American philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910) once wrote: “We can act as if there were a God; feel as if we were free; consider Nature as if she were full of special designs; lay plans as if we were to be immortal; and we find then that these words do make a genuine difference in our moral life.” To James, attitude is more important than anything else is shaping human behavior. Even if a person does not believe in God, for example, behaving as if a God exists who makes demands on our conduct and monitors our actions is all that is needed in order to make a person moral.
Interestingly, James’ observation finds an earlier articulation in the writings of the late sixteenth century Rabbi Efraim ben Aharon Luntschitz of Prague. In his commentary to the Torah entitle Kli Yakar (Precious Vessel), Rabbi Luntschitz notes that in two successive verses there is a reference to rules that God charges Israel to observe (Deuteronomy 7:11 and 12). This is most unusual and seemingly redundant. Logic leads us to conclude that there must be some special reason for the Torah to read as it does. It is only left to Rabbi Luntschitz to offer an explanation.
His solution rests on the fact that there are two kinds of rules in the Torah: those that appear reasonable and would be found in any culture’s code of law, like the laws prohibiting murder and theft, and those laws that appear to be unreasonable – or at least beyond reasonable justification, like the prohibition of mixing linen with wool. The psalmist (81:5) notes that laws that appear unreasonable to people are very reasonable to God. But that fact does not necessarily help us. What does help us live morally is to observe what we think unreasonable as if it is reasonable. It is not an easy task but a necessary one.
Rather than debate whether a given law in the Torah is reasonable or not, logical or not, Divine or not – Jews must behave as if it is. This is not pretending. This is the requirement for a lawful society and moral life.