Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Do We Affix the Mezuzah for Divine Protection or for Some Other Reason?

This morning, I read an article about how a Chabad rabbi wants to have a mezuzah affixed on the doorpost of every Jewish home in the state of Montana. If a rabbi wants to bring people closer to Judaism through a certain mitzvah, I'm all for it. I took issue with the rabbi's reasoning behind it: "Montana should be the most protected state in the union. Not only because of our weapons but because of our mezuzahs. We'll be protected by the Second Amendment and by the mezuzahs." I was unaware that a mezuzah can protect a home just as well as an AK-47, or even a home security system for that matter. If one is to treat the mezuzah as an amulet to protect the home from harm, I have a problem with that idea because that line of thinking comes off as superstitious, if not downright idolatrous.

The issue I have here is not whether the mitzvah should be performed. Of course it should be! It's mentioned twice in Deuteronomy (6:9, 11:20). What is going on is yet another polemic debate between rationalists and mystics. From the mystical standpoint, the function of the mezuzah is to act as a metaphysical home security device. Even before continuing on, you should be able to infer my opinion on the matter simply from my self-declaration as a rationalist Jew, especially since I think the superstition surrounding other practices (e.g., kapparottashlich) is utter nonsense.

I have already developed a view that G-d is an impersonal G-d and have done so for enough reasons, most notably that of free will. Even if we are to assume that G-d has [extensive] interaction with the world to the point where a mezuzah would have protective qualities, this brings up a plethora of questions. If we are to give credence to the the "power of mezuzah" argument, wouldn't this create a vain focus on one's material possessions, rather than focus on G-d? Because in Mishneh Torah (Hilchot, Mezuzot 5:4), Maimonides considered those who use the mezuzah as an amulet to be fools who have failed to fulfill the mitzvah. And wouldn't affixing a mezuzah for protection be an attempt to circumvent G-d's will? Also, if we are to give this much credence to the power of the mezuzah, couldn't this mentality lead to worshiping the mezuzah itself rather than G-d? (Side note: Maimonides brought up the concern of using talismans and amulets as a form of idolatry in Guide for the Perplexed [III, xxix]) If the mezuzah is supposed to have this level of protection, why even bother with the other 612 mitzvot? Additionally, why is it that G-d, who loves both Jews and non-Jews, would not provide or offer a similar home security device for non-Jews? Why is it that in Israel, a predominantly Jewish country in which 98% of Israeli Jews have mezuzahs affixed to their doorposts, is there still theft and other property-related crime? Are we to believe that in the entire history of the Jewish people, there has never been a Jewish home with an affixed mezuzah that has unfortunately been flooded, burnt, or even in need of some sort of home repair? If the mezuzah were supposed to protect the house, why is it that someone as reputable as R. Moshe Feinstein, zt"l, permit a Jew to buy insurance for his house? Wouldn't that mean that Torah shows us that we can take preventative actions to avoid bad things to happen to us or our property? And that doesn't even take into consideration such events as pogroms, expulsions, the Holocaust, or terrorist attacks in modern-day Israel. Why didn't mezuzahs protect Jews from those atrocities? The point I am trying to convey here is that if we are to take the assertion of "the mezuzah has protective powers" to its logical conclusion, we would be able to consistently observe that power throughout Jewish history. However, that is not the case.

Before continuing, in the event that this line of questioning has not been convincing, I would like to direct you to a stellar piece written by Rabbi Dr. Martin Gordon, former professor at Yeshiva University, in which he refutes the idea that the mezuzah is supposed to act as a protector of Jewish homes.

If the mezuzah is not apotropaic in nature, then what is the purpose of the mezuzah? The mezuzah is a symbol of a Jewish home, much like any ritual item is a symbol of the particularistic aspect of Judaism. The mezuzah can be a reminder of one's need for self-restraint. In my humble opinion, the best place to look would be where the mitzvah is mentioned. The first mentioning is within the first paragraph of Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). There are enough themes in this passage, but one that stands out is the centrality of G-d in one's life. One recognizes His existence, one is supposed to love Him, and one is supposed to study Torah and transmit it to future generations. After that, the passage states that one posts "these words" (הדברים האלה) [in Deut. 6:6] on one's doorposts, i.e., the mezuzah (ibid, 6:9). As Maimonides points out (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot, Mezuzot 6:13), the mezuzah is supposed to remind us of G-d's Oneness when entering and leaving one's house, and thus arouse a sense of love of G-d. In short, the words printed on the mezuzah are not a form of protection from physical harm. Rather, they are a reminder of the importance of G-d in a Jew's life and how that knowledge [of G-d] leads to performing as many mitzvahs as humanly possible.

3 comments:

  1. Mark L (or Yitzhak)July 9, 2013 at 8:34 PM

    Yasher Koach! The mezuzah is a symbol and reminder of the need to study Torah, live an observantly Jewish life of many mitzvahs, and keep an observantly Jewish home in all respects- kosher, Pesach cleaning, etc. A mezuzah is like an alarm clock- if we listen to its message and take action, then it's effective. If we just keep hitting the snooze button over and over.. well.. it goes back to my deep suspicion that Chabadniks are not entirely kosher and might even practice avodah zarah, particularly the meshikhistn. I know, I know, we've had THAT particular conversation dozens of times by now, so I'll let it rest. But suffice to say, your point still stands quite validly.

    A mezuzah is not a Catholic holy relic, mystically warding off evil. If the rabbi wants to affix mezuzahs in the homes of Montana Jewry to inspire them to do more mitzvahs and be more observant, then great. That'd be fine, and it would be in line with Chabad's alleged mission. But if he's putting up mezuzahs merely to affix them, it does more than make the rabbi and his Jews look silly. It profanes the entire concept of the mezuzah by reducing it to just another tchotchke. A mezuzah is a scroll of Torah, and Torah is holy, its letters having been called "black fire on white fire" by certain Chasidim- and of course, the idea that Torah study increases peace in the world. But it is holy for what it teaches and what it represents.

    There are 1,350 Jews in Montana according to the 2011 estimate of the Jewish Data Bank. Jews constitute 0.1% of Montana's population. Wisconsin has five times as many Jews as Montana, and you and I both know that Wisconsin is no grand Jewish center. Without invoking lashon-hara or being unfair, I think it's reasonable to say that if Jews move to a place where they constitute 0.1% of the population, they usually aren't interested in being observant anyway. That rabbi, naive as he may be, has quite the uphill battle in my book.

    In my experience, observant American Jews congregate in urban areas with other Jews, whether the urban area be Chicago, Saint Paul, Milwaukee, New York, Cincinnati, wherever. There's thousands of years of history involved in that. Even baal teshuvim from say, Wisconsin, will go to Chicago quickly enough if they can. The ones in suburban or rural areas are usually unaffiliated, intermarried or both. I'm guessing the Montanans fall in the latter group, and if some angry Montana Yid wants to refute my allegation on your blog, let him do so. I announce that I shall kvell with joy.

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  2. This is a great issue that you brought up, because there is a growing divide among the rationalist, traditional/orthodox Jews and the ones who are rooted in kabbalistic/mystical thought. There are Jews who perform mitzvot but are doing them for all the wrong reasons. I am not just referring to Chassidim like the Lubavitchers. Let's put the moshiach thing aside. Let's focus on the fact that people are often taking misrashic sources literally when nearly all the time they need to be taken metaphorically. The Hareidi/Traditionalist world is going down the path of sin with every passing year. The Rambam tried to sound the alarm but to no avail. The Lurianists have pushed their ideas far into the mainstream, and Jews are believing in some of the wackiest things yet. Sometimes it is almost impossible to reason with them. For instance, the concept of 100 brachot a day is by many supported by the literal interpretation of a midrash having to do with a pasuk in Nach by the story of King David. Let's be real here. We don't pasken on midrashic stories. That's strike 1. We should not take these stories so literally. That's strike 2. And, we shouldn't think that by saying 100 brachot a day, which is not a bad thing to do, that it will miraculously cure people today. That's strike 3. But guess what? There are many Jews who believe these ideas.

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    1. All good points, Anonymous! I agree 100%.

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