Qualifications to Initiate Change

A great deal is written on the need for change in the way that Judaism is being practiced. Some feel that a complete overhaul is needed, as so much of what we observe is outdated and has no relevance.

There are others who are so bold that they challenge the authenticity of the Torah itself. They find it difficult to accept that the sacred scroll from which we read four times a week, cannot possibly be the exact words G-d gave to Moses on Mount Sinai.

And a further branch of detractors question the teachings of the Rabbis and the transmission of the Oral Law. Aside from being so brazen as not being willing to observe our faith according to the teachings of our sages, they believe that they are qualified to make the necessary changes that will “fix” the irrelevancies and make Judaism more attractive.

When one studies the Talmud, he is presented with a sea of wisdom and ethics not available in any other book. He will see how the authors of the Mishna and Talmud, the Tannaim and Amoraim, painstakingly investigated matters of Jewish law. They tried to present the law to the common Jew in a way that was clear and understandable.

Often, the Tannaim and Amoraim, would base their rulings on a “given” in terms of human nature and the ethical level of the general community. Such generalizations about how people would behave, was extremely useful in settling disputes between individuals as well.

There are five such examples related in the Talmud that come to mind. The first two are related to loan agreements. The Rabbis felt that during the Talmudic period, the following was true: A Jew would never dare to deny that another Jew lent him money. He may argue about the amount of the loan, but would acknowledge the debt in some form. Therefore, if he claimed that he never borrowed money at all, he would not have to pay anything.

Similarly, the premise that the Rabbis worked with was that a Jew might flee from where he lives, because he has too many creditors. However, he will ultimately come back because no Jew would ever be derelict in his financial obligations.

Our third and fourth examples are related to fields and orchards. Two principles that the Rabbis worked with: One, no Jew would ever pick fruit in another Jew’s orchard without permission. If he was caught picking fruit, it had to be with permission. And secondly, if a Jew is found cutting down a tree in another’s property, it had to be that he had rights to do so.

Our fifth example is how the Rabbis assumed what were the moral standards of a Jew related to his sexual behavior. They worked with the assumption that the average Jew had very high moral standards. He would never engage in having relations with a woman that the Torah forbade at that moment. Therefore, the Rabbis were able to make assumptions that the woman in question was permitted to the man. This would negate any rumors questioning such behavior.

These examples were brought to show the kind of purity and high moral and ethical standards that Jews once possessed as a community. Today, it is not likely that any of these statuses of the typical Jew applies. Obviously, there are many saintly Jews who still live by these standards. But we would not be able to make decisions applying such assumptions in today’s world.

The point I am trying to make here is that one should take great caution before he discards such a rich and cherished past. The intense study and investigations that went into establishing Jewish law and its practices, is unsurpassed anywhere and at any time. We are not on a level to challenge our holy sages.

The likely mistake that the scoffers make in wanting to make change, is that they have not been properly exposed to this rich treasure of the Oral Law and its teachings. It seems virtually impossible to have studied and then reject. In the words of the great Ramchal, the study of Talmud is an exercise in the pursuit of truth. And truth always wins in the end.

About the Author
Rabbi Cohen has been a Torah instructor at Machon Meir, Jerusalem, for nearly twenty years. He has been teaching a Talmud class in the Shtieblach, Old Katamon, Jerusalem, for the past twelve years. Before coming to Israel, he was the founding rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, Los Angeles.