Who Has the Right to Re-Package Judaism?

September 21, 2012 12:54 pm 0 comments

Jews praying in synagogue on Yom Kippur. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Synagogue Bulletin Blunders

These announcements, with interesting typos and phrasing blunders, were reportedly found in various synagogue newsletters and bulletins around the country:

1. Don’t let worry kill you. Let your synagogue help. Join us for our ‘Oneg’ after services. Prayer and medication to follow. Remember in prayer the many who are sick from our congregation.

2. For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.

3. We are pleased to announce the birth of David Weiss, the sin of Rabbi and Mrs. Abe Weiss.

4. Weight Watchers will meet at 7 p.m. at the JCC. Please use the large double door at the side entrance.

5. Please join us as we show our support for Amy and Rob, who are preparing for the girth of their first child.

6. We are taking up a collection to defray the cost of the new carpet in the sanctuary. All those wishing to do something on the carpet will come forward and get a piece of paper.

7. If you enjoy sinning, the choir is looking for you!

8. The Associate Rabbi unveiled the synagogue’s new fund-raising campaign slogan this week: “I Upped My Pledge. Up Yours.”

The Scroll

This week’s portion (Vayelech) relates the dramatic events that transpired during Moses’ last day on earth. Among the many things he did on that fateful day was committing the entire Pentateuch (the Chumash, the Five Books of Moses) to writing. The Torah scrolls we use today are copies of copies of copies of the original Torah scroll written by Moses on the day of his passing, on 7 Adar of the year 2488, 3,286 years ago.

After completing the writing of the full Torah, Moses commanded the Levites, “Take this Torah scroll, and place it at the side of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your G-d, and it shall be there as witness for you.” The Tabernacle in the desert and later the Temple in Jerusalem housed a Holy Ark containing Two Tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments and the newly completed Torah scroll needed to be placed at the side of this Ark.

The exact location of the Torah scroll on the side of the Ark inspired a debate between the Talmudic Sages. Rabbi Meir held that the Torah scroll needed to be placed inside the Ark, at the side of the Two Tablets. Rabbi Judah was of the opinion that a shelf protruded from the outside of the Ark and the Torah scroll was placed on that shelf.

The logic behind their argument lay in the proper interpretation of Moses’ above quoted words, “Take this Torah scroll, and place it at the side of the Ark.” According to Rabbi Judah, “at the side of the Ark” is to be understood literally—that the Torah scroll ought to be placed not inside but outside the Ark. Rabbi Meir, on the other hand, believes that the words “at the side of the Ark” are merely coming to tell us that the Torah scroll should be placed not between the two Tablets, but rather at the side of the Tablets, next to the interior wall of the Ark.

Three Questions

Three questions come to mind.

Firstly, why did Rabbi Meir feel compelled to impose an apparently twisted interpretation on the words “at the side of the Ark”? Why did Rabbi Meir not embrace Rabbi Judah’s simple and straightforward explanation that when Moses instructed the Torah scroll to be placed “at the side of the Ark” he meant it literally, outside the Ark?

Second, why was there a need altogether to have the Torah scroll situated in such close proximity to the Ark?

Finally, we discussed numerous times that the Torah and all of its commandments and episodes were transcribed to serve as a Divine Blueprint for living, as a road map for life’s challenging journeys. How can a 21st century human being glean wisdom and inspiration from an ancient commandment to place a Torah scroll at the side of an Ark, at a time when we have no Ark and no Tablets? What type of relevance can Moses’ instruction to the Levites carry for our lives today?

The Root vs. the Branches

Our Sages have said that the Ten Commandments presented at Sinai and inscribed on the Two Tablets of the Covenant embodied the quintessence of the entire Torah, all Five Books. All perspectives, themes, ideas, laws, ethics and stories of Torah are encapsulated in the brief 620 letters of the Ten Commandments. The Five Books of Moses, then, serve essentially as a commentary to the Ten Commandments, elaborating and explaining the background, meaning and significance of these ten pillars of Jewish faith.

The Tablets constitute the source, the epicenter, the nucleus of Judaism; the Five Books are the elaboration, the explanation, the outgrowth.

The debate between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah on the kinship between the Torah scroll and the Tablets is not merely a technical argument concerning the proximity of two physical entities; but rather a profound disagreement on the fundamental methodologies of the development and communication of Judaism.

How close do we need to uphold the connection between the core of Torah and its expansion? Are we capable of “leaving the box” containing the Tablets without losing the “real thing”?

This is by no means an abstract dilemma. How does one communicate ancient truths to a young generation molded in a secular weltanschauung? How does one present a Torah which is over 3,000 years old to a modern 21st century iPhone-addict? How do we pass on the gift of “In the beginning G-d created heaven and earth” to Stanford and Yale graduates for whom Charles Darwin holds more sway than Moses?

Are we to present Judaism in its original form and composition, without employing modern-day terminology, techniques, and structures of thought? Or must we take Judaism “out of the box” and re-package it in contemporary language?

The argument rages to this very day. Some teachers and presenters of Judaism are accused of lacking the ability to communicate to a “new generation” of Jews, while other teachers are accused of “liberalizing” Judaism, of diluting its pristine ideas on order to accommodate the modern Jew or non-Jew.

One of the Ten Martyrs executed by Rome in the second century CE was Rabbi Chutzpis HameTurgeman, whose name means Rabbi Chutzpis the Elucidator. The Kabbalists comment that to truly elucidate and present something in a new form you have to have Chutzpah, hence his name was Chutzpis.

The Light and the Vessels

The Talmud says something profoundly moving about Rabbi Meir: It is known to the creator of the world that Rabbi Meir surpassed his entire generation and he had no equal. Why then did they not establish the law according to his opinion? Because the Sages could not comprehend the depth of his wisdom.” Rabbi Meir was misunderstood by his own colleagues; his ideas were too advanced for his times.

“Meir” in Hebrew means “the Illuminator.” The light that emanated from Rabbi Meir’s mind and heart was too profound for his colleagues and students. Why? Because Rabbi Meir was of the opinion that all interpretation and development of Torah-thought must remain intimately bound with its source. The commentary and exposition may never be removed from the space of their progenitor. The Torah must be placed right near the Tablets. To dilute the light in order to accommodate the vessels will do an injustice to the integrity of the message.

According to Rabbi Judah, however, the word of G-d needs to leave the perimeters of the sacred Ark, and be brought outward.

Judah, Yehudah in Hebrew, means surrender or submission. One has to surrender his or her own elevated state of consciousness in order to reach out and present the Torah to the student who would not be able to absorb the intense light dwelling “inside the box.” Judaism, Rabbi Judah argued, needed to be presented in a manner that would make it accessible, relevant, and pertinent to people trained in a different mindset and even those educated in the schools of Athens.

For according to Rabbi Judah this is not a cop-out, but rather a great noble act of self-surrender (Yehudah). It is easier to just repeat the old phrases and sayings, to remain secure in the ancient pathways, but you need to transcend your comfort zone in order to bring the light and truth of Torah to those outside.

I once received an e-mail from a weekly reader, a very learned and observant Jew from Los Angeles: “Rabbi Jacobson, would you cease transcribing your psycho-babble and begin teaching good old Judaism.”

So I wrote back: “You are of the opinion of Rabbi Meir; in my emails I attempt, at times, to follow the path of Rabbi Judah. May G-d be with me in my writing.”

Loyal to the Source

Yet here is the critical catch: Even according to Rabbi Judah, the Torah must always remain connected to its source by means of a plank of wood.

What this means is this: There is a difference between presenting Judaism in terminology and methodology that can speak to the mind and heart of modern man vs. attempting to prove that Judaism conforms to modern trends of thought. The former path is noble; the latter path is intellectually dishonest, as it does not seek to discover the authentic message of Judaism, only to create a fluffy Judaism that does not challenge the comfort zones of modern man.

This distinction between the two approaches has been profoundly blurred in recent years, and the results are obvious. The former approach has given countless students the opportunity to challenge themselves by the Divine truths of Torah; the latter approach has brought down Torah to suit the fancy of every imagination. At the end it comes down to the question: How confident are you in the truth of Torah? Are you employing modern thought merely to communicate Torah, or are you employing it in order to confirm to yourself and others the appeal of Judaism?

What Rabbi Judah is saying is that as far out-of-the-box as you travel, a “plank of wood” must always connect you to the original, pristine “Tablets” inside the box. The link between the nucleus of Torah and its expansions must always remain evident. If not, you may be depriving yourself and your students from the vibrant, pulsating, divine wellsprings of G-d’s word.

Not long ago I had a conversation with a friend, a popular rabbi, who is heavily involved in broadcasting Judaism to the secular world. I told him that in my humble opinion, his communication of Judaism was lacking the energy that emanates from someone who is entrenched in serious Torah learning. I told him that he must dedicate time each day to study Talmud—those parts of Talmud that deal with intricate Jewish law and ritual that are abstract and not for “public consumption.” Only when he will be entrenched in the source of the wisdom, will his communication to the outside world be real and effective. He challenged my position. Yet I believe this is the truth: Only when you are submerged in the highest and deepest level of Torah study, will your communication of “sound bite” Judaism be authentic and meaningful. A “plank of wood” must always link the outside to the inside.

Who has the right to “re-package” Judaism? Only someone who is selfless (Yehuda), has no ego involved, and his only agenda is to share the word of G-d with others, a person who is completely loyal to the authentic source. But if someone lacks these qualities, they will frequently compromise and dilute, if not pervert, the pure waters of Judaism with the tarnished bacteria of trends and notions that are alien to Torah.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Jewish Identity Sports Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    As the popularity of cycling continues to increase across the world, Israel is working to develop cycling trails that make the country’s spectacular desert accessible to cyclists. The southern segment of the Israel Bike Trail was inaugurated on Feb. 24 and offers for the first time a unique, uninterrupted 8-day cycling experience after six years of planning and development. The southern section of the Israel Bike Trail stretches over 300 kilometers in length and is divided into eight segments for mountain biking, [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    JNS.org – With the recent Oscars in the rearview mirror, Hollywood’s attention now shifts to the rest of this year’s big-screen lineup. Two of the major action films coming up in 2015—Avengers: Age of Ultron, which hits theaters in May, and the third film in the Fantastic Four series, slated for an August release—have Jewish roots that the average moviegoer might be unaware of. As it turns out, it took a tough Jewish kid from New York City’s Lower East [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – Rabbi Gordon Tucker spent the first 20 years of his career teaching at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the next 20 years as the rabbi of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y. I confess that when I heard about the order of those events, I thought that Tucker’s move from academia to the pulpit was strange. Firstly, I could not imagine anyone filling the place of my friend, Arnold Turetsky, who was such a talented [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    JNS.org – I’m in love, and have been for a long time. It’s a relationship filled with laughter, tears, intrigue, and surprise. It was love at first sight, back when I was a little girl—with an extra-terrestrial that longed to go home. From then on, that love has never wavered, and isn’t reserved for one, but for oh so many—Ferris Bueller, Annie Hall, Tootsie, Harry and Sally, Marty McFly, Atticus Finch, Danny Zuko, Yentl, that little dog Toto, Mrs. Doubtfire, [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    At the turn of the 21st century through today, American involvement in Middle Eastern politics runs through the Central Intelligence Agency. In America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, historian Hugh Wilford shows this has always been the case. Wilford methodically traces the lives and work of the agency’s three most prominent officers in the Middle East: Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt was the grandson of president Theodore Roosevelt, and the first head of [...]

    Read more →
  • Relationships US & Canada Seniors at Los Angeles Jewish Home Give Witty Dating Advice Ahead of Valentine’s Day (VIDEO)

    Seniors at Los Angeles Jewish Home Give Witty Dating Advice Ahead of Valentine’s Day (VIDEO)

    Residents of the Los Angeles Jewish Home give dating advice to a young Jewish man in a comedic video posted Monday on YouTube just in time for Valentine’s Day. Jonathan, an associate at the Jewish home, quizzes the senior citizens on an array of topics including having sex on the first date, kissing a girl, who should pay for dinner and whether online dating is a good idea. When the 28-year-old asks a male resident named Lee about his experiences [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish History Kutsher’s Documentary an Amazing, and Tragic, Look at the Past (REVIEW)

    Kutsher’s Documentary an Amazing, and Tragic, Look at the Past (REVIEW)

    Anyone who spent time in the Jewish Catskills hotels – especially those like me, who returned for decades – must see the new documentary,”Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort.” Not only will the film transport you back to the glory days of your youth and thousands of memories, but it will also make you long for a world that is now lost forever. I returned to Kutsher’s one last time in the summer of 2009, but by then, the [...]

    Read more →
  • Education Jewish Identity Lifestyle Riding the Wave of Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

    Riding the Wave of Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

    JNS.org – Amid the numerous studies and analyses regarding Jewish American life, a simple fact remains: part-time Jewish education is the most popular vehicle for Jewish education in North America. Whenever and wherever parents choose Jewish education for their children, we have a communal responsibility to devote the necessary time and resources to deliver dynamic, effective learning experiences. The only way we can do this is by creating space for conversations and knowledge-sharing around innovative new education models. That also [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.