Different, But Still the Same

August 30th: Re’eh
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
Though the Book of Deuteronomy presents itself as a set of farewell lectures by Moses, critical scholarship of the Torah suggests a slightly different origin and agenda. According to a story in II Kings 22, during a renovation of the Temple (622 BCE), an “ancient scroll was found,” and the information in that scroll was the basis of a series of religious reforms. Modern scholars think that this “ancient” scroll is what we now know as Deuteronomy and that it was actually written in Josiah’s reign and ascribed to Moses to establish its authority.

Among the clues Biblical scholars have used to make this case is that fact that Deuteronomy seems to address a number of long-standing conflicts and questions that had been plaguing organized Jewish life for a number of centuries. All of a sudden, answers appeared, and they were from the hand of the greatest of all Hebrew prophets, Moses (though he happened to have died some 600 years before).

Among Deuteronomy’s reforms is that instructions in the Torah—i.e., God’s words to Moses—are immutable and never to be changed: “Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it.” (Deuteronomy 13.1) This significant change—since God had been given to changing instructions from time to time up till this point—comes in the middle of a discussion which bans forms of Hebrew worship which had been in existence for centuries. No longer could the One God be worshipped in holy sites around the country; worship of the One God could now only be done at the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. And, lest someone come later and try to change things, this section warns the people about False Prophets. If anyone says that God wants things done differently from Deuteronomy’s rules, that person is a False Prophet and should be executed. Anything different, any changes are lies and are not to be tolerated.

I cannot speak to the wisdom or necessity of centralizing national worship during Josiah’s reign. However, the finality which Josiah and his planners placed on our religion left it without the flexibility necessary for adaption and adjustment in the future.

We’ll hear more about Josiah’s problematic thinking on Rosh Hashanah, but right now I would like to consider the way our Judaism recovered from or worked around Josiah’s and Deuteronomy’s constraints.

The problem is textual inflexibility. If the instructions given are immutable and unchangeable, what does one (or a religion) do when the instructions are no longer applicable or relevant or helpful? What happens when new situations require instructions not included in the originals?

As a dynamic and ultimately successful religious civilization, Judaism has developed a number of flexibility and creativity mechanisms, but we have always had to work around or negotiate the Deuteronomic thinking that prohibits anything resembling a new or different instruction. Here are a few of our most successful Halachic “work-arounds.”

The most creative mechanism was the nature/source of Rabbi Akiva’s knowledge. Given that no word of the Torah could ever be changed, it was taught that Rabbi Akiva’s innovations were not innovations at all, but rather interpretations already written in the Torah. Where? In the taggim, the little crowns on some Torah letters. There is neither rhyme nor reason to these scribal ornaments; they are just an artistic tradition handed down over the centuries by the Scribes. However, Rabbi Akiva was believed to have had extreme mystical experiences where he learned hidden knowledge—among other things, the ability to understand God’s hidden meanings in the taggim! Thus were what seemed to be innovations actually God’s Will all along!

Rabbi Akiva’s creativity was just a microcosm of the larger Rabbinic enterprise in which Biblical Judaism was completely remade. The mechanism was something the Rabbis called Torah She’b’al Peh, the Oral Torah. Rather than change even a letter of the Torah—which Deuteronomy forbade, the Rabbis taught that there was a second Torah given orally to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai and then passed down orally for a thousand years. The Rabbis had received this Oral Torah and anything they developed from 200 BCE to 200 CE was not new or innovative. Rather they were just promulgating God’s original intentions. This Oral Torah was the basis for the Mishnah and the Gemara—together called the Talmud—which completely reformed Judaism. Thus was flexibility and adaptation not change but rather restoration.

A final example—though there are many more—was the mysterious teacher who revealed to Rabbi Israel son of Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, the innovative insights that led to Hassidism. This teacher was Achiya the Shilonite, a minor prophet who lived in the days of King Solomon. Though dead for some 2500 years, he would come to Rabbi Israel at night and teach him hidden knowledge that was ancient and from God, but that no one on earth had known for a long time. The Rabbinic authorities of the time, including such personages as Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, were mortified at the changes the Hassidim preached, and they opposed them and even convinced the Polish or Russian authorities to imprison many of the early Hassidic rabbis. Thus was Hassidism very, very different, but, in the minds of its adherents, all based on God’s ancient teachings. This story of Achiya the Shilonite gave their changes the Bible’s imprimatur.

Looking back, one can certainly make the case that the Rabbinic innovations of the Talmud were good for Judaism—that they helped the essential truths of our religion continue through dramatically changing times and helped Jews negotiate very tricky waters. The same could be said for the innovations and contributions of Hassidic Judaism. However, both are clearly violations of Deuteronomy’s instruction, “to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it.”

As important as Tradition is in our long and continuing Jewish endeavor, flexibility and adaptation are also essential. Though we strive to venerate the old ways and keep connected to our past, the vicissitudes of life and the realities of the world have made adaptation necessary for our continued mission. We have just had to word our new ideas carefully—lest we lose our moorings and drift away from our Divine Calling.