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Who Has the Right to Re-Package Judaism?

A 2000 Year Old Debate Whether to “Get Out of the Box”

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • September 19, 2012
  • |
  • 3 Tishrei 5773

1890. Jews from Jerusalem. Can we understand their language?

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Class Summary:

Who Has the Right to Re-Package Judaism? - A 2000 Year Old Debate Whether to “Get Out of the Box”

Dedicated By David and Eda Schottenstein

The Scroll 

This week’s portion (Vayalech) relates the dramatic events that transpired during Moses’ last day on earth. Among the many things he did on that fateful day was committing the entire Pentateuch (the Chumash, the Five Books of Moses) to writing[1]. The Torah scrolls we use today are copies of copies of copies of the original Torah scroll written by Moses on the day of his passing, on 7 Adar of the year 2488, 3,286 years ago. 

After completing the writing of the full Torah, Moses commanded the Levites, “Take this Torah scroll and place it at the side of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your G-d, and it shall be there as a witness for you[2].” The Tabernacle in the desert and later the Temple in Jerusalem housed a Holy Ark containing Two Tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments and the newly completed Torah scroll needed to be placed at the side of this Ark. 

The exact location of the Torah scroll on the side of the Ark inspired a debate between the Talmudic Sages[3]. Rabbi Meir held that the Torah scroll needed to be placed inside the Ark, at the side of the Two Tablets. Rabbi Judah was of the opinion that a shelf protruded from the outside of the Ark and the Torah scroll was placed on that shelf. 

The logic behind their argument lay in the proper interpretation of Moses’ above-quoted words, “Take this Torah scroll, and place it at the side of the Ark.” According to Rabbi Judah, “at the side of the Ark” is to be understood literally—that the Torah scroll ought to be placed not inside but outside the Ark. Rabbi Meir, on the other hand, believes that the words “at the side of the Ark” are merely coming to tell us that the Torah scroll should be placed not between the two Tablets, but rather at the side of the Tablets, next to the interior wall of the Ark[4]

Three Questions  

Three questions come to mind. 

Firstly, why did Rabbi Meir feel compelled to impose an apparently twisted interpretation on the words “at the side of the Ark”? Why did Rabbi Meir not embrace Rabbi Judah’s simple and straightforward explanation that when Moses instructed the Torah scroll to be placed “at the side of the Ark” he meant it literally, outside the Ark? 

Second, why was there a need altogether to have the Torah scroll situated in such close proximity to the Ark[5]?  

Finally, we discussed numerous times that the Torah and all of its commandments and episodes were transcribed to serve as a Divine Blueprint for living, as a road map for life’s challenging journeys. How can a 21st-century human being glean wisdom and inspiration from an ancient commandment to place a Torah scroll at the side of an Ark, at a time when we have no Ark and no Tablets? What type of relevance can Moses’ instruction to the Levites carry for our lives today?  

The Root vs. the Branches 

Our Sages have said[6] that the Ten Commandments presented at Sinai and inscribed on the Two Tablets of the Covenant embodied the quintessence of the entire Torah, all Five Books. All perspectives, themes, ideas, laws, ethics, and stories of Torah are encapsulated in the brief 620 letters of the Ten Commandments[7]. The Five Books of Moses, then, serve essentially as a commentary to the Ten Commandments, elaborating and explaining the background, meaning, and significance of these ten pillars of the Jewish faith. 

The Tablets constitute the source, the epicenter, the nucleus of Judaism; the Five Books are the elaboration, the explanation, the outgrowth.  

The debate between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah on the kinship between the Torah scroll and the Tablets is not merely a technical argument concerning the proximity of two physical entities; but rather a profound disagreement on the fundamental methodologies of the development and communication of Judaism. 

How close do we need to uphold the connection between the core of Torah and its expansion? Are we capable of “leaving the box” containing the Tablets without losing the "real thing"?  

This is by no means an abstract dilemma. How does one communicate ancient truths to a young generation molded in a secular weltanschauung? How does one present a Torah which is over 3,000 years old to a modern 21st-century iPhone-addict? How do we pass on the gift of “In the beginning, G-d created heaven and earth” to Stanford and Yale graduates for whom Charles Darwin holds more sway than Moses? 

Are we to present Judaism in its original form and composition, without employing modern-day terminology, techniques, and structures of thought? Or must we take Judaism “out of the box” and re-package it in contemporary language? 

The argument rages to this very day. Some teachers and presenters of Judaism are accused of lacking the ability to communicate to a “new generation” of Jews, while other teachers are accused of “liberalizing” Judaism, of diluting its pristine ideas on order to accommodate the modern Jew or non-Jew. 

One of the Ten Martyrs executed by Rome in the second century CE was Rabbi Chutzpis HameTurgeman, whose name means Rabbi Chutzpis the Elucidator. The Kabbalists comment that to truly elucidate and present something in a new form you have to have Chutzpah, hence his name was Chutzpis.  

The Light and the Vessels 

 The Talmud[8] says something profoundly moving about Rabbi Meir: It is known to the creator of the world that Rabbi Meir surpassed his entire generation and he had no equal. Why then did they not establish the law according to his opinion? Because the Sages could not comprehend the depth of his wisdom.” Rabbi Meir was misunderstood by his own colleagues; his ideas were too advanced for his times.  

“Meir” in Hebrew means “the Illuminator[9].” The light that emanated from Rabbi Meir’s mind and heart were too profound for his colleagues and students. Why? Because Rabbi Meir was of the opinion that all interpretation and development of Torah-thought must remain intimately bound with its source. The commentary and exposition may never be removed from the space of their progenitor. The Torah must be placed right near the Tablets. To dilute the light in order to accommodate the vessels will do an injustice to the integrity of the message.  

According to Rabbi Judah, however, the word of G-d needs to leave the perimeters of the sacred Ark, and be brought outward. 

Judah, Yehudah in Hebrew, means surrender or submission. One has to surrender his or her own elevated state of consciousness in order to reach out and present the Torah to the student who would not be able to absorb the intense light dwelling “inside the box.” Judaism, Rabbi Judah argued, needed to be presented in a manner that would make it accessible, relevant, and pertinent to people trained in a different mindset and even those educated in the schools of Athens. 

For according to Rabbu Judah this is not a cop-out, but rather a great noble act of self-surrender (Yehudah). It is easier to just repeat the old phrases and sayings, to remain secure in the ancient pathways, but you need to transcend your comfort zone in order to bring the light and truth of Torah to those outside. 

I once received an e-mail from a weekly reader, a very learned and observant Jew from Los Angeles: “Rabbi Jacobson, would you cease transcribing your psycho-babble and begin teaching good old Judaism.” 

So I wrote back: "You are of the opinion of Rabbi Meir; in my emails I attempt, at times, to follow the path of Rabbi Judah. May G-d be with me in my writing." 

Loyal to the Source 

Yet here is the critical catch: Even according to Rabbi Judah, the Torah must always remain connected to its source by means of a plank of wood.  

What this means is this: There is a difference between presenting Judaism in terminology and methodology that can speak to the mind and heart of modern man vs. attempting to prove that Judaism conforms to modern trends of thought. The former path is noble; the latter path is intellectually dishonest, as it does not seek to discover the authentic message of Judaism, only to create a fluffy Judaism that does not challenge the comfort zones of modern man.  

This distinction between the two approaches has been profoundly blurred in recent years, and the results are obvious. The former approach has given countless students the opportunity to challenge themselves by the Divine truths of Torah; the latter approach has brought down Torah to suit the fancy of every imagination. In the end it comes down to the question: How confident are you in the truth of Torah? Are you employing modern thought merely to communicate Torah, or are you employing it in order to confirm to yourself and others the appeal of Judaism? 

What Rabbi Judah is saying is that as far out-of-the-box as you travel, a “plank of wood” must always connect you to the original, pristine “Tablets” inside the box. The link between the nucleus of Torah and its expansions must always remain evident. If not, you may be depriving yourself and your students from the vibrant, pulsating, divine wellsprings of G-d’s word. 

Not long ago I had a conversation with a friend, a popular rabbi, who is heavily involved in broadcasting Judaism to the secular world. I told him that in my humble opinion, his communication of Judaism was lacking the energy that emanates from someone who is entrenched in serious Torah learning. I told him that he must dedicate time each day to study Talmud—those parts of Talmud that deal with intricate Jewish law and rituals that are abstract and not for “public consumption.” Only when he will be entrenched in the source of the wisdom, will his communication to the outside world be real and effective. He challenged my position. Yet I believe this is the truth: Only when you are submerged in the highest and deepest level of Torah study, will your communication of “sound bite” Judaism be authentic and meaningful. A “plank of wood” must always link the outside to the inside. 

Who has the right to “re-package” Judaism? Only someone who is selfless (Yehuda), has no ego involved, and his only agenda is to share the word of G-d with others, a person who is completely loyal to the authentic source. But if someone lacks these qualities, they will frequently compromise and dilute, if not pervert, the pure waters of Judaism with the tarnished bacteria of trends and notions that are alien to Torah[10]

[1] Deuteronomy 31:9. Cf. Rambam’s introduction to his Mishnah Torah. 
[2] Deuteronomy 31:26. 
[3] Bava Basra 14a-b, quoted in Rashi on this verse.
[4] See Bava Basra ibid. 
[5] In fact, the location of the Torah scroll made it unavailable for use, since nobody was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies where the Ark lay.
[6] There are two opinions if and when this Torah scroll in the Ark was used. According to Rashi (Bava Basra 14b) during the ceremony of Hakhel the king of the Jewish people would read chapters of the Torah from this scroll. Also, the High Priest read from it on Yom Kippur. According to Tosafos (ibid. 14a) this scroll was taken from the ark only for the purposes of maintenance and it was never put to use.
[7] See Talmud Shabbas 87a; Rashi to Exodus 24:12; Baal Haturim to Exodus 20:13.
[8] This number is not coincidental: it represents the 613 Biblical mitzvos and the seven Rabbinical injunctions.
[9] Eiruvin 13b; ibid. 53a.
[10] See Talmud Eiruvin 13b.
This essay is based on a talk delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shabbas Vayelech 5729, September 1968. Published in Sichos Kodesh 5729 pp. 9-19. Large parts of the talk were later published in Likkutei Sichos vol. 9 pp. 196-203. For another English rendition of this talk, see Week In Review (edited by Yanki Tauber) vol. 5 number 32. 

Please leave your comment below!

  • Anonymous -3 years ago

    The jokes in the beginning of the article are disgusting. Can't believe it... 

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • MMK

    menachem m karp -3 years ago

    This article is crucial!

    emes!!!! beatiful and poignant!

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Vayalech

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • September 19, 2012
  • |
  • 3 Tishrei 5773
  • |
  • Comment

Dedicated By David and Eda Schottenstein

Class Summary:

Who Has the Right to Re-Package Judaism? - A 2000 Year Old Debate Whether to “Get Out of the Box”

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