Tradition Today: A fence too tall

Judaism today needs leaders who make it accessible to all rather than erecting more and more barriers that keep people away.

December 1, 2016 17:32
3 minute read.
Chief Rabbis Yosef and Lau

Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The members of the Great Assembly said: “Create a barrier around the Torah” (Avot 1:1).

This saying, ascribed to the group of sages assembled by Ezra in the fifth century BCE, has been understood to mean that we should protect the commandments of the Torah by adding fences or guards around them to make certain that they will not be violated.

Thus, for example, we should light Shabbat candles long before Shabbat actually begins and we continue Shabbat after the day is really over. Similarly if commerce is forbidden on Shabbat, even handling money should be avoided. This makes good sense, but later Sages also questioned how far this should go and thought that there are times when “creating a barrier” is self-defeating. They taught, for example, that Adam added a barrier to God’s command with disastrous results: The sages noted that whereas God had said to Adam, “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die” (Genesis 2:16-17), when Eve told the serpent what God had said she added an additional prohibition – not touching the tree at all – “You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die” (Genesis 3:3).

The serpent used that unwarranted addition of not touching as a way to mislead her.

He touched the tree and was not harmed, causing Eve to believe that Adam had lied to her.

Therefore she also ate the fruit and brought it to Adam.

Where did she get the idea that touching the tree was forbidden, the sages wondered.

Their answer was that she was only repeating what Adam had told her. He did not trust her and had added a “barrier” to God’s command, assuming that if she would not touch it, then she would surely not eat from it. The sages concluded, therefore, that it was actually the barrier that Adam had added that caused them to transgress: “From this we learn: One should not add to the words one has heard. Rabbi Yosi said: A barrier of 10 handbreadths that remains standing is preferable to a 100-cubit high one that collapses” (The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, 1).

As Rabbi Yosi put it, one must be careful about adding too many prohibitions because if there are too many, in the end none will be observed. Adding and adding more and more restrictions will only result in bringing about contempt for what is truly important. Unfortunately we seem to be living in an era and a place where official rabbinic authorities ignore Rabbi Yosi’s advice and delight in adding more and more strictures that are not truly needed and that end up making Judaism more difficult to observe, thus causing people to distance themselves from what they perceive to be a burden rather than a delight.

The requirements of proving one’s Jewishness in order to be married here, for instance, go far beyond what Jewish law requires and the result is that more and more couples refuse to be married through the rabbinate and, often, choose not to marry at all. Potential converts here are presented with “requirements” that have no basis in Jewish law and are therefore either discouraged from applying or turned down for no reason.

The result is social crises of enormous dimensions. The fact that women are not permitted to have or read from a Torah scroll or to hold a women’s minyan at the Western Wall when none of that is prohibited by the Halacha is another scandal.

The recent decision by the Sephardi chief rabbi to rescind a perfectly valid divorce granted by an official rabbinic court two years ago is another instance of adding more and more difficulties instead of solving problems.

Some 2,000 years ago similar problems existed when Shammai turned away converts for no reason, but then there was a Hillel who accepted them. As they said, “The irritability of Shammai would have driven us from the world. The patience of Hillel brought us under the wings of the divine presence” (Shabbat 31a). Unfortunately we seem to have nothing but Shammais when we desperately need another Hillel.

Our rabbinic leaders are constantly building higher and higher barriers, forgetting Rabbi Yosi’s sage advice. Judaism today needs leaders who make it accessible to all rather than erecting more and more barriers that keep people away and cause Judaism to become irrelevant or even worse.

The writer is a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly. His latest book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (JPS).

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