do when they meet each other?” Well Wiesel says, they should just love each other. That Wiesel, then says after, is in one line a summary of all of Chassidut, demanding and challenging the most from a Jew but accepting whatever you can give. But for me, little me out of Yeshiva, head in the clouds, it taught me something else: that even after or even before the great Kabbalistic readings or the Talmud or Chassidic stories at the base of every relationship, at the base of every learning, is an understanding and love from one person to another, that deeper than intellectual pursuits was a human relationship and if my heart was open to someone else then I would find reasons for what I was doing and if it wasn’t and it wasn’t connected then reasons would never help. I used to believe it was the texts I taught that made all the difference. But it might be my relationship to the text that matters. Maybe it’s my love for the texts is what makes people want to listen to me just as much or even more than the text themselves? Maybe it’s my love for text that makes it a killer text?

There is a classic division in the commandments, the Mitzvot in Judaism, you may have heard of it? They are often divided on a simple level into two categories. Chukim or Chok and Mishpatim or Misphat. MISHPATIM are laws that make sense, that are reasonable. Whereas CHUKIM are seen as statutes, they just are. We don’t understand them. So for instance murder would be a MISHPAT we understand why it is wrong to murder or kill, whereas shatnez the rule of not wearing clothes of wool and linen together is a CHOK, it has no reason, it is not intelligible. Now we humans created in the image of God have a sense of natural morality and so the Gemara says, in the name of R.Yochanan, says the following Gemara in Eruvin (100b): “Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, theft from the ant, chastity from the dove, and sexual relationships from fowl.” Which would make some very interesting YouTube videos. The point the Talmud is saying, is that we could have worked out all the Mishpatim ourselves, if they are logical and sensible and about moral societies then we work them out and indeed, many moral societies, most all human civilisations have a system of moral values and they overlap very much.
Another Midrash says that those laws in the Torah, which are mishpatim and the rav says this in a midrash, says had they not been written, it would have been proper to write them for ourselves. Torat Kohanim, Acharei Mot 9:13 on Vayikra 18:4)
For example, theft, forbidden relations and murder and so on. But CHUKIM, a Chok is not rational. We wouldn’t have come up with them if not revealed to us, we would never have referred to Shatnez. The other classic CHOK is called the Para Adumah – Red Hefer. Which opened our sedra yesterday of Chukkat. “Zot Chukat HaTora” the sedra begins – This is THE statute of the Torah. What’s it about? It’s about purification from death. Its ashes are burned, the red hefer is burnt and the ashes are used to purify somebody from contact with the dead. But ironically the Kohen who does that himself becomes impure from the process. Why? What a crazy kind of law? Why a red hefer? Why had hyssop? Why if the priest gets involved does the person become pure again but he becomes impure? It’s crazy. Even the Board of Deps wouldn’t come up with a crazy law like that?

But are the CHUKIM and MISHPATIM, the reasonable and the statutes fixed? If a CHOK can be explained, does it become a MISHPAT? In my desire to explain everything and give a reason to everything as I grew up, I wanted to understand CHUKIM too. And why not? There’s a wonderful verse in psalms that I saw quoted by Dr Dayan Grunfeld a previous Dayan of the London Bet Din, he was a doctor and a dayan, youdon’t see that a lot today. What did he say? He quoted a verse from psalms that proved that you should be trying to understand the chukkim, the statutes. What was the verse?
Psalms 119:155
רָחוֹק מֵרְשָׁעִים יְשׁוּעָה כִּי-חֻקֶּיךָ לֹא דָרָשׁוּ:
“The wicked are far from salvation,
for they have not tried to explain Your statues.”
(Saw that in a book by the late Dr Dayan Grunfeld)

Salvation, being saved, is far away from the wicked. Why? Because your chukkim, your statutes G-d, “lo Darashu”, “you don’t try and understand”.
This Dayan Grunfeld says is a clear verse, a proof you should try and make sense of Chukkim and if you do they become Mishpatim. One person’s Chuk is another person’s Misphat. In fact there was one man who, according to Midrash, endeavoured to find the reason for EVERY chok. My Hero, explain everythin! Who was it? It was King Solomon, but they say that he understood every chok, he could explain it all except for one, one niggling mitvah, he couldn’t understand. What was it? The Para Aduma. The red hefer. Why? Why was that so unintelligible? Why can’t that make sense? If you look back at the Sedra, Rashi explains para aduma, explains the laws and says no one can understand it but if you look carefully at the end of his explanation, even he throws in an explanation and people over years have always tried to, of rituals and death and so on. So why could King Solomon not understand it? Why is it beyond? Well my other teacher, Rav Matis Weinberg, taught me what para aduma is all about and it led me right back to that question again:
Does everything need a reason? You see, Rav Matis explained to me what it is all about, he said King Solomon couldn’t work out Para Aduma, the red hefer, not because the ritual was incomprehensible but because the issue the ritual addressed was incomprehensible, what do I mean? Mortality, death, death itself is what limits our ability to understand everything, our mortality limits our understanding, because no matter how smart you are death gets you in the end. You’re limited by your finite time on this earth. That’s what it means that he couldn’t get beyond the para adumah, he couldn’t get beyond the fact that he was a human being. Last week I saw an amazing, mad English opera Dr Dee at the ENO this week by Daman Albarn inspired by Alan Moore about the life of this crazy Renaissance Man who knew alchemy and physics to philosophy and his thirst for knowledge was insatiable. Queen Elizabeth I, asked him when she should choose the date of her coronation to be in line with the stars and the planets in the sky so that it would have the most impact. He was an incredible man, a genius. He tried to uncover the language of heaven himself but in the end went mad and his limitations and death got him.

The point I am making though, is that death therefore, is the ULTIMATE CHOK. Death is what limits your understanding. Mortality limits you. And that is why Para Aduma is the ultimate Chok. But, if you think about it, our own mortality the fact that we are limited gives us our humanity because we have finite time to make a difference on this earth and our limitedness also teaches us our humility because we can’t do everything we have to make priorities and choices so in fact, our limitedness, our mortality makes us want to preserve life, makes us want to find meaning in the world.

So its not the chukim are not unreasonable but they teach us the limits of reason. Which is the point I was realising always. Does everything need a reason? Well somethings are beyond reason and that gives us meaning in our lives, it gives us reason. In other words, I realised, Everything doesn’t have to have a reason because life is too short!!!

To finish, I want to make one final distinction which will help explain what I’ve been talking about. I’ve told you I love Jewish texts. But until a few years ago, I never called them text.
In yeshiva I always called them, I was taught to use the word mekorot, which means sources. Mekor means the source of something. Only when I stepped out of the Yeshiva world did mekorot become texts. Or in Hebrew textim!

And there is, I have come to realise, a big difference between them, between textim and mekorot, between texts and sources. Texts are disembowelled words and phrases that shorn of context and foundation. They stand alone atomised like modern human beings.
They must be reasonable and standby their own merit, you don’t know where they come from they are just shown out to you and you think “do they mean something to me”? They can be intellectually challenged or even rejected but they stand on their own.
But mekorot, sources, by definition are different. They are grounded. They spring from our tradition, we know where they come from they are part of a particular setting and a particular history, a particular People, and a particular culture and I study them because they are mine. Because I spring from them. And so, they don’t always need a reason because I am bound to them nevertheless through my relationship.

If I read the words of the Torah, the words of our Rabbis as texts then they would always need reasons. But if I read them as mekorot, as sources, then, just like those two Karliner Chasidim, I can just love them… And if they are difficult; Then just like difficult family members, I still have to engage with them…

Does everything need a reason? No, I don’t think so. But everything needs to have its source. Needs to find its source. Everyone needs to find their source.
That’s what I think.
Thank you

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