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Who Knows But God

For God’s Sake!?, Chapter 3
God-and teh world

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Chaim Burg

Chaim Burg

Even Moses was not able to see and know God. For understanding God is beyond the capability of the human mind – irrespective of our intelligence or the depth of our study.

So to come up with a definitive answer of exactly what is it that God wants is impossible.

Is it the traditional 613 biblical commandments (BT Makot 24a) plus rabbinic additions? Or is it the eleven laws that Rabbi Smalai attributes to King David (Psalms 15)? Maybe it is the 7 Noachide laws (laws for all mankind which include 1- blasphemy 2- idolatry 3- sexual immorality 4- murder 5- robbery 6- eating a portion of a living animal 7-administration of justice). Micha (chap 6) further reduced it to three (do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God). Amos (chap 5) and Habakuk (chap 2) the prophets got it down to one. So did Rabbi Akiva (Love your neighbor as yourself) stating that the remainder of the Torah is commentary.

We are only human and with the power and authority that God has given us we try – as best as we can – to reach the correct decisions.

Not all adjudicators agree, many contradict each other. The bottom line remains – only God knows what is correct.

DO YOU KNOW WHAT GOD REALLY WANTS??

I don’t – and I dare say neither do you. Nor does anyone else.

You might be able to say: you think that God wants this. Or maybe: from what I’ve learnt it seems to me that this is the next logical step. I can even see someone stating that this procedure was passed down from

previous generations and important halachic authorities.

But is that exactly what God wants? Maybe. Or maybe not. I’m not sure, and to tell the truth neither is anyone else a hundred percent sure.

God took Moses to the 49th level of binah (knowledge) – just one short step below the 50th stage which would have revealed His truths to Moses and possibly exactly what God wants.

Even though Moses reached the highest attainable degree of knowledge, he wasn’t so arrogant as to assume that he could answer every question with which he was confronted. There are two occasions in the Torah where Moses asks God for resolution of a point that wasn’t clear to him.

But today there are those that are so sure about obscure points of Jewish law that they offer their solutions as the one and only possibility.

Even a very definitive sentence in the Prophets – ma hashem doresh meimach (what does God want from you– Micha 6:8) has given rise to hundreds of pages of commentary and discussion. Some in total contradiction to others.

Some with similar points of view but reaching their conclusion via totally different routes.

Does God want and demand the maximum? Should our lives be fraught with unlimited fear and trepidation – or should they be enveloped in a warm non-demanding relationship with the Master of the Universe? A relationship of love and understanding – like a father to son.

The truth of the matter is that we just don’t know. Our stance and attitude are most likely based on the background in which we were raised. With whom did you study and from which school of thought did this teacher emerge.

Your family, community and rabbi play a major role in your attitude. But none of these people or points of influence have any first hand information about what God really wants.

STRINGENT OR LENIENT…. GOOD?? BAD??

Halachah is a very complicated matter. One only has to look at the thousands of books that have been written on the subject to realize the immensity of its scope. It has to be, because it covers all aspects of life and has been in force for some three thousand plus years. During that time the Jews have lived under all kinds of conditions and circumstances that varied from one location to another.

Halachic issues fall into various categories. Some areas are very clearly black or white – permitted or forbidden. YES or NO. But most situations fall into a grey area where an unequivocal answer is difficult, if not impossible.

Over the course of time various experts on halachah have raised salient points, both for and against the question at hand. Because, as this is human nature, there were sages who saw things from a more lenient and others from a more stringent point of view.

In addition, circumstances and variables that surrounded the question at hand played pivotal roles in reaching a rabbinic ruling.

And so the grey area has become larger and larger. The questions of leniency or stringency have become rallying points for philosophies, political agendas, and have become a means of protection and differentiation.

Elu v’elu divrai Elokim chaim!

(BT Eruvin 13:b, Gitin 6b) Both the stringent (chumrah) and the lenient (kulah) points of view are valid.

The question one might ask is – which is better?

The parsha (portion) of the Torah dealing with a Nazir (Nazarite) states that certain stringencies are permitted – even encouraged. For example, abstaining from wine as a behavioral correction. It is a personal way of

reaching certain goals that individuals set for themselves. But the Gemara states (Jerusalem Talmud Nazir, Chap 1, Hal 3) that the period of abstinence /stringencies should not exceed 30 days. And two most interesting laws are commanded of the Nazir following the period of stringency – the Nazir has to bring a sin offering to the Temple in Jerusalem and he has to drink wine. The sin offering is because basically stringencies are prohibited and are only a means of attuning one to act normally later. And the commandment to drink wine afterwards is to show that the behavioral correction was successful.

From the above we see that chumrot have a place in Jewish life. But there is another side to the coin.

In the Talmud (Baba Kama 80b) the story is told of a very religious person who didn’t accept a lenient ruling by the Rabbis and was nearly excommunicated.

In another incident the Talmud tells us of a sage named Eliezer Zeera who wore black shoes, an uncommon shoe color at that point in history, as a sign of mourning for the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. While showing signs of mourning of the Temple is admirable, fellow scholars looked askance at his actions and considered it arrogant – he was placed in jail.

So we see an ambivalent attitude towards chumrot …and the same can be said about kulot.

Maturity also plays a role. As one develops and matures he evolves a personal approach to things, both in the world of Torah and the world he lives in. This describes the phrase ‘talmid shehigiah lehora’ah’ (a student who

reaches a level deemed by his teacher to render a decision in the teacher’s absence).

The key determining factor should be consistency. If you accept going the chumrah route then you must act stringently in all (or at least most) elements of your religious practice – or in other words – in virtually everything that you do.

Glatt kosher (very strictly supervised) food demanded by a prisoner in jail for embezzling from widows and orphans, or for that matter for any criminal, is an example of an inconsistent chumrah-follower gone wrong.

The story has been told that a rabbi once came to see the famous Jerusalem sage and halachic authority, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, z.l. He asked him if a certain chumrah that was practiced in his community had any foundation in halachah or belonged to the world of religious fancy. The sage responded that there was no foundation for such a stringency and advised the rabbi to tell his community to repeal this practice. Several weeks later, the Jerusalem sage met the rabbi and asked him if he had told his community to stop practicing this mistaken chumrah. The rabbi turned to the sage and said, half jokingly, “No, it is a leniency which my congregation cannot live with…”

DON’T FENCE ME IN

Let us compare a Torah prohibition to a pit in the field.

To prevent people from transgressing and ‘falling into the pit’ some rabbinic authorities could decide to construct a ‘fence’ around the pit. For fear that the fence may not be enough, over a period of time other rabbinic authorities may also put the field off-limits. This could continue so that others may build a wall around the field. While even others could prohibit their congregations from crossing the road that ran around that field.

Before long people would be unsure what constituted the original Torah prohibition to be avoided – the road? The wall? The field? The fence? Or was it possibly the pit?

In today’s society all too often the wrapping disguises the content of the package and like a child given a gift – the wrapping/’fence’ becomes the object and the gift/’law’ becomes secondary.

The fact is that most people have lost track of the basics. What is the raw halachah? What is the biblical injunction (with its Talmudic explanation)? Once this is learnt, then one can start to study the fences, walls and other elements that our Rabbis instituted to protect the biblical law. It isn’t easy – but Talmud Torah (learning Torah) is among the ultimate mitzvot. It is also imperative to learn what circumstances led rabbis to take these measures.

With that background and information the understanding of the development and evolution of halachah in general and that particular halachah will add depth to the performance of the mitzvah. To realize that the practice has a history gives the performance much more meaning and depth.

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

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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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