Tradition Today: Adam’s fence

Throughout the ages, “fences” have been added to Torah commandments in order to protect them, and many of these safeguards are good and necessary. But sometimes they can go too far.

Apples! Autumn! _311 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Apples! Autumn! _311
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
According to a midrash found in Avot d’Rabbi Natan (The Fathers according to Rabbi Nathan), an ancient commentary to Ethics of the Fathers, the tragedy of the exile from Eden was caused by “a siyag [safeguard] that Primal Adam created” by adding to God’s command concerning the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. God had told him, “Do not eat from the fruit of the tree” (Genesis 2:17), but Adam, according to the midrash, added “do not touch it” when he informed Eve of the prohibition.
She repeated that to the serpent (Genesis 3:3), who knew better and used this information to trick her.
“I will touch it and nothing will happen,” he said, and he did. She then touched it and found that there were no bad consequences. From this she deduced that what Adam had said was not true, and proceeded to eat and to offer the fruit to Adam as well. So it was really all Adam’s fault.
The Sages draw two conclusions from this:
1. One should not add anything to what one has heard (when transmitting it further).
2. Better 10 hands-breadths that are sturdy than 100 arms-lengths that collapse.
Throughout the ages, “fences” have been added to Torah commandments in order to protect them, and many of these safeguards are good and necessary. But sometimes they can go too far and bring about the collapse of the structure of Jewish practice and belief. We seem to be living in a time and a place in which fences are added without need and without any regard to their consequences. Some are ridiculous and some are truly scandalous.
The use of “mehadrin” kashrut certificates, for example, is truly strange. It all started with the practice of “glatt kosher” meat, where meat from an animal whose kashrut had been questioned was not used. But what is the meaning of “mehadrin” regarding fish, milk, vegetables, fruit or water? It enriches those who grant certification on the label, but does little or nothing for the practice of kashrut.
Much more serious is the addition of fences to such matters as conversion, marriage or divorce. Those who know Jewish law know that the requirements for conversion are much less stringent than those demanded by official rabbinical courts in Israel and elsewhere. When a court refuses to convert someone because she could not recite the Ashrei prayer by heart or would not agree to refrain from swimming in a pool alongside men, we are dealing with “fences of Primal Adam” and not with Jewish law. The same could be said concerning demands for proof of Jewishness when getting married, when Jewish law holds that anyone who claims to be Jewish and has been identified as such is to be considered Jewish unless there is a good reason to question it.
When a prominent rabbi states that “it is forbidden for a woman to wear a tallit [prayer shawl]” although Jewish law specifically says that women are permitted (not required) to wear it, is this not a fence that causes only harm? And speaking of women, the idea that one may not look at a woman’s picture or walk on the same side of the street as a woman, or that women must sit in the back of the bus – all of these are fences that harm and that therefore cannot stand.
Judaism has enough regulations so that there is no need to add any more. These strictures that are not true to Jewish law or to the spirit of the Torah can only cause the entire edifice to collapse and bring Judaism into disrepute, turning it from a religion of light into a religion of darkness. As the Sages say, we should learn from the fence that Adam made and not follow in his footsteps, for that way leads only to catastrophe.The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).