Two Laws, One Reason
You are children of the Lord your God. Do not slash yourselves nor make a bald patch between your eyes for the dead. For you are a holy people to the Lord your God... (Devarim 14:1-2)
At a glance, this verse seems to provide a straightforward message. When someone dies, his relatives should not mutilate themselves because of their loss, since a holy people do not conduct themselves in this way. But the Sages see another, completely different law in this verse:
Do not slash yourselves - do not form factions. (Yevamos 13b)
The word in the verse which prompts this discussion is sisgodadu. The simple understanding of this is "to slash oneself." This word is similar to the word agudah, meaning "group" or "faction." Hence the rule that forming factions is prohibited. In practical terms, this means that one should not allow two batei din [courts] to rule in one town - one which rules in accordance with the view of Beis Hillel and the other in accordance with Beis Shammai.
The connection between these laws appears tenuous. What has self-mutilation for the dead to do with factionalization of the legal system? It is not possible that our Sages randomly attached a law to a verse. Since they connect the prohibition of factionalization to our verse, the two must be deeply linked at some level.
* * *
WHY IS SLASHING PROHIBITED?
The Ramban provides us with an insight with which we will begin our investigation:
For you are a holy people - my view is that the meaning behind a holy people is a promise of the eternity of the soul before God. The verse says that since you are a holy people and the treasure of God, and God does not take away a soul, but makes a calculation so that none of us are banished (Shmuel II 14:14), it is not appropriate for you to slash yourselves or to make yourselves bald over the deceased, even if he dies young. (Ramban, Devarim 14:2)
The Zohar adds to this theme:
The Torah warns, Do not slash yourselves nor make a bald patch between your eyes for the dead, for he is not lost after his death; he is found in good, exalted, and dear worlds... (Zohar HaKadosh 3:159b)
Extreme forms of mourning, such as self-mutilation, demonstrate a profound problem with one's worldview. It is fundamental to Jewish thought that life continues on a spiritual plane after death and that the soul lives on in a higher realm. Self-mutilation reveals a level of grief which indicates that one feels that the deceased is completely gone and that no trace of him remains at any level. This, however, promotes another problem. It is clear that anyone who believes that the soul is lost after death is regarded as severely mistaken. But what of the body? It is indeed lost, decomposing and returning to the dust in its grave. The bereaved who slashes himself actually mutilates his body, indicating his feeling of loss for his relative's physical body. Why should the Torah prohibit this act?
We may suggest that the reason for this prohibition is that it demonstrates an improper view of the function of the body. We are supposed to consider the body as secondary to the soul. In reality it has no end in itself, but it is intended, for the duration of its life, to serve the soul and to help it to achieve its ends. The soul, as an entirely spiritual entity, cannot live in the physical world without joining with the body, so while the body is certainly needed, it is only intended to serve the soul. When someone dies, the soul no longer needs the body and it returns to God, while the body is buried. Excessive mourning, expressed by slashing oneself over the loss of the body, indicates a misunderstanding of this principle. The bereaved has the role of the body out of focus, mourning for it as though it had a purpose of its own.
* * *
Let us consider the other law which our Sages have derived from our verse - the prohibition of forming factions within the halachic system. This error stems from dispute and a lack of unity, where each person or group tries to assert his viewpoint to the exclusion of others. However, we are supposed to realize that at some level the souls of every member of klal Yisrael are from the same root; we are all part of one spiritual entity. It is only the physical characteristics of our existence which differ from person to person. These physical differences give rise to diverse attitudes and needs, which can manifest themselves as dispute and factionalization. It should be clear that when one focuses inappropriately on the physical side of existence, the differences between people are emphasized and this leads to factionalization. In contrast, if one focuses on the spiritual side of things, then one will gain a growing appreciation of the similarities between people and their very substantial common ground. This will automatically lead to unity.
We have discovered that our Sages did not arbitrarily connect the traditional prohibition of forming factions to the verse forbidding self-mutilation. These two issues are closely linked, as they both stem from the same basic flaw. If we focus on the physical aspects of life, this may lead to self-mutilation at the time of bereavement and to factionalization in the legal system. Conversely, focusing on the spiritual aims of life will help us put bereavement in its proper perspective and to avoid the pitfalls of a divided legal system.