Johnny Carson, in his Art Fern persona, used to joke about the Slauson Cutoff. (“Take the Slauson Cutoff. Cut off your slauson.”) Now, the Slauson Cutoff actually exists. It’s a freeway stub in Los Angeles that would have been part of a freeway parallel to Slauson Avenue, except that most of it was never built.
In Jewish thought, “cut off” has a different resonance. Several places in the Torah speak of being “cut off” (karet) as the consequence of certain sins. In general, these are sins between a person and God, including matters of ritual observance, not those that directly affect other people. But what does it mean to be “cut off”?
In Exodus 31:14, it’s equated with death: if you desecrate the Sabbath, “you will surely die for any who do work in it, that soul is to be cut off from its people.” Traditional commentators have interpreted karet as premature death, or as being cut off from the people of Israel.
A class of which I’m a member has recently been studying this, and many of us were troubled by it. To begin, the idea that any and all of the listed sins results in premature death does not accord with our own experiences—unless, perhaps, you believe that the natural human life span really is as long as some of the figures given in the Torah. Nor do we observe that those of us who commit those sins are cut off from the Jewish people, at least not in the sense of ostracism or shunning.
Although my father died young, I don’t think that, say, smoking on Shabbat was the cause. On the other hand, I do suspect that smoking contributed to his early death. (What really bothers me is that he had stopped once, on medical instructions, but later resumed.)
Coming from a liberal Jewish background, I tend to see all ritual observances as matters of choice. I am not shomer Shabbat, and I am only shomer kashrut at home--away from home I'm merely zocher (mindful of) kashrut. I’m relatively thorough about Passover observance (eating chametz during Passover is one of the sins that leads to karet), but I see that as my choice, not a “God’ll get you” matter.
What troubled me most in our class sessions was the mechanistic and legalistic way our tradition approaches karet. The texts, both Biblical and rabbinic, see it as the inevitable consequence of any of the sins that the Torah says lead to it. But this isn't science: it's not demonstrably true, and any mechanism is unknown.
As a teacher, I wouldn’t use that approach with students, and not only because we see so many examples in which the specified sin doesn't appear to lead to the specified punishment. I don't think it’s my role to make my students feel like bad Jews.
Instead, I see the rabbinic discussions of karet as a theoretical construct. The Gemara contains many detailed discussions of practices that, in the time of the Talmudic rabbis, were no longer possible, and the rabbis seem to take those just as seriously as those that could still be carried out.
While this may have derived from the hope that the Temple would be rebuilt and the practices could be resumed, and it also fits with the contemporary yeshiva practice of studying such rules as a substitute for performing the rituals, I understand the rabbinic discussions as Torah lishmah, study for its own sake, and as expressions of intellectual curiosity.
In class, many of us seemed to understand karet as being “cut off from God,” a reversible state. In the modern world, it’s possible to see it as a metaphor for depression. Who has not, at some time in life, felt distant from God, from family, from society?