THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech – פרשת נצבים-וילך
September 16, 2017 – כה אלול תשעז
This essay is sponsored by Sisterhood in honor of the birth of Bonnie Rose (לאה) Bauer, daughter of Irina & Ephraim Bauer, granddaughter of Tatyana Tchaikovskaya & Eugeny Rubashevsky.
Forgetting the Torah: The Demise of Judaism
The Torah, when broadly defined to include the entirety of Jewish sacred literature, is a vast body of knowledge. It is perfectly understandable that a student of the Torah could forget some information learned many years earlier. The sages, citing the injunction found in Deuteronomy 4:9 on forgetting the spectacle and substance of the Sinaitic revelation, consider it a Scriptural violation to regress in Torah knowledge. Quite reasonably, the status of sinner is not applied to someone whose scholastic decline resulted from life circumstances beyond his control or his intellectual limitations. Only a person who intentionally erases his Jewish education from memory is regarded negatively (Menahot 99b).
As disappointing as it is that an individual Jew may squander, through decades of neglect, his accumulated religious knowledge, the fate of Judaism is not thereby affected. But if Jewry as a whole became indifferent to the perpetuation of Torah learning – what then? Or, what if the great centers of Torah learning were destroyed by an external enemy? Is there a divine guaranty that Torah will be sustained from generation to generation? These questions assumed great significance at various points in our history. Most recently, in the mid-twentieth century, the assimilationist tendencies of Western Jewry and the extinction of traditional life in Eastern Europe threatened to make a reality the permanent loss of Torah knowledge – and, following thereon, the demise of Judaism.
The sages of Yavneh (early second century CE) predicted that, at some unspecified point in the future, Israel would forget the Torah עתידה תורה שתשתכח מישראל (Shabbat 138b). They cited the verses: “Behold the days come, said the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east; they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord and they shall not find it (Amos 8:11-12).” A century later, the Amora Rav issued the same tragic prediction, based upon a different Biblical source. He referred to the Warning (תוכחה): “Then the Lord will make thy plagues wonderful (Deuteronomy 28:59).” The vague wonderment mentioned in Moses’ rebuke is clarified by the later prophet: “Therefore, behold I will do marvelous work among this people, even a wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish (Isaiah 29:14).” The Talmud minimizes the scope of this prediction, suggesting that legal matters directly addressed in the Pentateuch or Mishnah will continue to be known. What will be lost is the more sophisticated halakhic theorizing of the Amoraim. Accordingly, a woman who inadvertently baked Terumah bread in the same oven as a dead lizard will be aware that her loaf is impure, but the rabbis she will consult may well be uncertain whether the bread has the status of first-degree or second-degree impurity.
Rabbi Simon bar Yochai emphatically rejected his colleagues’ prediction חס ושלום שתשתכח תורה מישראל. He cited the verse: “This song shall testify before them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed לא תשכח מפי זרעו(Deuteronomy 31:21).” The plain meaning of the text is that the song of Ha’azinu, found in the next chapter, will not be forgotten by Israel even under the direst of circumstances. However, the traditional rabbinic approach is to understand references to the Song of Ha’azinu as euphemisms for the entire Five Books of Moses (Sanhedrin 21b). Rabbi Simon reconciles this optimistic view with the seemingly contradictory prooftexts offered by his colleagues by acknowledging that a time will come when “a clear law and a clear Mishnah will not be found in one place שלא ימצאו הלכה ברורה ומשנה ברורה במקום אחד.”
This prediction has largely come true. The precise wording of the Mishnah as a whole cannot always be determined conclusively; conflicting versions appear in the various medieval manuscripts. In the absence of an officially recognized High Court of Judaism, conflicting halakhic rulings emanate from great rabbinic sages around the world. Judaism has no Pope. No Jewish sage has, or ever has had, authority to issue encylicals, infallible or otherwise. Nor does Judaism have a catechism. The ordinary Jew is left wondering where, and to whom, to turn for definitively correct religious instruction.
An obscure rabbinic text asserts that God sealed a covenant with Israel guaranteeing that the Oral Law will never be forgotten (Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer 13). It cites the verse recited in our daily liturgy: “My words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, says the Lord, from henceforth and forever (Isaiah 59:21).” Another Midrashic text, while not asserting any guaranties regarding the survival of Torah knowledge, claims that Divine providence alters the course of history so that Torah learning might survive moments of crisis for world Jewry (Tanhuma, Noach 3). The example given is the exile to Babylonia of King Jeconiah and several thousand leading Judahite citizens in 597 BCE, eleven years before the major destruction and population transfer. These early exiles established centers of Torah learning and enabled Jewish religious instruction to flourish on foreign soil (Gittin 88a).
Yet the popular belief in the Talmudic period was that practical human measures had to be taken for the survival of Torah knowledge – and, therefore, Judaism – to be assured. The Midrash credits Shaphan, Ezra, and Rabbi Akiva for rescuing Judaism from oblivion אילו לא עמד שפן עזרא ורבי עקיבא בשעתו היתה תורה משתכחת (Sifri Deuteronomy 48). Rabbi Judah ben Baba is remembered for his heroic martyrdom during the Hadrianic persecutions. He sacrificed his life to confer rabbinic ordination upon his five greatest disciples. If not for his brave act, the official chain of tradition would have been broken and various aspects of Torah observance lost forever (Avodah Zarah 8b). Rabbi Hanina sang his own praises, claiming that if Torah knowledge were lost he could recover it through his own analytical prowess. Rabbi Hiyya scolded Rabbi Hanina and asserted that his work of painstakingly teaching Bible and Mishnah to children was a superior way of perpetuating Torah (Baba Metzia 85b).
The most significant action taken to assure the long-term viability of Judaism was the writing down of the Oral Law. For centuries the Pharisaic ban on recording halakhic and homiletic information was in effect (Gittin 60b). Unofficially, students of the rabbinical academy maintained notebooks, but these were for limited private use only מגילת סתרים (Shabbat 6b). Even after Rabbi Judah the Patriarch redacted the Mishnah (200 CE), rabbinic texts were still transmitted orally. Slowly, rabbinic culture changed and began to accept written texts. Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish, the great third century Amoraim of EretzYisrael, consulted books of homiletic material (Temurah 14b). The justification for this change was that it is better to discard one operating principle (i.e., the ban on writing down the Oral Law) than risk the loss of volumes of Talmudic information מוטב תיעקר תורה ואל תשתכח תורה מישראל. In support of this tactic, the sages mustered a Scriptural verse: “It is time for the Lord to work; they have made void Thy law (Psalms 119:126.)”
The sages were especially worried that Jewry would forget particular halakhic topics. Eruvin, the method of adjoining multiple domains and residences for the purpose of permitting carrying on the Sabbath, was one of their chief concerns. It was important that, in addition to observing the requirement of physically enclosing the area with poles, the community also made sure that food was collected from all participants. The rabbis were worried that if children did not see the periodic collection of foodstuffs, or at least the remnant of an earlier collection, the next generation would be ignorant of the law שלא לשכח תורת ערובין מן התנוקות (Eruvin 46b). For this reason, Rabbi Meir required separate collections for the alleyway and the courtyard (Eruvin 73b).
This concern was certainly justified. The creation of an Eruv is a common feature of modern Jewish communal life. Yet few Sabbath-observant Jews are aware of the food-collection component; far fewer can correctly identify precisely which wires and poles constitute the Eruv.
Another concern was observance and understanding of the commandment to separate Hallah from dough and give it to a Kohen. The law demands that Hallah be taken only from dough made of the five recognized grains (wheat, barley, rye, oats, and spelt). When residents of a certain district were discovered to be separating Hallah from rice dough, they were not told to desist. In that locale, rice bread was the dietary staple and the sages did not want the commoners to forget the concept of Hallah (Presahim 51a). In the Diaspora, where Kohanim cannot consume Hallah because of ritual impurity, the separated portion of dough is burned in an oven. Another portion of dough, pseudo-Hallah, is given to Kohanim to eat, lest people forget that the true intention of Hallah is to feed the priestly class (Behorot 27a).
The sages were rightly concerned about the ability of distant Jewish communities to fulfill the commandment of Lulav and Etrog on Sukkot. While the four species (palm branch, citron, myrtle, and willow) are easily obtained in the Mediterranean climate of Eretz Yisrael, they might be inaccessible to Jews residing in the Diaspora. A completely dry palm-frond, passed down from generation to generation, was declared an acceptable Lulav ex post facto. But what if no citrons were available? Could one use a quince or pomegranate as a replacement, so the concept of Etrog was not forgotten? This suggestion was quickly rejected. The fear was that people might begin to believe that the pomegranate is the true “beautiful fruit” mandated by Scripture (Sukkah 31a).
Judaism survived many centuries of tumultuous exile. But Torah knowledge did not survive entirely intact. Much of Torah, especially those portions no longer practiced, is not widely studied. Maharal posited four reasons why Israel has forgotten elements of Torah: (a) The human mind is limited in its ability. (b) The Torah is unfathomably profound. (c) The challenge of earning a livelihood and feeding one’s family is exceedingly difficult and takes precedence over study. (d) The oppressive nature of the exile and anti-Semitic persecutions are ever-present distractions.
Maharal suggested two further reasons, specific to his era (16th century), for the decline of Torah knowledge: (a) Scholars seeking renown were attracted to ridiculous casuistryפלפול עקום instead of straightforward learning. (b) The order of study was corrupted. By this second point, he meant that, instead of beginning with Bible and continuing logically (and chronologically) with Mishnah and then Gemara, young lads were exposed first to Gemara without firm grounding in the earlier literature.
Maharal considered Israel and Torah to be inextricably linked. Adopting the view of Rabbi Simon bar Yochai, Maharal explained that just as Israel is dispersed all over the world so is Torah dispersed. No individual scholar has all of Torah in his grasp (Tiferet Yisrael 56).
One area of halakhic knowledge, widely known until quite recently, has now become solely the province of experts. Meat purchased in the kosher butcher shop used to be full of blood. The process of soaking and salting was done at home. The ritually-observant homemaker needed to be proficient in הלכות מליחה. Today, the removal of blood is done by the butcher under the watchful eye of kashruth inspectors. Accordingly, knowledge of soaking and salting has declined dramatically.
As 5777 draws to a close, we need have little concern that the totality of Torah will be lost. Today, more people are studying Talmud, in advanced yeshivot, than at any point in our history. Yet, sadly, the vast majority of world Jewry is in danger of forgetting its religious heritage. Efforts to stem that indifference need to be redoubled. God may have vouchsafed the survival of Judaism. But we must do our best to ensure the spiritual survival of individual Jews.