Excessive Religiosity

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Torah reading, Matot and Mass’ei, concludes the fourth Book of Moshe, Bamidbar. Matot begins with a series of laws pertaining to vows.

This is a most complicated aspect of Judaism. In effect, a person can create new mitzvot for himself. He can, through the mechanism of an oath, prohibit something the Torah permits. He can also obligate himself to perform an action that Hashem did not ordain.

At first glance, this seems strange. Jews are governed by 613 commandments, both positive and negative. In addition, we are obligated by numerous Rabbinic ordinances and communal customs that have developed over the long course of Jewish history.

Being an observant Jew is a full-time occupation. Without intending any disrespect, I think it is fair to ask, don’t we have enough mitzvot? If only we were sufficiently dedicated to keep them all in a meaningful and meticulous manner.

In fact, making oaths would seem to go against the statement in Psalms 19 that we recite on Shabbat morning, “The Torah of Hashem is perfect, refreshing the soul.” Why would a supreme Law need to be supplemented by individuals’ additional “legislation?”

The Torah is perfect in a general sense, both for the individual and the community. However, particular needs vary, and the Torah cannot address every problem of every specific person. For example, the Torah regulates our eating habits, but only in a general way. While it prohibits certain classes of animals, fish, and fowl, it leaves a wide variety of choices for our indulgence. Many permitted foods are perfectly fine for some people, but deadly for others. Jewish cuisine tends to favor many dishes that are high in fats; many people can thrive on this food, but it can be a disaster for those with high cholesterol.

We live in a time of great material abundance, and many health problems arise from defective eating habits that lead to obesity and disease. Why do people consume foods that harm them? Why do they eschew exercise when they have been told how vital it is to their well being? The answer: because nothing prevents them from engaging in these unhealthy behaviors. The Torah did not specifically outlaw an extra portion of dessert, or even two or three of them. Of course, there is a general mandate to guard one’s health, but the details are left to individual discretion. Human beings are fragile creatures who are very vulnerable to temptation. No one should frown upon or make light of others’ weaknesses. Each of us should look within and acknowledge that there are areas where we simply lack any self-control.

The Rabbis insisted that a people not expose themselves to temptation. For example, they forbid seclusion between a man and woman who are sexually prohibited to each other. The Torah recognizes that there are certain things a person can resist only if they are Divinely prohibited. When someone takes a vow to refrain from, or to perform, a certain action, the matter now assumes the status of a biblical commandment.

While vows have great utility and can help a person overcome a bad habit (like smoking), there is a also negative aspect. At times, a person may feel overcome with zeal and go overboard in assuming obligations that are beyond his capacity. Eventually, it becomes clear that he took too much upon himself. Yet he is under the obligation of the oath he uttered.

The Torah, which only has our best interests at heart, provides a remedy. One can visit a Beit Din (religious court) of three observant Jews  and have the vow nullified. The Torah never allows us to crawl into a hole from which there is no escape. The laws of vows and their nullification contain an important lesson. Just as we sometimes overindulge our physical appetites, we tend to engage in moral excesses as well.

In religion, there is also a tendency to do more: to pray more, learn more, visit the sick more, and so on. In certain circles, there a culture of guilt that extols people who sacrifice their own pleasure for the sake of others. I regard this as the “Mother Theresa” mentality, that if we discount our own needs enough, live totally for the needy, and renounce all bodily pleasures, we will attain eternal life. That is contrary to the philosophy of Judaism. We must be rational and intelligent in serving Hashem and should not simply copy what others do. Our learning, praying, good deeds, and community service must be commensurate with our individual nature and capabilities.

Also, we should not eschew the pleasures of olam hazeh (this world). It is not a mitzvah to suffer. Rather, we should avoid extremes, of overindulgence as well as abstention, and remember that we must be in the best physical and emotional state to serve G-d properly and with joy. 

Let us remember the words we utter as we return the Torah to the Ark: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.”

May we merit to observe the Divine commandments with wisdom, psychological insight, and great sensitivity, to bring peace and joy to this world and to prepare us for life eternal.

Shabbat shalom.