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October 26, 2014 / 2 Heshvan, 5775
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‘Because It Says So in the Tow-raw!’

Mrs. Cohen displayed that simple, unquestioning, adamant adherence to Torah-true Judaism that typifies many of our German-Jewish brethren.

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I have spent my entire professional career as an “outreach rabbi.” I have always served as the rabbi of Orthodox congregations where the majority of members were not personally Orthodox. As a teacher of non-religious Jews, one must learn to communicate in a fashion that can convince skeptics of the beauty of our Torah.

One Erev Shavuot, I decided to share some of the wisdom of Aish Hatorah’s Discovery Seminar with a group of residents in a local nursing home.

I walked into my Bible class and presented them with a provocative question. “How do we know,” I asked, “that God gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai?”

I wasn’t quite prepared for the response. A little lady with a kerchief on her head – I’ll call her Mrs. Cohen – who almost always sat quietly through my classes, called out, in a pronounced German accent, “Because it says so in the Tow-raw!”

I was frustrated. She broke my momentum. Sure, I thought, she believes that, but what about everyone else?

“Yes, of course,” I continued, “it says so in the Torah. But how do we know the Torah’s description is actually what happened?”

“Because it says so in the Tow-raw!”

I gave up. Mrs. Cohen stubbornly refused to even entertain the consideration that the Torah could be anything but absolutely true. She could not comprehend that there could even be a question.

Mrs. Cohen displayed that simple, unquestioning, adamant adherence to Torah-true Judaism that typifies many of our German-Jewish brethren. These “Deutsche Yidden” withstood the onslaught of Reform in their midst by plainly and clearly stating that there is no room whatsoever for compromise in matters of faith and Jewish law.

Some would view such a display of “blind” faith as naïve. The “enlightened” among us might even consider such an attitude to be intellectually lazy. But such unquestioning loyalty to God is what earned us the right to receive the Torah. When our people said at Mount Sinai, “We will do and we will listen” (Exodus, 24:7), they were making a commitment to fully accept the entire Torah, even before understanding it.

There was no negotiating at Sinai. No appeals to update the rules. No declarations of “Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way!”

Alas, things are different now. One can barely go through a day without seeing or reading yet another story in the non-Jewish or secular Jewish media about a new “approach” to Torah Judaism. A new revision. A new interpretation.

Today we read that the Book of Deuteronomy was written by multiple authors. Today we read that abortion and same-sex marriage are Jewish causes. Today we read that Torah Judaism’s gender distinctions are outmoded. Today we read that the Abraham and Sarah are mythological figures.

Essentially, there is nothing new to these assertions. What is new is that these statements are coming from the Orthodox camp.

There was a time when Mrs. Cohen was the norm. People cherished and revered our unbroken Mesorah. They accepted the Torah’s values as a given. Those who rejected it identified themselves as belonging to an alternative denomination and moved on. Today’s approach is to simply redefine Orthodoxy.

It seems almost as if it’s a coordinated effort, with many of the same people writing the same things in different publications on an ongoing basis, all designed to convince the masses that these new practices are consistent with mainstream Orthodoxy.

All over the country we are seeing attempts to redefine Orthodoxy. Graduates of semicha programs from various yeshivot have decided that their title of “rabbi” authorizes them to revise Jewish law. And they are succeeding. They cherry-pick obscure minor opinions from ancient sources and reconstruct Jewish custom and observance into something that those whom they are quoting would never recognize. Deleting berachot and making up new ones; female clergy reading and writing megillot; women getting aliyot and leading services; advocating acceptance of same-sex marriage; attributing human authorship to the Torah; relaxing divorce and conversion standards – all in the name of “Orthodoxy.”

As the Left continues to push the envelope, the Modern Orthodox mainstream is, by and large, not responding. Some OU shuls and some YU graduates and some RCA members are engaging in activities that are far from Orthodox, leading the confused masses to believe this is an acceptable form of Orthodoxy. And the longer the mainstream “centrist” institutions remain silent, the more they are ceding the center to the Left.

The RCA has been speaking out and will hopefully continue. YU and the OU need to do the same. It is time to be proactive. It is time to educate.Far too few Jews fit the Mrs. Cohen paradigm. People have questions about Torah values, and most of what they are hearing is from the Left. We must clearly and repeatedly articulate why we believe what we believe, and why we reject what we reject.

A message to the mainstream organizations: To paraphrase Mordechai’s warning to the queen (Esther 4:14): If we persist in remaining silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come from some other place, and we will render ourselves eternally irrelevant.

To be sure, it is sometimes necessary to introduce new approaches. Some have argued that the Chofetz Chaim and other world-class Torah leaders created a “feminist revolution” with the introduction of the Bais Yaakov educational system for girls because the girls were no longer getting the education they needed at home.

I would argue that I am saying the same thing the Chofetz Chaim was saying. In order to enable girls to withstand the onslaught of non-Torah values in the outside world, these gedolim insisted it was time to teach them intensely in the classroom.

In a changing world with new, high-tech challenges to our Mesorah, we have to respond with education. Don’t throw out our values and revamp our practices due to these challenges. Teach the world why our time-honored traditions are still relevant and why these challenges are off-base.

Where are the genuine gedolim to endorse the changes that are advocated today? If Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Moshe Feinstein were alive today, would they accept these suggested changes? Do their successors accept them?

Perhaps that question can be answered with the following story.

Back in the ‘80s, shortly after I received semicha from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem, I submitted an application to a shul. The previous rabbi had introduced several innovations, and they wanted to make sure the new rabbi would continue them. (Suffice it to say that those innovations pale in comparison to what passes for Orthodox practice in some circles today.) I discussed it with my rosh yeshiva, Rav David Feinstein, who pointed out to me how the Chasam Sofer had fought tooth-and-nail against moving the Torah reading table from the middle to the front of the shul, an innovation introduced by the Reform movement.

“There is no prohibition against reading the Torah from the front of the shul,” said Rav Feinstein. “But once they started making changes, we can see where it all led. It could be that some of the things they want you to do are not technical violations of halacha. But I’ll tell you one thing: It’s not Orthodox Judaism!”

I decided I could not serve as the rabbi of that congregation. I withdrew my application. In doing so, I was following the guidance of my rebbe. I had to – that’s what it says in the Tow-raw.

About the Author: Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz, a mohel (BrisRabbi.com) and chaplain in Monsey, NewYork, is a member of the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His blog on the weekly Torah portion can be read at TorahTalk.org.


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7 Responses to “‘Because It Says So in the Tow-raw!’”

  1. Dan Silagi says:

    It says so in the Tow-Raw that the universe (with the exception of God) was created 5.774 years ago, plus a couple of months. Forget the fact that distant galaxies, which were created billions of years ago, are being viewed by astronomers as they existed billions of years ago.

    So, with the very first sentence in Genesis being obviously wrong, why should I believe ONE WORD of the Tow-Raw? And of course, those who believe EVERY WORD of the Tow-Raw don't believe even ONE WORD of the New Testament. That's all heretical nonsense, right? Just ask Rabbi Seplowitz, or just about any other rabbi, for that matter.

    I believe God created religion — all of them — as a means for mankind to discover God's true nature. And that means probing and questioning, and not accepting things on faith. Thus Rabbi Seplowitz was on the right track when he posed the question, "How do you know God gave Moses the commandments at Mt. Sinai? Unfortunately, he used his hypothetical skepticism as a teaching tool, and the lesson he taught — that you must accept everything in the Tow-Raw on faith, is totally and absolutely wrong.

    I believe in a Supreme Being. I am not an atheist, nor agnostic. But I also believe that the Bible is just a bunch of stories, written by people, who like me, were searching for the true nature of God, and decided they had the answers.

  2. Dan Silagi says:

    Check out Seth Lloyd: "Progamming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos" (Knopf, 2006). Lloyd advances strong arguments that the entire universe is a giant computer, and all of us provide input to it.

  3. Gil Gilman says:

    You have built up a straw dog and given it a chew toy. Unfortunately, the straw dog could not move its mouth to chew. The Torah says no such thing. But I'm sure you will find some other excuse to justify your lack of willingness to believe one word e.g. "You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger, the widow or the fatherless child."

  4. Oh this piece is piffle. Aside from anything else nowhere does the Tanach say that God wrote the Tanach.

    There are references to all kinds of books written down, discovered, lost, collated… it's a collection, of course it is.

    Then there are those Chumash verses that speak from a time after the Chumash time period has passed ('Thus spoke Moses from the other side of the Jordan' for a start).

    And then there is that nagging notion that much of the quasi-historic quasi-scientific recounting in the Torah is non-historical and non-scientific (it's not enough Gerald Schroeder and co. to find some overlap between Torah and science, anything out-of-kilter should be enough to make either literal-revelation theology or God nonsense. Birds and fish created first, and then animals?!)

    The only meaningful defence for a literal revelation theology I've encountered is that these, and so many other proofs, are booby traps set by the Divine to catch out those of us without the pure simple faith described in the article. But that turns God into …. it's certainly unpersuasive for me.

    A forceful defence of simplicity must be fun to write, it's just simply untrue. And that, speaking non-literally, is precisely the problem Abraham had with his father's foolishness. Jews were once proud iconoclasts, we should be so again.

  5. Dan Silagi says:

    I went to your Facebook page. I guess you and your idol, Michele Bachmann, both take the Bible literally. That's your problem.

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