Shlomo HaMelech And The Pitfalls of Over-Rationalizing

I want to focus on the way Chazal seem to draw Shlomo HaMelech’s character in a consistent stream of midrashim, because I think its a good way to portray where my mind has been at recently.

Shlomo HaMelech is the wisest man in history, that much is not up for discussion. What form does this wisdom take in the rabbinic literature? Surprisingly enough, they view him as an outstanding Torah scholar. We already see him paskening shailos in peshat, coming up with ingenious solutions to some vexing problems of maternity. Chazal take it further.  With his penetrating analysis of law, he came up with the idea of Eruvin, a creative way to allow Jews to carry on shabbos, and a bat kol comes out and approves of his undertaking. But Shlomo is not satisfied with the how and the what, the wise man that he is. He must know why. And thus he comes up with “three thousand proverbs for every devar torah and one thousand and five reasons for every devar sofrim”. And he uses all these abilities for the good of the Jewish people, so much so that it is said that the Torah was like a basket with no handles, and it was Shlomo who added the handles. Shlomo is able, through his wisdom and ingenuity, lightens the burden of observance on his people, either through inventive practical psak or through creative explanation that appeals to the mind. (All of this from Eruvin 21b)

But there are pitfalls to Shlomo’s wisdom: By grounding observance of the law in the reasons he gives for them, he opens observance up to rational challenges when the reasons are thought to no longer apply. It should probably not be surprising that the same personality who comes up with Eruvin, which effectively gets rid of the prohibition of carrying, looked at the laws governing the power of the king, and deemed them inoperable. Shlomo knows he will not be corrupted by having too many wives, he will not be corrupted by having too many horses, he feels confident that his awareness of the true purpose of the law will serve as inoculation against wrongdoing, therefore, he concludes, the prohibition will no longer apply. (Sanhedrin 21b) Shlomo may be intelligent, the wisest man of all time, but he underestimates the perniciousness of human weakness, the ability of human beings to rationalize their own actions until they look at themselves in the mirror and a monster stares back at them (Breaking Bad is a devastating illustration of this point). Any Orthodox thinker will eventually arrive to the conclusion that the utility of religion lies in its non-utility, its grounding of morality in the supernatural and non-negotiable, that the social order can only be maintained when the laws that govern it cannot be swayed by the rationalization of flawed humanity. Such is one pitfall of rationalization, and though it is a dangerous one, it is relatively easy to avoid.

The second pitfall, I think, is easier to fall into, and thus, in its own way, more dangerous. Shlomo now realizes that the mitzvos guarding the social order, mishpatim, must paradoxically be beyond sense to make sense, that they must be beyond human rationalization so that they may be safe from it. He may even see other mitzvos, the ritual and the irrational (eidos and chukim) as cementing and consecrating that humility in humanity, that doing things that are beyond us remind us that we’re not all there is. But this knowledge paralyzes him. A midrash in Vaykira Rabba (30:15) describes Shlomo raising objections to identification of each of the Arba Minim, asking of each “But how do we know?”. Lacking the ability to appeal to any rational objective, having accepted the mitzvos as essentially beyond rationality, he’s unable to make actual decisions. Everything is on the table, everything can be equally true, and there is no criteria to separate right from wrong. Pri Etz Hadar could be an Etrog, but it could also not be, and neither one can be said to be preferable in a realm in which rationality does not rule. Furthermore, his whole conception of ritual, grounded in his rational understanding of the religious system, is to do things for no other reason than to preserve his own humility. However, once he knows that, he can no longer meaningfully participate in a non-self conscious manner. He can no longer take an Arba Minim without it occurring to him that this act has no intrinsic significance beyond having no rational explanation, with all explanations being very much post-facto (evidenced by his ability to think of thousands of them) defeating the point of a system that is supposed to endow this act with cosmic significance. He’s left paralyzed, unable to make meaningful decisions about Jewish law or participate meaningfully, relegated to observing the system, not being part of it.

Is there a solution to this state? I don’t know, that’s kind of why I’m writing this. I don’t believe, and I refuse to entertain the notion, that religion is meant solely for children and the ignorant. I do what I do because I don’t believe that. But I do believe that a religious person must strive towards what I’ll call a “refined innocence”, a state at which one is able to devote a mature, intelligent and advanced self wholeheartedly to the religious endeavor. I’m not yet at that state.


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