Shaya Cohen -


The Spirit must not Give Way to the Letter

Judaism has been misinterpreted for millennia. In no small part, it is because the purpose of the Torah itself is not widely understood. The commandments cannot be performed without the benefit of our Oral Tradition, which means that the Torah is not a how-to book of laws.

Instead, the Torah is a text that focuses on the “why”. It explains the commandments, connecting them to the origins of the world and the events of our forefathers. And so when we read the Torah, we take every word seriously as a guide to understanding the reasons behind the commandments, but usually not the commandments themselves.

Our Oral Tradition, our sages, have developed the extent to which we expand or contract the commandments in the Torah. For example, we are forbidden to engage in “baal tashchis”, gratuitous destruction. We are not supposed to chop down fruit trees, or throw food away, or even unnecessarily destroy buildings! And where do we get this idea? From Deut. 20:19:

When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down, for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged of thee?

One narrow commandment is expanded in Jewish Law to encompass all manners of destruction!

On the other hand, the Torah is full of commandments about putting people to death for sinful actions: murder, adultery, violating the Shabbos, a rebellious son, etc. But for all of these, the Jewish court that wielded capital punishment very rarely actually put anyone to death. The Gemara tells us that such a court was called “bloody” if it ordered the death penalty once in 70 years!

How do we square these two things? How does it make sense to interpret the law so broadly that an injunction about fruit trees in time of war applies to food left on the dinner table, while we know that, while the Torah commands us to end of the life of a juvenile delinquent, no Jewish court ever ordered it to be carried out?

I think the answer lies in our opening statement: the Torah (the Written Law) shows us what is right and wrong: it is there to show us the principle. Murder is wrong. It is deserving of the death penalty. Everyone who contemplates murder should understand the magnitude and severity of what they are thinking of doing, and hopefully be deterred from doing so.

But once someone has actually committed murder: unless someone is at risk of doing it again, how often does society really need to put the murderer to death? The answer, at least in Jewish Law and history, is, “not very often at all.”

Similarly, commandments like “eye for an eye” have always been understood in Jewish Law as not be taken literally. Instead, personal injury was settled through financial penalties, scaled specifically to “cost” the wrongdoer as if they had lost the eye in turn.

Our sages implicitly understood that the Torah was meant to establish the principle, not spell out the actual conclusions of the court. This is why the commandment to chop down the fruit tree was expanded: the Torah goes to great lengths to explain the commandment, and so the explanation itself is understood as a commandment in its own right, independent of fruit trees in time of war. “Is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged of thee?” We should not gratuitously destroy food. We are commanded to avoid collateral damage to all things good.

Many other commandments can thus be understood the same way. A child who is the product of a highly forbidden sexual activity, is called a mamzer, and they are forbidden to enter into the community with G-d for ten generations (Deut. 23:3). Why ten generations? The first sexual perversion in the Torah is when Noach’s son Ham takes advantage of his drunk father (Gen. 9:22). From that act, G-d does not talk with man again for ten generations – Avraham being ten generations after Noach.

How do we actually interpret the law of the mamzer? Rabbi Riskin says that in the previous generation the two great sages Ovadiah Yosef and Rav Moshe Feinstein never ruled that someone was a mamzer. The Torah tells us what is right and wrong, so we might be guided by its light. But the application of the laws is much, much more lenient.

In Jewish Law, we do not make the idealized principle of the Torah the enemy of the good.

Nor does G-d Himself do this! One might think, for example, that a relationship with Hashem is accessible only to great scholars, to the holiest of people. The Torah tells us otherwise! Bilaam was an idol worshipper, and he was given the gift of prophecy. Avraham’s first connection to G-d, according to the simplest meaning of the text, was that G-d says to him, “Lech Lecha” – Go out. There is no indication that Avraham was at that moment, a particularly righteous man. Taken to its absolute extreme: a man whose parentage was unclear, who dressed as an Egyptian, and married a non-Jewish woman while living away from any Jewish community was given the opportunity to speak with Hashem at the burning bush – and this man, Moshe, became the conduit for the entire Torah and our greatest leader. But at that first moment at the sneh, he was “just” someone who saw something off the beaten path – and investigated it.

The Torah seems to tell us that every person is given at least one opportunity to connect with Hashem, and the opportunity seems to be available to every person. (I suspect that the opportunities are much more frequent even than this – I see G-d’s hand in my life every day.)

But if this opportunity is open to all humanity, then the demarcation that answers the question “who is a Jew?”, a definitional question which is essential for keeping Jewish Law within a community, is not essential for a Jewish state of mind. Just as a convert who yearns for a relationship with Hashem could be said to have a yiddishe neshama (a Jewish soul), so, too, any person who wants to have a relationship with our Creator has an opportunity do so. We are driven by our spiritual hunger, our attraction to energy in all its forms (isn’t it odd that man is the only mammal who is obsessed with fire?).

Every person has their own story. We are not meant to be like everyone else – or even any other single person! These opportunities to connect with G-d and each other are individualized and unique. The common thread is that the Torah shows us the way, by explaining what it all means, helping us discern the moral path. But once a person makes a decision, for good or ill, the Torah moves on. While the text is strict, we can (and do) choose to be lenient, with no conflict. What is done is done. Peculiarly for a nation that is so old, we do not dwell on the past. We prefer, instead, to always focus on what we can or should do next. For as long as there is life, there is an opportunity to do good.

Comments are welcome!

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