Rabbi – Ethereal Scientist or Pedantic Lawyer?

This is a guest column by Rabbi Da-vid Rosenthal, from Aish Minnesota.
Every kid dreams of what they want to be when they grow up. I remember going through different stages. There were times I wanted to be an inventor and solve world hunger. I recall when I was very young aspiring to be a fireman. But for a long time, there was a struggle in me between becoming a lawyer, or a scientist. Not exactly similar professions, but I felt I had an aptitude in both, and both seemed pretty interesting.
Now that I’ve finally decided to become a Rabbi, the question I ask myself is in which field does that fall, science or law?
From first glance at this past week’s parsha, the answer seems pretty obvious. The very title of the parsha – “Mishpatim – Civil Laws” – seems to suggest the legal side of things. The entire portion is filled with intricate laws mostly dealing with man to man commandments (as opposed to man to G-d). A question that is often asked regarding Jewish Law is why all the detail. Does it really matter to G-d whether I turn on a light on Shabbat or not? It seems that Rabbi’s are obsessed with “Halachah” and all of it’s minutiae. We can understand how the big commandments make sense, like don’t steal or murder, but when it comes to small things like carrying on Shabbat, does G-d really care?
Why all the attention to particulars?
Let’s take secular law for example. We can understand the prohibition behind J-walking. It forces people to cross the street in a safer manner. But when no one’s looking, and you’re a competent adult who knows how to cross the street, what’s the big deal? It doesn’t hurt anyone. Why is there a seeming lack of flexibility in the laws of Judaism that make it seem so burdensome and antiquated?
Lets take a slightly different analogy and see if we can make some headway.
Imagine someone diagnosed with a terrible disease. Everyday, they take their medicine, especially prescribed to them by their Doctor. One day, the patient – feeling a little adventurous – decides to take a different pill than prescribed, making sure of course, at the time, that no one was watching.
Who is the patient fooling? Why is he bothering to check whether someone is watching or not. It’s his body he’s affecting. Who knows what disastrous consequences could arise from taking a random drug in his condition(or anyone’s condition for that matter!). We can all relate to the fact the when it comes to science, you either conform to the laws of nature, or suffer the consequences.
There’s no such thing as “pleading insanity” against the laws of gravity. You’re not going to win the case, it’s reality your fighting, not a jury. No one asks “Why are scientists so wrapped up in nitty-gritty details”? We all see with our own senses how millimetres make a difference. The smallest slip in surgery can mean the difference between life and death. Science is precise, and unapologetically so.
Judaism believes that we were all created with a soul. Just like our bodies need certain provisions to keep them healthy and functioning, so too the soul. And just like the ridiculously intricate design found in the functioning of the body, likewise, the soul has just as much – if not more – complexity and perplexity. They are, after all, made by the same architect.
Getting back to the original question. Where does a Rabbi fit? Judaism says a Rabbi is much more a spiritual Doctor, than he is a Halachic Lawyer. He’s more involved with studying the mechanics of the spiritual world, than he is in debating the worth of any particular law. It’s more physics than legislation.
Now we can understand the obsession with details. Are we ever bothered why a law of nature is so exacting? Why if I stick a piece of metal in the socket, that’s a guaranteed way to a new hairstyle (one similar to Einstein’s), whereas a plastic piece will leave me the same as always? According to the Torah, your soul reacts the same way when turning on a light switch on Shabbat.
But why can’t I feel the bad effects in my soul? I can feel when something is bad with my body?
The first answer is you can feel when your soul is effected to a certain extent. Where do you think a bad conscience comes from? Or that hollow, flat feeling you get when you opt for comfort over effort. And what about the high you get from doing the right thing even though it was difficult. That’s a tangible example of connecting to your soul.
So why not in the small things?
Does someone feel sore when they are having an X-ray? X-rays are very dangerous and can potentially cause cancer, so why don’t we feel it when they pass through us. The answer is that these things are much finer than our senses can handle. All the more so when we’re dealing with the intricate aspects of the soul. The Torah was given as a guide to live a healthy life spiritually. Keeping kosher won’t necessarily make you more or less healthy physically, but it will sure keep your soul in shape.
Judaism isn’t about studying antiquated laws, it’s about understanding the metaphysical laws of reality. People are very concerned over their physical health. Our souls needs just as much attention and care, and they’re going to be with us for quite a while longer than our bodies.