Preparing for Shavuot, I came across the following article that my husband, Rabbi Yossela Ote, wrote. Although composed a few years ago, it is still very relevant today.
Enjoy and Chag Sameach!
Chag Matan Torateinu, the festival of Shavuot, is almost upon us and in case we aren’t learning all year round, we are given this special holiday to truly study the Torah in its infinite wisdom. We recall the splendor of the extraordinary events that took place on Mount Sinai, find new meanings in ancient words, treasure the Torah’s timeless text, and cherish the intensity of our customs and traditions.
If we want to find fault in our religion, there are countless ways we could. However, the beauty and essence of our being dati in this ever-changing modern world, enriched with nature, science, and continuously developing ideas, philosophies, research, and movements, is that we take our constant Torah, our Divine fundamental foundation and pillar of faith, with our undying beliefs and high-moral standards, and we inspire the world and become a light unto the nations.
One could argue that there are laws in the Torah, such as slavery and the rebellious son which seem irrelevant today and possibly were never enforced. But when we view the Jewish legal system as a chain directly from Sinai and Moses, then we constantly interpret and reinterpret while acknowledging the underlying mystery and wisdom of the details and the rationale behind them. There is still a vital lesson, a profound message, a deep connection to the spiritual. The trick is to keep grappling with it and not edit out what seems incomprehensible to us. We cannot delete parts we don’t like or which make us uncomfortable.
The whole Jewish system of law, with its wisdom and limitations, its rules and quirks, is something Orthodox Jews are committed to and familiar with. Although many people within their personal level of observance may feel free to “pick and choose” their mitzvot, as a communal structure and traditional framework, Orthodoxy works as a unified whole by retaining its halachic integrity. Poskei Halacha, acting as agents, are given the authority to explain and illuminate the Torah’s precepts. Yes, there are strict constructionists and loose constructionists, but the fundamental difference between Orthodoxy and all the other movements in Judaism is the belief that the Torah was “dictated” at Sinai.
This means that what may seem embarrassing, antiquated, and narrow today is nonetheless the word of God. Therefore, we try first to understand its point and afterwards see how it can be made relevant to modern times. That does not mean that because we may not fully grasp the logic behind laws like pat akum and yayin nesech, we assume it is racist and intolerant. It may be intriguing to visit other cultures and their temples, but if it means that our system of eating and observing cannot be accommodated, then why is it that Judaism has to be “flexible”? This in itself is an important lesson; wherever Jews go, we can take our beliefs and observance with us and not have to dilute them in order to fit in and be accepted.
Judaism is filled with paradoxes or perhaps, to some, seemingly overly strict halachot. There are modern-day problems that require us to re-examine the boundaries of halacha and find a way to resolve these issues; however, doing so is impossible without adherence to a basic code of halachah. Torat chaim hi – it is a living Torah, for the people. We should embrace change and openness, without the fear of being different and of following our ideals.
Change is a positive step and even a supreme goal – it is certainly inevitable, healthy, and possible. However, it is a process. Change is made by relying on already-existing sources and halachic considerations, by supporting ourselves on the backbone of halacha. The root of halachah does not change, rather the times do and in turn, our viewpoints evolve and grow. We amend our opinions as new discoveries are made, new inventions are created, and novel ideas are applied. Everything in its time.
We are people of an exclusive religion that respects others, but respectfully acts according to the laws set forth for us – the Divine will and word of God along with the written halachot passed down by the rabbis given the authority and the insight to be able to determine what is best. Not everything which is allowed to others is permissible to us. For if it were, what would separate us from Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam?
Orthodoxy doesn’t try to second guess what Hashem wants. It takes the written word of 3300 years of Hashem’s will, whether Divinely imparted or as passed down by rabbinic literature, and follows that faithfully. Sometimes those words do jive with the relative moralism of a post-modern world and sometimes they don’t. It isn’t a chilul Hashem if they don’t. It’s a time-tested formula of truth. Some may feel that science caught up and even surpassed Judaism in our modern times. Certainly 15th century scientists felt the same way. Meanwhile, science changes its opinion weekly (legitimately) while Judaism has survived with a more cautious approach.
Some people are leaving Orthodoxy, some are joining. Some are abandoning our religion altogether and some are embracing it. Judaism doesn’t exist and hasn’t survived on the personal whim, expectations, and moral high-ground of what you or I define as normal. We inspire people by personal example – how we deal with the questions and challenges that arise. We don’t take the easy way out just because it is convenient. The more knowledge we gain, the more capable we are of figuring out how to apply the rules and guidelines to modern reality and contemporary issues. We don’t cast them aside just because they don’t suit our personal needs.
The challenge is knowing when to compromise, when to be flexible and when to be open. But that means also knowing when not to bend, when to be stable and when to be firm. Like all decisions, it is a trade-off. Orthodoxy does not make a cost-benefit analysis based on whether it will attract more followers or not. Halachic Judaism has survived because it has maintained the right balance of permanence and change, of faith and practice, of tradition and modernity over thousands of years. We may not agree on what things have changed and what have not, but Orthodox Jews can be comforted and proud of the constancy and stability of the halachic system. That is its power and allure.