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Judaism is built to last

When a changing reality conflicts with Jewish law, the Torah requires leaders to provide new answers

Nine-year-old Joey was asked by his mother what he had learned at Hebrew school.

“Well, Mom, our teacher told us how God sent Moses behind enemy lines on a rescue mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When he got to the Red Sea, he had his engineers build a pontoon bridge and all the people walked across safely. Then he used his walkie-talkie to radio headquarters for reinforcements. They sent bombers to blow up the bridge, destroy the enemy, and all the Israelites were saved.”

“Now, Joey, is that really what your teacher taught you?”

“Well, no, Mom. But if I told it the way the teacher did, you’d never believe it!”

It is a mitzvah to make Torah and Judaism relevant in each generation.

We learn this from God’s opening words at Sinai. The Ten Commandments begin with the words: “I am God, your God, who has taken you out of Egypt.”

Now if God was trying to make the most of this first impression, would He choose to mention the exodus? Isn’t the creation of the heavens and earth a far greater feat? Wouldn’t that have been a far more awesome description?

Creation is a far superior feat, but making the best impression was not the point of God’s opening statement. The purpose of the first commandment was for God to show that He and His Torah are contemporary and relevant. The God of creation is great, but distant. The God of redemption is current, meaningful and alive to the people whom He was addressing – and their descendants.

The Torah is very clear in instructing us how to address difficult questions and ensuring Judaism remain relevant — throughout the generations.

(ח) כִּי יִפָּלֵא מִמְּךָ דָבָר לַמִּשְׁפָּט בֵּין דָּם לְדָם בֵּין דִּין לְדִין וּבֵין נֶגַע לָנֶגַע דִּבְרֵי רִיבֹת בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ וְקַמְתָּ וְעָלִיתָ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ: (ט) וּבָאתָ אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם וְאֶל הַשֹּׁפֵט אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וְדָרַשְׁתָּ וְהִגִּידוּ לְךָ אֵת דְּבַר הַמִּשְׁפָּט:

If a case is too baffling for you to decide, be it a controversy over homicide, civil law, or assault — matters of dispute in your courts — you shall promptly repair to the place that the LORD your God will have chosen, and appear before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time, and present your problem. They will investigate and tell you their decision.

I do not think this verse is laying out a hypothetical. “Ki” does not only mean “if.” It can mean “when.”

There WILL come a time when difficult questions concerning the relevance of Judaism will arise. People WILL come to the religious leadership ba-yamim ha-heim – in that time. Those leaders MUST provide relevant answers.

How do we understand new technology? How do we deal with different family dynamics, different lifestyles, or having so many choices? There are so many new ideas!

I am reading a fascinating book — Sapiens by Israeli historian Yuval Harari. It is the history of humanity and explores why only homo sapiens remain from the various kinds of humans that existed. Just that basic description contains within it a challenge and a question that confronts us and did not confront our ancestors.

This isn’t something new. Throughout the generations, there have been situations where the contemporary reality challenged the tradition.

The Mishna in Terumot (8:4) teaches: “Water, wine, and milk are prohibited if they are left uncovered for fear a poisonous snake left some venom in the liquid while drinking from them. The Shulchan Aruch [Yoreh Deah 116:1] rules that nowadays when poisonous snakes are not found amongst us, this fear of drinking exposed liquids does not apply and it is permitted to drink uncovered beverages.

How can the law change? Usually rabbinic decrees are immutable! The Shulchan Aruch, based on the accepted rules of how Jewish law is implemented, determined that that the law does not apply today because we do not have poisonous snakes in our vicinities.

We have tradition yet we need to respond to a new reality.

By no means will we allow this to take place in an arbitrary fashion. We can’t just say times have changed.

In Built to Last, Jim Collins argues that for companies to be sustainable for the long haul, leaders must embrace a seeming paradox. Preserve the core and stimulate progress. They must both honor and protect their fundamental values and beliefs, while at the same time push their organizations forward and embrace change.

That’s exactly the challenge we face — and must embrace — in Judaism. We face changes to our reality. At the same time, we can never just change and create a new Torah.

Grappling with this challenge is demonstrated in the Torah’s requirements for the king of Israel. The King needed to write a Sefer Torah.

In fact, the Gemara in Sanhedrin (21b) teaches that the King was obligated to write 2 Torahs:

כותב לשמו שתי תורות, אחת שהיא יוצאה ונכנסת עמו, ואחת שמונחת לו בבית גנזיו

The King must write one Torah, just as everyone is commanded to do. That Torah is placed in the King’s treasury. The second Torah is unique to the King, and the king carried that Torah wherever he goes.

These two Torahs represent the values of preserving the core and stimulating progress. One Torah was stored away, never moved. It was a permanent reminder to remain true to the morals and values contained within. This Torah represents tradition, and this Torah could be passed down from one king to the next.

The second Torah must be written specifically for this King. It can’t be purchased or acquired as an inheritance. The King must write this Torah and keep it with him wherever he goes. This Torah represents the King’s obligation to stimulate progress.

Whatever new initiatives he tries to initiate, whatever new challenges he may face, the King responds to the new reality with the guidelines of Torah.

The same is true for us today.

There are questions. Many things look very different than they did in the past. Judaism, however, is built to last. The Torah was the first to teach us to preserve the core while embracing progress. We must be up to the challenge of balancing the two.

Today, we cannot just embrace the times while ignoring tradition nor can we deny the changing times.

The story is told of how Rav Kook, upon one of his visits to an anti-religious kibbutz, was approached by one of the leaders who greeted him as follows:

“With all due respect, Rabbi, you shouldn’t waste your time trying to convince us to be religious. It’s not that we don’t know what Torah is. Most of us were raised in observant homes. We know Torah, rabbis, mitzvot and we don’t like them!”

Rav Kook, puzzled, asked,”Why?”

The kibbutznik replied: “We simply can’t stand your old-fashioned, meaningless, outdated rituals!”

Exclaimed Rav Kook, “I agree.”

“What?” asked the surprised rebel.

Explained the Rav, “I also hate the “religion” that you describe. But the dynamic, idealistic and deep Torah is so beautiful that it can respond to any era. Anyone who is exposed to it cannot but love it!”

כִּי יִפָּלֵא מִמְּךָ דָבָר — There will be really difficult questions.

וּבָאתָ אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם וְאֶל הַשֹּׁפֵט אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם – We will wonder how Judaism can respond to seemingly impossible contemporary challenges.

וְדָרַשְׁתָּ וְהִגִּידוּ — We can — and will — provide answers.

About the Author
Rabbi Elie Weinstock is Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City. A believer in a Judaism that is accessible to all, he prefers "Just Judaism" to any denominational label.
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