Why Do the Jews Study Law
Once a Roman man came to Rabbi Ginzo and asked: “What is this study of law that you Jews engage in?”
Ginzo: Hard to explain, but I will try. Now listen carefully with full attention. Two men went up to the roof and came down the chimney. One’s face was sooty, the other’s not. Which one washed his face?
Roman: That’s easy, the clean one of course.
Ginzo: No, you are wrong. Why should the clean one wash? Both came out of the chimney sooty. One of them looked at his friend’s face saw that it was dirty, and assumed that his face must also be covered with soot. So he washed.
Roman: Ah ha. I now understand the study of law. You learn sound reasoning, don’t you?
Ginzo: No, you don’t understand, you foolish man. Let me explain again. Two men climb down the chimney. One’s face is sooty; the other’s is not. Who washed?
Roman: As you just explained, the man without the soot washed. He saw his friend’s dirty face, assumed his also to be dirty. So he washed. Makes perfect sense.
Ginzo: No, foolish one, not so. There was a mirror in the room. One who washed had looked in the mirror.
Roman: Aha! So that is the study of law. In other words you conform to the logical.
Ginzo: No, foolish man, you don’t have it yet. Two men went up to the roof and came down through the chimney. One’s face got sooty; the other’s remained clean. But that is impossible. How can that be? Go away, you are wasting my time with such a proposition.
Roman: So that is the law? Its Plain common sense. Look for the obvious.
Ginzo: No, foolish man, it was perfectly possible for one man to have soot on his face and the other not. You see, the one with the soot on his face came down the chimney first and scraped all the soot off. So the second man’s face remained clean.
Roman: That is brilliant. I have got it Rabbi Ginzo. Law is getting at the basic facts, isn’t it so?
Ginzo: No, foolish man, not so, for who can scrape all the soot off the chimney in one go. That is impossible.
Roman: What then is this law you study tirelessly year after year, Rabbi Ginzo? Please explain to me.
Ginzo: It is to know that no one can understand and grasp all the facts about the simplest things we see. Study of law is to know that we don’t and cannot know all. We can do our best to ascertain God’s intention, but it’s only He who can and does know everything. You see, there were indeed two men who went up to the roof and they did come down the chimney. The first one emerged completely clean. It was the second one whose face was covered with soot. Neither one washed because. You forgot to ask me if there was water in the basin. There was none.
This has a parallel in the Hindu tradition. Someone asked Krishna: please explain what is dharma. He answered, “I don’t know. Law cannot be defined, for every moment unfolds a new reality different from the last. Dharma is appropriate action at each moment.”
But, Lord, have you not come to save dharma? If even you cannot explain it how will we ever know. Krishna said: “Watch my actions. They seem inconsistent at times as I oppose war on some occasions but favor it on others; strong attachment one time desertion the next. You need to choose right action every time without selfish motive. In other words you do what is right at the moment.”
July 14, 2007