The balance between tradition and innovation – thoughts on Parshat Vayigash

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, we find an interesting dialogue between Judah and the Viceroy of Egypt –who, unbeknownst to him, is his long lost brother Joseph. The exchange begins with Judah protesting against the detention of his younger brother Benjamin in Egypt, on account of a “stolen” goblet cunningly placed in his sack. (Genesis 44:2) In his remarks, Judah answers a question earlier posed by Joseph, as follows, “My lord asked his servants, saying, ‘Have you a father or a brother?’ And we said to my lord, ‘We have an old father and a young child of his old age … and his father loves him.”(Genesis 44:19-20). Joseph’s question is certainly out of the ordinary. “Have you a father?”— does not everyone have a father who brought him into this world? So, what then, was the point of Joseph’s question? The answer, in addition to shedding light on the biblical text, also illuminates on the role of tradition and innovation in Jewish thought and practice.

The question of “Have you a father?” was one posed to Rav J.B. Soloveitchik by his childhood teacher. To this, Rav Soloveitchik adds his own insight into the second half of Joseph’s question “…have you… a brother?” Writes Rav Soloveitchik, “Joseph was not concerned with biological parenthood but rather was inquiring about existential parenthood. Joseph was anxious to know whether they felt themselves committed to their roots, to their origins. Are you, Joseph asked the brothers, rooted in your father? Do you admit that the old father represents an old tradition? Do you believe that the father is capable of telling you something new, something exciting?” In regards to the question “Have you… a brother?” Rav Soloveitchik explains the other dimension. “Does your time awareness and your existential awareness embrace only you…or does this “I exist” awareness embrace generations yet unborn as well? Do you believe that the future can be shaped by our present actions…the future that is represented by this little brother?”(Vision and Leadership, pg. 62-63) I would like to posit that these two ideas, an Old Father and a Young Brother, are archetypes of two kinds of rabbinic leaders. And the message of this week’s Torah portion will reveal the necessity that the two work hand in hand, rather than against one another, in the service of the Jewish People.

Since Moses received the Torah at Mount Sinai, two kinds of rabbinic leaders have passed the Torah from teacher to student throughout generations. The first category of leaders are those who are the uncompromising upholders of tradition, who do not deviate from that which was passed to them from their own teachers. The second group are rabbinic leaders are those with great vision and a pioneering spirit, who are constantly reinventing and blazing new paths in the realm of Torah scholarship and practice. The Older Father— forever linked to a rich heritage and tradition, who shapes the image of his children. The Young Brother— though a product of his Old father and firmly connected to the past, looks towards the future ,and innovates in the realm of Torah and Halacha for the next generation.

History is full of examples of righteous rabbinic leaders from both camps, and no doubt there is much to be gained from both forms of leadership. One of the earliest examples of these two divergent approaches is found in a description regarding two of the main disciples of Rabban Yochnan Ben Zakkai, a leading figure in the Second Temple period. The Mishna, in Ethics of our Fathers 2:9 writes, “Rabban Yochanan the son of Zakkai had five disciples… Rabbi Eliezer the son of Hurkenus is a plastered well that loses not a drop… Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is as an ever-increasing wellspring.” Noted author Rabbi Binyamin Lau, is his work “The Sages Volume II,” explains the unique contrast between a plastered well and a wellspring. “A well collects and stores water. A good well is one whose bottom and sides are sealed, so that it does not lose a single drop. Yet even the best well does not give forth its own water.” (The Sages, Volume II, pg. 30) Rabbi Eliezer the son of Hurkenus was compared to a plastered well because he stayed completely faithful to tradition, retaining all of the knowledge that he had gained from his teachers. However he, like the well which does not bring forth any new water, did not bring innovative thought to the Halakhic world. Rabbi Lau cites the statement found in the Talmud Tractate Sukka 28 which emphasizes Rabbi Eliezer the son of Hurkenus’ unwavering commitment to an unchanging Halakhic tradition. There it is written that Rabbi Eliezer said of himself, “I never said a thing which I did not receive from my teachers.” Contrast this with the “wellspring” Rabbi Elazar ben Arach. Rabbi Lau writes that he was “…a spring brimming with abundant fresh water that flowed forth without cease. His ability to comprehend and expound upon the Torah inspired hope that he would emerge as the new champion of innovative learning among the Jewish people.” (ibid pg 34) In these two figures we find represented two kinds of rabbinic leaders, and their different approaches towards Torah study and the world view which guides them.

What can we take out of this? Though the observance of tradition is an integral concept and a basic foundation of Judaism, there must also still be room for change and development within the Halachik system. As Rabbi Yosef Albo in his Sefer Ha’ikarim (The Book of Principles) writes, the need to adapt and allow for dynamic change within the structure of Halakha is a most essential priority in Judaism. “It is impossible that the Torah would have been given in complete form at Mount Sinai, suitable for every generation, because new situations of human interaction and modes of conduct are constantly arising and they are too vast in scope to be included in any one book. Therefore, at Sinai Moshe was taught the general principles orally, things that are hinted to briefly in the Written Torah, so that the Sages of each generation would be able to extract the newly needed details of practical halachah.” (Sefer Ha’ikarim 3:23) This sentiment is also echoed by Rabbi Yosef Cairo in his magnum opus the Shulchan Aruch (The Code of Jewish Law). He writes, “…each day the Torah should be new in your eyes and do not read the Torah like someone who has heard it many times before but as something beloved.” (Orach Chaim 61:2) The message of the Torah is timeless and applicable for all generations, and because this is so, as history marches forward there is also a great need and opportunity for innovation and renewal within the Torah community.

There can be no doubt as to the importance of innovation in Judaism, but at the same time, it is incumbent upon us all to proceed with great caution and care. Rabbi Lau points to a fascinating and instructive lesson that can be learned from the latter part of the life of Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh, the wellspring and innovator of Halakha, to emphasize this message. “As long as Rabban Yochnan Ben Zakkai was still alive, Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh occupied a central role in the society of scholars. He offered the best hope that God’s will would be revealed through the power of human creativity.” (ibid, pg. 53) However, if one takes a glance through the vast tomes of Rabbinic literature today, one would be hard pressed to find any of Rabbi Elazar’s teachings written there. How did such a promising figure fall to the wayside and become only a footnote in Jewish thought? Rabbi Lau quotes Avot De Rabbi Natan, among other sources, and explains that after the death of Rabbi Yochnan Ben Zakkai, all of his former disciples traveled to study together in the academy in Yavneh. But Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh parted ways with them and went alone to the city of Emmaus, a city devoid of other scholars. Tragically, there he lost his previous knowledge and it is for this reason that he did not join the ranks of the legendary rabbinic scholars whose teachings are studied to this very day. (Part B, Chapter 29) Rabbi Lau writes, “Even the great wisdom of Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh Ben Arach could not sustain him alone…The power of creative learning had become too detached from the world of tradition, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh’s Torah was cut off from its source.” Though innovation is an important part of Jewish belief and practice, it still needs to be firmly rooted in Halakhic tradition or else it will quickly fall to the wayside.

Only when we are able to internalize the value and importance of the Old Father, plastered well while at the same time recognizing the necessity of the Young Brother, increasing wellspring will we be able to have a Judaism which in the words of Rav Soloveitchik is one which is still committed to our… great mysterious past and to eternal ideals…and to a glorious future. (Vision and Leadership.63)

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator, and is the author of the Two Volume book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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