Between G-d and the Devil

Written by Rabbi Haim Ovadia on . Posted in Torah

We were taught to believe that the text of the Torah is economical and succinct, and that Torah and redundancy are mutually exclusive. We therefore cannot but wonder why the Torah is so verbose when describing the construction of the Tabernacle.

To answer this question, I think we should consider the phenomenon of scrupulosity, or religious obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Rabbi Dr. Avraham J. Twersky writes in his introduction to “Religious Compulsions and Fears, a Guide to Treatment,” by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek:

“…when a person becomes overly obsessed, to the point that he becomes neurotic and is unable to function properly, it may be a sign of OCD…”

Bonchek himself speaks of the following elements in religious OCD: washing and cleaning, checking, repeating, ordering, and hoarding. He says that a compulsive person might receive a ruling from an authoritative rabbi, yet be unable or unwilling to abide by it. “He is not free enough, not flexible enough.”

And what if you discover Judaism but are not fully familiar with Halacha? In her fascinating memoir, “Devil in the Details,” Jennifer Traig opens a window into that world (p. 31):

“I liked scrupulosity because it got right to the point. It’s the purest form of OCD. In a sense, all OCD is religious, of course; it’s a disease of ceremony and ritual ... OCD certainly looks like religious practice: we perform our compulsions with exacting devotion, we repeat incantations, and you know what cleanliness is next to. But with scrupulosity, the rituals truly are rituals, the incantations are prayers. The stakes, more-over, are infinitely higher. With other forms of OCD, you fear that if you don’t perform your compulsions, your father might get sick; with scrupulosity, you fear you’ll cause a global spiritual Armageddon, or at the very least, damn yourself to hell for all eternity.”

Traig shares her guide to handwashing, surprisingly reminiscent of some Jewish codices. First, you need to get some water going. Next, choose your poison. What kind of soap is for you? Rub your hands together vigorously and scrub, scrub, scrub. I don’t know if water is clean. What if water isn’t clean? What if water just makes you dirtier? You’ll wash and wash and wash but you’ll never be safe. Okay, try not to think about it. Let’s just say water is clean and move on… But what if it’s not clean? No, no, we’re moving on.

The next part is tricky. Your hands are clean, but they’re wet. How to get them dry without getting them dirty again? The air-try technique is best. If you touch something, or if for some reason you think you maybe touched something, go back to Step 1.

Yes, let’s go back to Step One just to be safe.

I believe that the Torah wanted to prevent us from turning our religious life into a compulsive, fear-infused string of uncontrollable actions, but in order to not deprive us completely of the joy of OCD, the details of the Tabernacle were handed to us. You want to obsess about something? Here is your chance — the Tabernacle and the Temple. Everything that has to do with these buildings is described in great detail and discussed so meticulously, in order to satisfy our need for this type of behavior.

The laws of the Temple were practiced by a select group of people, the priests, and most people would visit the Temple only during the pilgrimage holidays. During the rest of the year, the Torah wants us to guide our lives with love and compassion, with light in our hearts and not with darkness and fear. In that spirit, the Torah laws that are not Temple-related are much less detailed.

We are supposed to serve Hashem with joy, starting with treating other human beings with respect and dignity. We should not turn religion into a set of rigid laws that narrow our steps and keep us in a state of suspended animation. If the only joy one derives from performing a mitzvah is that of repeating a familiar pattern, something is missing, and it is time to reflect and build a spiritual temple.

By Rabbi Haim Ovadia

 Rabbi Haim Ovadia is the rabbi of Magen David Sephardic Congregation-Beit Eliahu (MDSCBE), a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Rockville, Maryland.