Not Quite Reasonable

Judaism has an undeserved reputation for rationality. But reason is overrated anyway.

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Q. Is Judaism a rational faith?

Anyone who studies Judaism must recognize that it is filled with laws that offend common sense, that seemingly insult reason. Why on the Sabbath can one lift heavy stones up the stairs of one's house but not carry a handkerchief outside? What can split hoofs and a chewed cud possibly have to do with the eligibility of an animal to grace a dinner table? Is the chicken really more "pure" than the giraffe?

In the last two centuries, there have been many attempts to prove that Judaism is a "religion of reason." Contrasted with Christianity, which enshrines a paradox (three in one/one in three) at its heart, Judaism was said to be rational, clear, easily assented to. The famous declaration of Tertullian, the Church Father, "I believe it because it is absurd" (in reference to the Trinity), was thought to embody the difference: A Rabbi would never, it was confidently asserted, say such a thing.

The attempt to prove Judaism's rationality had a specific cultural purpose. Jews sought the acceptance of Enlightenment society. Prominent Jews sought to be part of the great drive toward modern, rationalist thought. Mendelssohn, the great 18th-century German-Jewish thinker, was friendly with Lessing, apostle of enlightenment, and Mendelssohn spent his life trying to prove the compatibility of Judaism with modern society, which in practice often meant Judaism and reason.


There were older precedents as well. In the 12th-century, Maimonides put a rational spin on the commandments wherever possible. In kosher laws, he saw health benefits; in animal sacrifices, gradual behavior modification. Yet there is a stubborn irrationality (or at least a-rationality) that is hard to avoid. After all, a bad piece of fish can make you just as sick as a bad pig.

The program of "proving" Judaism to be rational has had its effect. Many traditional beliefs are all but unknown among modern Jews. Many Jews with a conventional Jewish education do not know that Judaism classically had a strong belief in an afterlife; that Jewish texts are saturated with beliefs about angels, demons, mythological figures, and fantastic tales; that many rituals are clearly not "rational" (like swinging a chicken above one's head in an atonement ritual, or the old Moroccan custom in which the night before a bris there is a tahdid": a ceremony where one walks around the room of the newborn, unsheathed sword in hand, waving it as if to kill the demons, all the while reciting blessings).

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