Today we celebrate Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.
Usually, when we mention the “giving of the Torah” or the “receiving,” we are talking about God to Moses, or God to the Jews. But really we should understand this as the gift from the Jews to the world.
Because if there is one thing that we can proudly point to as Jews and say, this is ours, it’s the Torah. Not, of course, the Torah alone, but “Torah” in the wider sense of that word: incorporating the millennia of commentary and interpretation based on and illuminating the Five Books of Moses and the rest of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. We have shared that wider gift of Torah with the world.
And this distinction, between the written Torah and all of its interpretation is essential. ‘Cause let’s face it: the Torah is a complicated book. Yes, there are many wonderful Jewish values that originate in the Torah: welcoming guests (Genesis 18:1-8), taking care of the poor among us (many places, including Leviticus 19:9-10), treating the strangers among us fairly (many places, including Lev. 19:33-34), business ethics (e.g. Lev. 19:13, 35-36ת Deut. 25:13-16), and so forth. But there are many items in the Torah that challenge us as modern, thinking people. Consider for a moment some of the more extreme positions that the Torah takes:
A disobedient son should be put to death. (Deut. 21:18-21)
One who violates the Shabbat in public (e.g. by gathering wood) should be put to death. (Num. 15:32-36)
The Sotah ritual (Numbers 5)
And so forth. But it is essential to note that the Torah alone is not Judaism! Our tradition is not about the literal application of the words of the Torah. We do not put anybody to death or practice humiliating rituals. The rabbinic tradition, through a process that began in the 2nd century CE and continues to this very day, has studied the words of Torah, interpreted them and codified them according to contemporary norms in every generation. What we know, understand and practice as Judaism is not the written Torah, but rather, as it is filtered through the rabbinic lens. We are not ancient Israelites; we are rabbinic Jews.
For example, we do not stone disobedient children to death, even though that is clearly commanded in the Torah. The rabbis of the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 68bff) re-interpreted the very concept of what it means to be disobedient to set the bar so high that it would actually be impossible for a child to meet this qualification, thereby mitigating the severity of the Torah’s imperative.
When I was at the Rabbinical Assembly convention two weeks ago, I participated in an extended learning session with Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, on the subject of the precedence of certain mitzvot over others. For example, the Talmud tells us (Berakhot 19b) that if you discover that you or somebody else is wearing an item of clothing containing a forbidden mixture of fibers (e.g. wool and linen; aka shaatnez), you must tear it off immediately. One page later, the Talmud tells a story about a certain R. Ada bar Ahavah who, upon seeing a woman in the market wearing a headress which he thinks to contain shaatnez, and knocks it off her head, causing the woman much shame and stirring up a major hubbub. As it turns out, she’s not even Jewish! So R. Ada bar Ahavah is in the wrong, and has doubly transgressed.
In some places, our tradition upholds a certain kind of zealotry. But elsewhere, we find that the intricacies and sensibilities of human relationships require more attention than the letter of the law. Elsewhere in the Talmud (Megillah 3b) we find that the rabbis ask about the priority of certain mitzvot. If one is faced with taking care of an unclaimed corpse (known as a met mitzvah) versus reading Megillat Esther on Purim, the met mitzvah takes precedence, due to the principle of kevod haberiyot, the respect for all God’s creatures. Furthermore, the Talmud emphasizes that this latter mitzvah, respect, is of such great importance that it outweighs all negative commandments of the Torah.
Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, aka Nahmanides or Ramban, who lived in 13th-century Spain, cites a verse in the Torah to extend this logic even further (Deut. 6:18):
וְעָשִׂיתָ הַיָּשָׁר וְהַטּוֹב, בְּעֵינֵי ה' --לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ, וּבָאתָ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה, אֲשֶׁר-נִשְׁבַּע ה' לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ.Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you and that you may be able to possess the good land that the Lord your God promised on oath to your fathers.
Ramban tells us that this verse is a kind of legal catch-all that covers every detail of human behavior that is not otherwise addressed in the Torah - that is, that we should go beyond the letter of the law. This is a principle known as “lifnim mishurat hadin.” We are not only obligated to fulfill the mitzvot that are explicitly identified, but also to extend the logic of what is right and good to everything else. Ramban tells us that we must refine our behavior so that our reputations are spotless, and that our conversations with others are always pleasant, so that we may be worthy of being known by others as “right and good.”
Returning for a moment to the case of the R. Ada bar Ahavah, who knocks off the woman’s headress in the market, since he has violated kevod haberiyot / respect for all God’s creatures and damaged his reputation, he has therefore transgressed. Sometimes respect trumps the letter of the law.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the moderation for which we stand, for which the greater Torah stands. And this is the gift that we Jews bring to the world, the very gift that we celebrate today. We are not zealots; we are not fanatics. The ancient rabbis, and even some of us today want us to be sensitive to how we behave while fulfilling the law, and make sure that it reflects well upon us. We must not just perform mitzvot, but must do it in a respectful way that maintains our reputations.
The Talmud (Yoma 86a) also identifies for us the label applied to those who claim to act in the name of God but are in fact profaning God’s name. The term for this is hillul haShem:
But if someone studies Scripture and Mishnah, serves Torah scholars, but is dishonest in business, and discourteous in his relations with people, what do people say about him? Woe unto him who studied the Torah; woe unto his father who taught him Torah; woe unto his teacher who taught him Torah! This man studied the Torah; look how corrupt are his deeds, how ugly his ways.
It is certainly possible to follow the letter of the law and still commit hillul haShem. We need not look too deeply into the Jewish world to see plenty of examples.
Last week, when the rabbinic head of the Agudath Israel, an umbrella organization of Haredi Jews, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, was giving a brief devar Torah at a celebratory dinner attended by Mayor Bill DeBlasio. He used his opportunity to slander non-Orthodox Jews (and some Modern Orthodox Jews as well). From the New York Times:
Rabbi Perlow offered a shower of condemnation for Reform and Conservative Jews, who he said were among those who “subvert and destroy the eternal values of our people.” These movements, he said, “have disintegrated themselves, become oblivious, fallen into an abyss of intermarriage and assimilation.”“They will be relegated,” he added, “to the dustbins of Jewish history.”
It was surely a deliberate choice to deliver these words when the mayor was present, because he knew that there would be media coverage, and the bulk of New York Jewry, who he knows are not Orthodox, would read his words. He also knew that Mayor DeBlasio would likely let the remarks go by without comment, which he did.
Just two days later, the same Rabbi Perlow delivered a speech to 10,000 women in his community about the dangers of the Internet. And what’s more, he spoke to them separated from his audience by a one-way mirror, so he could not see the women. That’s right - he actually spoke while looking at himself in the mirror. The possibilities for commentary here are endless.
The moderate conception of Judaism which we emphasize values women and men equally and does not see women merely as sources of temptation that must be obscured from view. This is not how women are perceived outside the synagogue, and it should not be that way on the inside.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Torah is not black and white, to be fulfilled to its letter at the expense of others. Doing what is right and good in the eyes of God means that we acknowledge not only the ethical norms of the society in which we live and the innovations that human ingenuity has brought, but is also respectful of all. What sort of people would the Jews be if we stuck our heads in the sand? How would we fulfill our mission on Earth of bringing this Torah of moderation to the world if we cannot even look at people?
Our task as Conservative Jews is to live our ideals proudly and boldly, continuing to emphasize the voice of moderation, of kevod haberiyot / respect for God’s creatures, that is evident in the wider Torah, for the Jews and for the world. We must remind the Rabbi Perlows of this world that the Second Temple was destroyed due to sin’at hinam, causeless hatred, and that the only path that we have together into the Jewish future is one of mutual encouragement and honor, one based on maintaining the good reputation and the pleasant conversation that Ramban suggests.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, first day of Shavuot, June 4, 2014.)