Past Perfect: The Torah is for all

Many of the problems that exist in the Jewish world today have to do with political and societal norms.

torah scroll 88 (photo credit: )
torah scroll 88
(photo credit: )
There are numerous instances in the Talmud when the rabbis state that if a certain behavior is permissible to some Jews, why is it not permissible to all? The Talmud and the Torah itself recognize exceptional circumstances, unusual pressures, differing opinions that need be taken into account, but the Talmud never advocated differing standards of halachic behavior. It did recognize that are different personality needs and differing societal mores. But the Torah was always the same Torah for all Jews. What was expressly forbidden in the Torah was forbidden to all, and what was permitted was also permitted to all. Many of the problems that exist in the Jewish world today have nothing to do with Halacha; they have to do with political and societal norms. Elevating these societal and political issues to the realms of Torah law and Halacha only sharpens our differences and creates unnecessary friction, which eventually casts very negative light upon all religious Jews and the Torah generally. In the haftara from Jeremiah that was read for parshiot Matot-Masei the prophet strikingly says "that those who hold the Torah tightly know Me not." Those who hold the Torah tightly unto themselves, who see no one else but themselves and their society and who are therefore completely separated from the rest of the Jewish people truly know Me not. For the Torah is for everyone and not merely the self-anointed few. Everyone has the right to create his own grouping and society but no one has the right thereby to create a halachic basis that does not truly exist and to claim the Torah exclusively for himself. Over the ages of Jewish history there have always been differences over rabbinic power and identity, differing societal norms and customs and general attitudes toward the non-Jewish world and culture. The societal norms of the Jews in the Middle Ages in Spain were not those of the Jews in Germany and Central Europe, and the norms of Jewish society in Renaissance Italy certainly did not resemble those of the Eastern European shtetl. What unified all of these diverse parts of Jewry were Torah and Halacha, with all of its allowances for differing nuances while preserving the basic whole of traditional Jewish law and life. With the advent of Hassidism in the 18th century new and differing societal norms were introduced into Eastern European Jewish life. But again these new mores were in the main restricted to societal behavior. And since in the Exile the Jews lived in places far removed one from the other, these societal differences were tolerated and rarely were the cause of continuing friction among the different societies of Jews. This luxury of being able to be separate one from the other has been seriously reduced in Israel. Here we are all thrown together so that the societal mores of one group clash daily and regularly with those of other groups. The only way therefore to justify one's societal mores over those of others is to elevate them to the status of Halacha. This is a terribly damaging process for all concerned. The struggle for turf, political and economic power, influence and direction of the Jewish world has been the hallmark of internal Jewish life for the past two centuries. The erroneous hopes and unfulfilled expectations of secularism, Enlightenment, nationalism, Marxism, humanism, etc., all of which captured much Jewish support over the past centuries, have as a result created a climate of separatism, us against them, in much of the observant religious society. Feeling threatened and constantly on the defensive, much of religious society has wrapped the Torah about itself, unwilling and unable to share it intelligently with others. Walling out the outside world to the best of its ability, this grouping allows its societal norms not to be seen as that but rather as Halacha from Moses on Sinai. This only serves to further the frictions and deepen the differences between Jews. Thinking that one's societal norms are those that are best for everyone smacks of arrogance and weakness at one and the same time. A system of education that teaches that one's societal norms are paramount even to Halacha only reinforces the difficulties that our religious society already faces in a world of instant communication and multiculturalism. Once we agree that the Torah is for everyone and that it operates very effectively in different places and differing societies, we will be on the way to the balanced view of life that the Torah truly demands from us. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.