Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Pirke Avot 1:1- Dealing with "Building a Fence Around Torah" in the 21st Century

In many world religions, the monastic lifestyle so prevalent in the paradigm of aestheticism is perceived as optimal for acquiring a spiritual life. Judaism, on the other hand, finds itself somewhere between aestheticism and hedonism. Judaism believes in taking the mundanity of physical life and elevating it to holiness, thereby infusing the spiritual with the physical.

Since Judaism is in the middle of the two aforementioned extremes, one can correctly infer that Judaism has a degree of abstinence involved. G-d gave the Jewish people commandments to follow, and a majority of those commandments are negative. If a Jew is wanting to follow the "will of G-d," that Jew cannot treat their actions with a laissez-faire, "anything goes" mentality. There would have to be a degree of self-restraint.

To help further assure that the commandments, the Rabbis, in their wisdom, "built a fence around Torah (Pirke Avot 1:1)." These rabbinic enactments, called gezeirot, were considered to be of greater piety than simply follow the commandment itself because it shows that the individual wants to take the utmost care to avoid even the slightest potential danger of violating a mitzvah (Rabbeinu Yonah's commentary on ibid). I can certainly understand the benefits of such a maxim. It helps distinguish between what one wants and what one truly needs. The fences can help avoid the violations of commandments, which can help foster a closer relationship with G-d. The discipline in being able to self-restrain, and thus abstain, give people a better grasp exercising free will.

In short, these rabbinic fences can help make one a well-balanced individual who is a productive member of society. As the adage goes, "there's always too much of a good thing." In the Talmud (Baba Kama 79B), it states that a restriction should not be imposed on a given community unless the majority is able to abide by it. Considering that about ninety percent of the Jewish community is considered non-observant (i.e., not Orthodox), I cannot help but discern that "a fence around the Torah" has backfired somewhere along the way.

The Orthodox are obsessed with the concept of "stringency for stringency's sake." [I would also like to add that when I comment on the Orthodox community, I always feel I need to invoke the principle of "the further to the Right you go, the more it is true] I have met some Orthodox Jews that get some sort of masochistic pleasure of enjoying strictures. For such an individual, strictures "bring them closer to G-d," and anybody who does not share their euphoric state are deemed to be lax and lack any sense of G-dliness in their life.

I find this mentality to be troubling. What should have remained a fence has become a fence, a moat, a slew of Rottweilers, security towers armed with automatic weapons at various points, lasers, land mines, and a glass dome surrounding the area to make sure that no one can enter.

As Abraham Joshua Heschel points out in his book "Between G-d and Man" (p. 161):

"In their zeal to carry out the ancient injunction, "make a hedge about the Torah," many rabbis failed to heed the warning, 'Do not consider the hedge more important than the vineyard (Genesis Rabbah 19:3).' Excessive regard for the hedge may spell ruin for the vineyard [the Torah]. The vineyard is being trodden down. It is all but laid waste. Is this the time to insist upon the sanctity of the hedges?"

What good are the hedges if most Jews are not appreciating the vineyard? These stringencies (hedges) have become so numerous and nuanced that many Jews are unaware that there is a vineyard, let alone appreciate the beauty of Torah.

As Rabbi Barry Gelman illustrates, there is a value to lenient rulings. "Lenient" does not translate to indifference, disdain, or laxness. If the current state of the Jewish people and Jewishness denotes anything, it is that the stringencies have caused such sentiment.

It is not too late to change the trend of non-observance. If there is any hope of bringing more Jews to observing Judaism, as opposed to the disheartening status quo, nothing short of a re-examination and re-vamping of Jewish law will be required. This is a daunting task since a large majority of Jewish practice has become "d'rabbanan." But on the positive side, we can change anything "d'rabbanan" without a Sanhedrin if the reasons for the fence have become moot. It will be difficult to achieve, in light of Orthodoxy's trend towards reactionary tendencies, but my hope is that such realization will come, and enough even-keeled people within Modern and Centrist Orthodoxy will do something about it before the Haredim take a monopolistic grasp at claiming itself to being the sole, valid way to practice Judaism, thereby eroding the diversity and adaptability in Judaism as we know it.

1 comment:

  1. Well said Steve. And definitely well worth pondering as I trod the narrow bridge toward a Jewish conversion. I can't tell you how many times I've run across these disheartening trends of Jews who, to paraphrase Herman Wouk's "This is My God", have/had observant grandparents, less observant parents, and are themselves indifferent. The fences around Torah have, in some cases, become fences of thorn, and people are so worried about the thorns that they are missing out on the roses.

    I can't tell you what a love, what a joy, I feel for Judaism; how my heart rises in me, or maybe I can. Example: My neighbor Mrs. Ivanielli was born a Jew, which she confided to someone at our party; following this same pattern. Grandparents observed, parents less so, and she? Indifferent. She married her very Italian, very non-Jewish husband, Mr. Jim Ivanielli, and admitted to raising her son with no religion, with "nothing". Granted, I do live in a deracinated suburb where such declarations are common. Mrs. Ivanielli's non-observance of Judaism is really no different than my own parents' middle-class indifference toward Catholic roots. Yes, Judaism is sometimes difficult and trying; it is sometimes the possession of those with uneducated hearts. But the beauty is worth the difficulty; and as long as that beauty doesn't become the exclusive property of Haredim, we're all better off.

    As a Christmas present (do you still receive Christmas presents from your family?) my mother chose to give me a rosary from the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, which she had recently visited. Now, my mother is not a person for having long religious discussions. But she IS at least nominally Catholic; that rosary seems to be a metaphor for an entire conversation. But knowing that I have a blood relationship to Jews, even if it is a distant one, even if it is in the "wrong" side of my family line, has made my Catholicism irrelevant, has made me acutely conscious of other histories, Jewish histories.

    On that very same cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris, there is a piece of iconography-as-allegory, quite common on medieval Catholic cathedrals but Notre-Dame's is surely the most famous. Two young maidens, Ecclesia, the Militant Church personified, beautiful, forward-looking and carrying a cross; and Synagoga, personifying medieval Jewry, blindfolded and holding the broken tablets of the Law, being speared or beaten by Ecclesia. The militant Church victorious over the submissive Jew; it's almost bifurcated my consciousness to know of these things. I am part of both these stories.

    But I am kept away by fear of the fences you mention, despite my convert ancestry. Fences exist for good, sound historical reasons; but I have no patience for those of any faith who use dogma as an excuse for bigotry. Modern Jews, to become observant, need this traditionally Jewish elasticity- as one very non-observant friend said admiringly of traditional Judaism, the freedom of HOW to think and not WHAT to think.