Thursday, February 23, 2017

Make More Room for Mystery

The Zionist thinker, Berl Katznelson, wrote (and it is among my favorite quotes):
When I see a person walk among us as though he has solved all riddles and conundrums, or as one for whom a new “Guide of the Perplexed” has been written…or one who really doesn’t need any such guidance at all, since his mind is clear and relaxed and he has never known any sort of confusion, I think of him as someone who lives in another world, beyond the reversals, torments and hopes of our own muddled world, or perhaps someone who has solved all problems by chewing some magical cud. As for myself, I’m happy with my confused, uneasy soul.
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, elaborates many laws and introduces the Jewish notion called by this name. According to tradition it is these mishpatim, laws, for which there are rational explanations. An example: “When a person’s ox injures his neighbor’s ox and it dies, they shall sell the live ox and divide its price; they shall also divide the dead animal. If, however, it is known that the ox was in the habit of goring, and its owner failed to guard against this, he must restore ox for ox, but he can keep the dead animal.” (Exodus 21)

There are certain laws by which a just society is built. How can you build any community where people do not take responsibility for each other? How can you build a society where people murder? Or where people steal? Or for that matter, where people do not prevent their animals from injuring others? The reasons for these laws are obvious. They are mishpatim.

If you know that your ox (perhaps your dog or then again, your car) is a menace then you must guard against it injuring others. Perhaps we should understand this law to mean, if you know a friend is a dangerous or reckless driver then you have a God given responsibility to keep them from harming others. In the Torah there is no such notion as “It is none of my business.” Everyone is responsible for building a just society. The mishpatim, laws, are where we begin. They are our society’s foundation. They are the building blocks of any community.

There is another category of rules, however, called hukkim, for which there are no rational explanations. Our Torah portion provides another example. “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” (Exodus 23) This verse, repeated three times in the Torah, is the basis for the kosher dietary laws preventing the mixing of milk and meat. According to the rabbis this threefold repetition offers additional meaning. One must not eat milk and meat. One must not cook this mixture. One must not derive any benefit from the mixing of milk and meat.

And yet the rationale for this rule remains obscure. There are many interpretations justifying this observance of not mixing meat and milk but all are attempts to explain what will forever remain mysterious. This law remains part of the group of laws whose reasons remain obscure, perplexing and mysterious.

Let us be honest. Observing the dietary laws does not help us build a just society. Instead the refraining from eating milk and meat together affirms mystery.

Too often we think that all problems can be solved, all questions answered. Sometimes we even think that we control every aspect of our lives, that everything is in our hands. This is (sometimes sadly, better mysteriously) not the case. Everything that happens does not happen for a reason. Everything cannot always be explained.

Doing things whose reasons are mysterious does not make them irrational. It makes them unexplainable. It offers an opportunity to affirm the mysterious.

We observe hukkim. And we affirm mystery.

I avoid magical cud. I find myself happy with my confused, uneasy soul. Every time I pause to think, “Do I use the meat or milk utensil?” I am reminded that even the most ordinary act of eating can affirm mystery and give voice to what might forever remain my many, unanswered questions.

In an age of shouting certitudes, and a cacophony of reasons (“It’s her fault. It’s his doing.”) I must make even more room for mystery. I gain this affirmation in of all places, the kitchen.

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