Updating That Which Cannot be Changedby Rabbi Jacob Rupp January 2, 2019
Anyone who takes a trip to a neighborhood with a large Orthodox community (think Brooklyn or Jerusalem) feels like they are stepping back in time, yet despite the cultural appearances and nuances, Judaism itself is in a tremendous state of ongoing flux and modernization—and it always has been.
This is curious as a fundamental premise of traditional Judaism is that the Torah is “Toras Emes,” i.e. true, and one is not allowed to change it. In fact, in Deuteronomy it says explicitly that anyone who adds or subtracts from the Torah deserves the death penalty. So how can we account for, explain and accept movements and ideologies that are both traditionally valid, yet at the same time completely modern?
Let’s start with something even more fundamental: The Judaism we practice today doesn’t have many of the elements of the ancient days. We have no Temple (and with that over 300 of the 613 commandments cannot be done.); we no longer practice animal sacrifices; Jewish courts no longer try capital cases. What is important to consider in this regard is that rather than this being a departure from traditional Judaism, this is in fact allegiance. In Jewish law, much or all of the commandments in the Torah are conditional; they are based on time (the laws of Shabbat for example don’t apply on Thursday), the individual (priests or kohanim have a host of different responsibilities to non kohanim), and location (agricultural laws in Israel do not apply outside of Biblical Israel).
The fact that we don’t practice in many of the ways of our ancestors isn’t a departure at all, but rather staying true to the original document. The factors that were originally present when these laws were in force, are no longer a factor and thus, these commandments cannot be practiced.
But Jewish law aside, how do we account for change? Much or all of the Orthodox Jewish landscape as we see it today is completely different from the world of Moses or Rabbi Akiva, and yet, it is completely in line with traditional Judaism. The message cannot be changed, our task is to constantly make Judaism relevant. We focus not on changing the Torah, but on learning and adopting its essence for each generation.
The massive oral Torah initially was not allowed to be written down. As the name suggests, it was transmitted orally from father to son, teacher to student. But over the millennia, it was codified first as the Mishna in 189 CE, then a few hundred years later in the Gemara and subsequent authorities. This was because whereas before Jews had the luxury of studying in groups and could compare their studies with peers, once they were in exile it became too difficult, so notes of the texts had to be put in writing in order to keep a record of the material.
Until a few hundred years ago, Judaism was taught outside of the classroom; the modern yeshiva (think Torah College) wasn’t completed until 1806, and a network of formalized Jewish education for women was not established until 1917. Despite this, today it’s hard to find any Jewish community in the world that doesn’t send their kids to Jewish day school. Jewish education, which used to be largely the responsibility of the family, is now outsourced to outside professionals.
Maimonides in the Middle Ages was able to translate much of Jewish philosophy into the format and style of the popular Aristotelian logic model. The 1700’s saw the rise of Hasidism in Eastern Europe, a movement that focused on prayer and mysticism, amongst other things. It was directed not at the scholars of the Jewish world, but the largely unlearned, poor working class.
In post-Napoleon Germany amongst the explosive growth of German intellectualism and liberal ideology, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch oversaw the creation of a school system and movement that explained the fundamentals of Judaism and Jewish philosophy in highbrow modern German – in a way that could be understood by the New Age individual.
The Mussar movement also developed in the mid 1800’s. It focused on building character and personal development. Other notable developments of this era were the rise of youth organizations that are the ideological forefathers of the Jewish organizations at high schools and colleges today. The world that developed post WWll, both in Israel and America, saw the rise of an entire group of Jews who spend considerable portions of their adult life studying and teaching Torah, full time. In many ways, this was a concerted effort, with miraculous results, to rebuild that which was destroyed in Europe.
While I can’t claim this article does justice to the tremendous amount of innovation there is within the Jewish world, my hope is to convey that while the Torah doesn’t change, we do. The job of each generation’s scholars and individuals is to learn how to make the Torah relevant, whilst maintaining its original meaning and foundation. While this may sound like a formidable task, it was actually the goal and desire of G-d when He gave the Torah, as He said, “All of our souls (Jews from all backgrounds and all times) stood at Sinai.”