Why I shaved this week

Why I shaved this week

Okay, I admit it. I shaved this week. For the first time in decades, I shaved during the Three Weeks.

I did a lot of soul-searching first. Increasingly, I have come to see the Three Weeks – and the final “Nine Days,” which are subject to the most severe restrictions – as symbolic of everything that is seriously wrong with Judaism.

The Torah insists that it must evolve, so the fact that laws have changed over time is not the problem. How the laws have changed is the problem. When, as happened recently, a charedi man refused to help his wife as she was giving birth in his car (a passing tow-truck driver came to the rescue) because “his religion forbade him from touching the baby or the mother,” in the words of the New York Post, we have a problem.

That problem crosses denominational lines. Every stream has buckets-full of legal innovations, accretions, and deletions to answer for. The seemingly never-ending shift to the right within Orthodox Judaism, however, stands above most others because an uneducated Jewish laity accepts at face value the authenticity of Orthodox practice, regardless of whether the perception is valid. Turning right is wrong. The Torah is very clear on that. “Be careful, then, to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. Do not turn aside to the right or to the left: follow only the path that the Lord your God has enjoined upon you, so that you may thrive and that it may go well with you….” (See Deuteronomy 5:29-30.)

The law must evolve and even expand to meet circumstances Moses never could have heard of, or understood had God explained it to him, but whatever changes are made must adhere to the Torah’s methodology, and above all else to its insistence on simplicity and balance.

Moses himself explains the need for Torah law to remain simple and balanced, so that everyone can know it, understand it, and practice it without it being a burden:

“Surely, this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (See Deuteronomy 30:11-4.)

Put even more simply, God’s law is easily understood by everyone who wants to understand it. There is nothing hidden beneath the surface. There are no complicated twists and turns. What you read is what it says. What evolves from it must be equally devoid of twists and turns.

Of course, what it says may not always be all that Torah means (Torah, in this case, being both narrowly and broadly defined), but that is a necessary consequence of a code of law that is meant for all times, in all places, and covering all circumstances. This expanded Torah does require careful study. It also requires textual interpolation, as well as interpretation. Moving a neighbor’s boundary marker must become the basis for a whole body of law against unfair competitive practices for it to remain relevant, and for Torah to be useful three millennia after its revelation. Carrying the law to an extreme, however, is another matter.

In his “Eight Chapters,” Maimoinides has this to say in Chapter 4, “Concerning the cure of the diseases of the soul”:

“When, at times, some of the pious ones deviated to one extreme by fasting, keeping nightly vigils, refraining from eating meat or drinking wine, renouncing sexual intercourse, clothing themselves in woolen and hairy garments, dwelling in the mountains, and wandering about in the wilderness, they did so partly as a means of restoring the health of their souls, as we have explained above, and partly because of the immorality of the townspeople … [and] fearing that their own morals might become corrupt on account of contact with them….

“When the ignorant observed saintly men acting thus, not knowing their motives, they … blindly [imitated] their acts, thinking thereby to become like them, they chastised their bodies with all kinds of afflictions, imagining that they had acquired perfection and moral worth, and that by this means man would approach nearer to God, as if He hated the human body and desired its destruction. It never occurred to them, however, that these actions … resulted in moral imperfection of the soul….”

What does this have to do with the Three Weeks and the Nine Days? Everything. We endow this whole period with an excessive degree of mourning, beyond the sages’ reasonable limits. Nearly 2,000 years ago, a sage named Rabbi Y’hoshuah told his students, “To not mourn [the destruction of the Temple] at all is impossible, since the decree has already been passed. To mourn too much is not feasible, since the rabbis do not impose a restriction on the public that the majority cannot endure….” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Batra 60b.)

We mourn too much and the rabbis have imposed restrictions that the majority cannot endure. In this instance, for example, we are told that it is forbidden to eat meat from the first of Av through the ninth (or some say well into the Tenth of Av). But it is not forbidden to eat meat – or was not even as late as the writing of the Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative code of Jewish law, in the 16th century. (See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 551, which lists various traditions.) At best, meat and many other restrictions were prohibited from the start of the week in which Tishah B’Av fell, or simply on the day before. The further away we get from the destruction of the Second Temple, the harsher and more rigorous the rules become.

Judaism suffers. People turn away from practice when the practice becomes a burden. They roll their eyes in astonishment when a man says he cannot touch his laboring wife or help his baby be born.

I shaved this week. I will shave during the Three Weeks. I will take showers during the Nine Days and I will do the laundry. I will not avoid meat when Tammuz turns to Av. I have no interest in adding to the moral imperfections of my soul.