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What If Rabbi Akiva Would Visit Boro Park or Bnei Brak

For God’s Sake!?, Chapter 1
rabbi akiva in boro park

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Chaim Burg

Chaim Burg

GOD, MAN AND TIME

God and the Jews have had a long time relationship. In fact, the relationship has often been compared to a lover and his beloved (Song of Songs) or bride and groom. As in any relationship, it’s not always easy to get used to each other immediately and adjustments have to be made. All this takes time and effort on both sides.

What appears to be monolithic and unchanging to the less informed is in reality dynamic and varied.

This pattern, which has been going on for ages when examined, might disturb some thoughts or ideas that you have accepted for many years. Or it might open your eyes with wonderment and make you say, ‘I didn’t know that’ – or ‘I didn’t really think that is why”.

RANDOM THOUGHTS ABOUT CHUMROT

A famous agadah (narrative in the Talmud):

God sent Moses to the Beit Hamidrash (House of Study) of Rabbi Akiva. Moses sits in the back and hears Rabbi Akiva explaining laws that are derived from the crowns (ornamentation) found on some of the letters in the Torah. When one of the students inquires – from where did you learn this? Rabbi Akiva answers – it is ‘halachah Moshe m’sinai’ (a law passed down directly to Moses at Mount Sinai). Moses is flabbergasted since he himself hadn’t heard of these laws.

(Menachot 29B )

If Rabbi Akiva would visit Bnai Brak – his old home town – today he would have great difficulty identifying many of the religious practices of its Jewish inhabitants. His reaction to cities in both the Diaspora and Israel with Jewish communities such as Boro Park, Flatbush, Stamford Hill, Kfar Etzion and Efrat would equally perplex him.

He would realize that what they were doing was basically correct but he would quickly come to the conclusion that they were adding restriction upon restriction to the original laws.

Not only would he be in a quandary, but in spite of his knowledge and credentials, most of the religious population wouldn’t accept him as their leader. He just wasn’t stringent enough. I wouldn’t be surprised if a returning Chazon Ish would encounter the same reaction. ..

In short, Rabbi Akiva would see a world full of chumrot. Instead of perceiving a world where mitzvot (commandments) were a uniting force within the Jewish people – he would be thrust into a world where religion has became competitive and divisive. What happened?

The perception of the Jewish religion, to both many practicing and non-practicing Jews and to the world as whole, is that of a monolithic, stagnant, and non-changing or at best, a rarely changing, archaic religion – antiquated, outdated and rigid.

Practicing, knowledgeable Jews are not exempt from the difficulty of imagining the enormous changes that have occurred in their religion over the last two or three millennia.

For a religion (and a people) to survive and endure, especially under the harsh and varied conditions to which the Jews have been subjected, changes must occur and different aspects of the religion must be emphasized. This has occurred in both practical applications as well as in the philosophical realm.

Religious leaders have had to make brave halachic rulings within the framework of both Torah and rabbinic law that answered their community’s particular needs. This was a dynamic outgrowth of the constant changes taking place within the local society and the world as a whole.

The increase in literacy, the advancement of science, the growing threats of assimilation all were factors that came into play. And the result is a religion that, despite its small number of adherents and its population which has been dispersed time after time, is still alive and vibrant.

A MINI ROMP THROUGH HISTORY

The dynamic development of change had many causes and each led to a type of adaptation and modification.

For example: After the destruction of the Temple (70CE) most laws of ‘purity’ were abrogated. Therefore the mikva (ritual bath), which had held an important place had in daily life, was relegated to a position of less importance. While in Jerusalem and other places in ancient Israel the mikva had been an integral part of the wealthy person’s home – the less frequent use of the mikva later in history made it a community– not personal project.

After the Exile (70CE), the change of status from ‘rulers of their own land’ to a ‘people dependent on the good will of others’ caused a major upheaval in Jewish thinking and practices. For close to two thousand years living as second-class citizens at the whims of despots placed the Jews in an unenviable position. The threat of assimilation, whether forced or by choice, on all levels was a major cause of fear and Jewish leaders had to act and react quickly before this phenomenon could spread and the Jews would disappear.

From the Dark Ages onward, Jews very often lived in an area by the grace of some nobleman or government functionary, and had to adapt their life style so as to keep a balance between the uniqueness of their Jewish life and the demands of their patron and environment. The limits and restrictions imposed upon the Jews demanded the establishment of modes of coexistence with the population around them –living together but without surrendering their deeply rooted beliefs.

In some cases the attitude of isolation and insulation prevailed while in other communities a dialogue and modus vivendi were established. But each of these styles came at a price.

The very active role that the Church played vis-a-vis the subjugated Jews was a major concern to the Jewish community. The active attempts to convert Jews to Christianity – to a somewhat lesser degree Islam had the same agenda – posed many problems both to individuals and the Jewish community as a whole.

Within the Jewish community major changes were taking place. Some of these can be directly attributed to the progress of science and man’s inventiveness. The Jews accepted the printing press, long opposed by the Church, with open arms because they understood that the printing press would expand Jewish knowledge – by making prayer books and study books available to the Jewish masses. This brought about an increase in literacy.

The new sources of power and new implements at hand presented the rabbinate with a new set of questions and problems that had to be solved.

Although throughout the ages, the social history of the Jews changed drastically and dramatically, from one extreme to another, from place to place, from primitive to sophisticated, and the situation of the Jews vacillated from good to bad, from safe to insecure, from optimism to pessimism – the Torah did not change.

The ingenuity, profundity and complexity of halachah enabled it to fit into the framework of the varied and sometimes contradictory conditions.

The Torah has never changed and remains eternal – it is halachah - both the lenient and the more stringent points of view – that has undergone change after change after change.

Unlike Rabbi Akiva who accepted ‘ol malchut shamayim ‘ (the yoke of heaven), people today are taking on ‘ol malchut (the yoke) of Bnai Brak, Boro Park, Monsey and Lakewood‘.

For God’s Sake!? is available for purchase at CreateSpace eStore ($18.), and at Amazon.com ($18.)

About the Author: Chaim Burg was born in New York and was strongly influence by the teachings of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Z.D. Kanotopsky. A graduate of Cooper Union, Burg spent most of his active business career as a communications consultant for major U.S. and international corporations. A well regarded author and lecturer, he mainly deals with thought provoking views on the evolution of Halacha. Burg made aliya in 1975.


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