Rabbi Avi Weinstein

On Chanukah, Post Denominationalism, and the sudy of Torah Sheb’al Peh.

In Uncategorized on November 26, 2013 at 1:49 pm

There is no holiday that self-consciously confronts core issues of identity more than Chanukah. The prayer “Al Hanisim” (Thanks for the miracles) explicitly elucidated the threat of Antiochus as “forcing us to forget Your Torah”. Unlike Haman who–unsophisticated soul that he was–wished to wipe the Jews off the map, for Antiochus, it was time to get the Jews who refused to play ball to behave in a more palatable way. His strategy was brutal, but total annihilation of the Jews was never on the table. It was more about their stubborn refusal to be a bit more like everyone else.

The Chassidic masters, notably the Sefat Emet and Rav Tzadok Hakohen, gave Greek wisdom, and by extension, western culture its due. They called it wisdom and conceded that it was sophisticated and that it even had an ethical sensibility. The problem, according to the Rebbes, is that the Greeks didn’t appreciate the value or the necessity for Torah She B’al Peh, the oral or the Talmudic tradition. From their perspective, it was holding us back.  In all fairness, according to the Rebbes, Torah Sheb’al Peh was the exclusive domain of the Jews–Kind of like the Jewish version of Skull and Bones. The Hebrew Scripture alone was to be shared among the nations, and therefore was translated into Greek, but the oral tradition was for the Jewish people alone. Thus a history of suspicion and superstition regarding the Talmud was born. Maybe they should have a Readers Digest version for popular consumption to combat the mystery and superstitious prejudices that emerged from this secretive religion of the Jews.

Long before Christianity, the Chasidic Rebbes saw the Hasmonean war as being against the supercessionism of Greek philosophy that from their perspective, was attempting to annihilate the rabbinic tradition. As the Midrash in Eicha (Lamentations) Rabba asserts: If they tell you that there is wisdom among the nations, believe them. But if they tell you that there is Torah among the nations, don’t believe them. (Eicha Rabba 2:9)

The tension between Jewish tradition and the dominant culture, however one chooses to understand it, refuses to go away. The zeal with which we have traditionally protected the study of Talmud in particular and Rabbinic literature in general has roots in the Mishnah.  Reading of Ketuvim, a part of the Hebrew Bible,  was discouraged on shabbat lest someone favor this over going to hear the drasha of the local rabbi. The reading of ketuvim was considered more attractive by the masses because of its narrative power, and its ability to entertain. In the long run, the sages felt it was better to encourage the community to learn some halacha than read from the scripture. Maybe the sacred narrative was too much like other stories out there, while the unique nature of Torah sheb’al peh was considered more unmistakably Jewish as far as how Jews lived, and reinforced the unique aspects of Jewish practice in a way that ketuvim couldn’t.

What makes Torah SheB’al Peh unusual is the fact that it is so unmistakably different, that it is a challenge to teach. It is not literature, it is not law, it is not history, and it is not philosophy–it’s Torah. It doesn’t treat the Tanach as a narrative, but instead as a pretext for micro-decoding.  Those who have embraced and immersed themselves in it are literally part of a different world, albeit an unassailably Jewish one.  A secular Zionist has placed the state in the center and can claim that she is living and breathing an authentic Jewish life that has a materialist philosophy at its core. What I see, and what I make, and what I do is what I know. I live  in a Jewish state, and everything I do is Jewish.

One who is engaged in Torah Sheb’al Peh can claim the same thing, but from a more ethereal perspective. Halacha, when followed meticulously, is ubiquitous, so its Jewish authenticity is without question. Those, however, who see their connection through the lens of a modern movement have a hard time conversing with those who have chosen the tyrannies that accompany a halachic religion of time, or an ideology that centers on a place. They literally inhabit different worlds.

It is not incidental that the post-denominational Yeshivat Hadar has conferred Nachas on the study of Torah Sheb’al Peh at the expense of the conservative movement. Post denominational is a kind way of declaring that allegiance to a movement for its own sake is at best a distraction, and at worst a deterrent for serious Jews to engage seriously with the study of their religion. People don’t belong to Yeshivat Hadar; like any other yeshiva, they learn there. It’s embrace of egalitarianism, however justified or unjustified, is a matter of principle, but has nothing to do with membership. If the institution ceases to attract people, it will disappear. It was created to fill a need, not to justify a “movement”. The artifice of movement nomenclature is being challenged and rightfully so. It means so little to people.

For over ten years I was director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, and I literally read thousands of letters of recommendation for this elite summer program. Never, and I stress never, did I receive a letter from a conservative rabbi who praised a student’s desire to learn Torah. His praise was always related to Jewish practice, or loyalty to the youth group and synagogue. By the way, the fact that on odd occasion one did hear such praise from an Orthodox rabbi is nothing to crow about.  In order to have a movement based on intellectual honesty, as Rabbi Wolpe claims, shouldn’t there at least be an intellectual foundation? Before one can think critically, shouldn’t they have learned something first?

I had a Professor who was a student of Professor Harry Wolfson at Harvard. Back in the ’70’s Wolfson glibly told him that the problem with Jewish studies today is that there weren’t enough professors who had been “yoshev tachas kanfei hashechinah” (dwelling under the wings of the Divine presence). Wolfson had a yeshiva background but was no longer observant.

The study of Torah sheb’al Peh is the key to conversation among modern Jews who still deign to believe that being Jewish is the most important dimension of their lives.  It is the cornerstone of a unique Jewish identity, and for all those on the modern spectrum, regardless of denomination, it should be the common language of us all. Torah sheb’al peh, like being Jewish, needs to reclaim its status as a noun, and not merely as an adjective. The guardians of Torah Sheb’al Peh, especially among the modern movements, must do everything in their power to promote learning as the unifying principle upon which our particularism is built. Without it, we may as well be unitarians and finally admit that the Greeks, in fact, had it right.

Have a Happy Chanukah, and learn some Torah.


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