Divrei Torah BlogsKi Tetze

Ki Tetze 5769 — Tradition and Change in Delhi

Ezekiel **This D’var Torah was presented at the Judah Hyam Synagogue in New Delhi, India, on August 28, 2009

If the Torah is eternal, how can our practice of Judaism legitimately change?

An article on the Kulanu web site about your community mentions how not so long ago the community decided to count women for a minyan; Mr Malekar (leader of the community) is quoted as saying ““If I want Judaism to survive in India, I must shed all the religious beliefs which are not practical in today’s world.”

But can we do that?

The Torah tells us “everything that I command you, you shall take care to do them, do not add to them, and do not take away from them.”  And not only that, the Torah also tells us “you shall take care to do what the Lord your God has commanded you, do not turn to the right or left.”

That certainly seems pretty limiting!  Do not add or subtract, do not turn right or left – the Torah does not seem to give us much maneuvering room!

However, the truth is that the Jewish tradition has always been an interpretative tradition.  Rabbis have ALWAYS studied the Torah, applied the general principles we learn from the Torah to specific teachings, and often come up with a law that seems to differ from the “plain text.”

A prime example is found in this week’s Torah reading, Ki Tetze.

One of the many commandments in this week’s Torah reading is about the “ben sorer u’moreh,” the stubborn and rebellious son:

If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not hearken to the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and though they chasten him, will not hearken unto them;  then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;  and they shall say unto the elders of his city: 'This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he doth not hearken to our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.'  And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die;

All I can say is “Thank God they don’t interpret that one literally anymore!”  As stubborn and rebellious as I was as a teenager, I wouldn’t be here to talk to you!

We don’t obey that commandment literally – and we have not done so for at least the last several thousand years.  There is a fascinating passage in the Talmud about that section.  The rabbis basically did the same thing they did with capital punishment in general.  They put so many restrictions and conditions on implementing the law that they effectively rendered it null and void.  “Son” implies less than full grown, but how can you punish someone who isn’t yet bar mitzvah age?  So they came up with about a three month window of age, and since it says “glutton and drunkard” they defined how much meat and booze the kid had to consume, etc., etc.  After going through all the discussion, one rabbi says “there never was one….so why is it in the Torah? So we get merit from studying it.”  On the other, another rabbi responded that yes there was at least one, he put a stone on his coffin!

But either way, it’s quite clear that the rule has not been taken literally for a long time, if it ever was.  We have another example, again from this week’s Torah reading.  The Torah says “Do not oppress your hired worker, the poor and deprived of your brethren, or the stranger that is in your land; you shall pay him his wages the same day, and you shall not let the sun set on him for he is poor and his soul will cry out to me and it will be accounted a sin to you.”

Do we pay our workers every day? No, not even in Israel.  The rabbis interpreted this verse as meaning you have to pay your workers on time: if you agree to pay them once a week, you have to pay them on whatever day has been set aside as payday.  I’m responsible for seeing that my company’s employees in Israel get paid on time.  According to Israeli law, we have to pay them by the ninth of the month following the month in which they worked.  I make sure we comply, since meeting that deadline is both a secular legal requirement, and a religious (and moral) requirement. 

But where does the authority come from to make such changes from the plain commandments in the Torah?

The authority comes from the Torah itself: we are told “lo b’shamayim hee,” it (the Torah) is not in heaven, that you should say “who will go up to heaven and bring it to us, so that we should hear it and obey.”  The Talmud brings a fascinating story to make the point:

R. Eliezer and his colleagues were having a heated argument about whether a particular oven was ritually pure or impure. R. Eliezer was certain that he was right, and God was on his side. So after he brought forward every imaginable argument, and still was not accepted, he said, “if the halacha, the law, agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it!” And immediately the carob tree moved 50 yards away. The rabbis said, “we don’t bring proof from carob trees.” R. Eliezer said, “if the halacha agrees with me let the stream prove it!” And immediately the stream started flowing backwards. They responded “you can’t bring proof from a stream of water.” R. Eliezer tried again, “if the halacha agrees with me, let the walls of the study hall prove it!” and the walls started to fall in, and R. Yehoshua rebuked them, saying “what right do you have to interfere in a debate of the rabbis?” and they stopped falling in his honor, but stayed bent in R
. Eliezer’s honor. Not one to give up easily, R. Eliezer said “if the halacha agrees with me, let if be proved from Heaven” and a Heavenly Voice cried out “why do you argue with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halacha agrees with him!” R. Yehoshua stood up and said, “lo b’shemayim he, it is not Heaven!” R. Jeremiah explained this means the Torah had already been given at Mt. Sinai. We no longer follow attention to heavenly voices, because it is written in the Torah “you shall follow the majority,” meaning the law is decided by the majority. The Talmud continues and says God laughed and said “my sons have defeated me!”                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

We don’t turn to prophets or voices in the sky when we need to decide how to behave – we turn to the rabbis, our judges.

And not only that, we are specifically told that we turn to the rabbis of today, not the rabbis of 2,000 years ago when seeking answer difficult questions.  The Torah tells us we go to the Kohanim and judges “b’yamim hahem,” in THOSE days to settle disputes.  The rabbis have to apply their judgment to the situation in front of them – you can’t always find the answer in a book, not even directly in the Torah or Talmud.

If we had no room for interpretation and application, Judaism would have died out many many years ago.  The openness to interpretation has kept Judaism alive.  Those who continue to interpret the Torah in light of contemporary reality are following the authentic path of the Torah.  Those who would say Judaism can not evolve, that everything is locked in concrete never to adapt to the world around us, are doing a disservice to Judaism.

But the great challenge is how to balance tradition and change.  If we change too radically, soon we won’t recognize Judaism any more.  If we change too slowly – if we try to keep stoning rebellious sons – that would also be the death of the religion.   For communal decisions we have rabbis, who study the law and are faithful to it, but who also know the broad principles of the Torah we must apply to the different situations we encounter in the modern world.

In the system of halacha, theoretically rabbis make such decisions for individuals as well.  But the truth is, we don’t live in communities where the norms can be enforced – so in effect, in this day and age of the primacy of the individual, everyone decides for themselves how to practice Judaism.

We are now in the Hebrew month of Elul, the month before the High Holidays, traditionally a time for cheshbon hanefesh, taking an “accounting of our souls” in preparation for upcoming Day of Judgment (Rosh Hashanah) and Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).  This makes it a very appropriate time to reflect on our relationship with God and our tradition, to seek to turn closer to God, to bring more Torah into our lives.

But turning towards God does NOT have to mean turning away from the world He created.

Shabbat Shalom

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Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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