This week’s Torah portion Ki-Tetse (“When you go out”) presents 74 of the 613 commandments. Some, like caring for your neighbor’s lost possessions (Deut. 22:1–4), offer noble precepts we readily understand. Others, like the treatment of a woman taken captive in war (Deut. 21:10–14), offer positive but not totally satisfying principles. Still others, like stoning a wayward, defiant son (Deut. 21:18–21), put us off. Yet this last commandment remains in the Torah, which Jews still read. This cognitive dissonance—holding contradictory ideas in some kind of balance—offers a lesson to consider.
The Rabbis of the Talmud as well as later scholars understood Biblical cognitive dissonance. They found ways, using the Torah as their guide, to negate what they found objectionable in the Written Torah. Often, they cited the Oral Torah (Mishna), put into writing and edited ca. 200 CE. Traditional Judaism believes that God gave the Oral Law to Moses on Mount Sinai along with the Written Torah. Did He? Or did the Rabbis simply believe that some commandments, even if God-given, were too harsh and that interpreting the Law, once presented, lay in human hands?
As it happens, the Torah calls for the death penalty for about three-dozen offenses. The Rabbis resisted. They found rationales for making the death penalty—including that for the wayward son—all but impossible to impose. Still, Rabbi Simeon b. Gamaliel stated the minority opinion—which, importantly, also is recorded—that failure to uphold the death penalty “would multiply the shedders of blood in Israel!” (Mishna Makkot 1:10.) The majority had its way, often redefining Torah but never abandoning it.
I find it interesting—and natural—that weekly Torah study sessions at Congregation Sherith Israel leave many attendees aghast. Even people who have taken part for some time periodically express surprise or even outrage at commandments and/or the biblical narrative. What’s new? Jewish tradition has dealt with biblical cognitive dissonance for two millennia.
In this regard, I often wonder about—and salute—so many people who come to Shabbat services, particularly on Friday nights. Many do not believe in God. Yet their prayers address God. Whom are they praising or asking for help? Here, too, cognitive dissonance holds sway. Yet they approach Shabbat worship understanding that they can find great comfort in connecting with their heritage, each other and their innermost selves even if they’re not sure what God is—or if God is.
I suggest that people who engage in what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge termed “the willing suspension of disbelief” navigate the world’s inconsistencies in a healthier manner than those who don’t. Rather than insist on a world that can only be described in terms of black and white, they acknowledge the broad gray scale that confronts us.
The older we get, the less certainty we find. But cognitive dissonance needn’t be emotionally and spiritually crippling. Jewish tradition, including the discussions and debates within our community today, should reassure us that we are not the first to ask difficult questions. And we are not alone. May that provide us with considerable comfort.
I will be leading Kabbalat Shabbat services at Sherith Israel tonight. I invite you to join us and, if need be, deal with your own cognitive dissonance in a warm and supportive environment.
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