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Biblically modern

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin continues making Torah accessible

How can you be a stranger and a permanent presence at the same time?

How do you balance the eternal truths of the Torah and the specific time-bound, culture-bound lens through which each of us must peer at it?

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Rabbi Shmuel Goldin

To Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, who heads Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood and is the president of the Rabbinical Council of America, that is the essential conundrum of an authentic Jewish life.

Goldin has just published “Unlocking the Torah Text: Bamidbar,” the fourth and penultimate book in his series on the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. In each book, “what I have done is provide, both for those who have studied Torah before and those who have not, and in-depth yet accessible analysis of the parsha” – the Torah portion read each week on Shabbat.

Each chapter begins with a summary. Next, “I divide each parsha into studies, and I pick what I consider to be some of the critical questions – that people don’t necessarily ask, but that emerge from that parsha,” Goldin said. Then, in each section, he lays out the approaches that classical sources have taken, making it “both as accessible and as scholarly as possible.

“And then I will offer my own interpretation, which is very often but not always original; an interpretation building on these approaches or different from them.” Many of the sections conclude with a “points to ponder” section, “which often brings in some current or critical issues, whether it’s something that affects the State of Israel or the American Jewish community. I play off what I have learned in the parsha, and try to bring it to show people what I’m thinking, as an Orthodox rabbi living in this time.”

How to be a modern Orthodox Jew living in this time – rabbi or not – is a question that colors much of Goldin’s thinking.

First of all, the label is inherently misleading. “Modern Orthodoxy is not modern, from my perspective,” Goldin said. “Modern Orthodoxy is authentic Judaism. From my perspective, Rambam” – Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher and theologian who also was an Egyptian court physician – “was a modern Orthodox Jew.”

It is all about balance, Goldin believes. The need for that balance goes all the way back to Abraham. When he bargained for the burial site for his wife Sarah, he told the Hittites who owned the land that he was a “ger v’toshav,” a resident alien. “Abraham’s self-definition was as a stranger and a citizen,” Goldin said. “It is a balance, a fine line.

“There are classical interpretations that say that it is contradictory, but the one that resonates most with me is that it is not a contraction at all, but the best way to define Jews across history.

“I am at once a toshav – put me in any society, and if you give me the opportunity I will contribute to that society and try to bring sanctity to it. But I am also a ger. A stranger. I have my own unique religion, culture, society, and outlook.”

So, according to Goldin, to be modern Orthodox means that “the world informs you and you inform that world.”

It’s not easy. “You are always living on the edge,” he said.

Not everyone wants to struggle all the time. “That is why so many people find it such a difficult path to walk,” Goldin said. “It is much easier to live either in the society, without bounds, or in the ghetto, where you don’t have to deal with the challenges of the society. But to me, authentic Judaism is that you are supposed to walk that line.

“Part of the challenge of authentic Judaism today is that often it is defined as compromise” – but that is a misunderstanding.

Some of the challenge of the balance Goldin believes to be necessary confronts shul-goers this week. The Torah reading, Naso, “is a very difficult parsha on a variety of levels.

“The events or topics within it at first seem to be very disparate, and some of them – the sota” – the adulterous wife – “and the nazir” – someone who vows to live a stringently observant, ascetic life – “are inherently difficult. What are they doing here? What might their significance be for the modern world?”

“Sota presents one of the single greatest challenges to this approach to Judaism,” Goldin said. “It is the only apparent trial by ordeal that seems to emerge from the Torah text.

“Generally, jurisprudence is handed over to the hands of man. This is really the foundation of halachah, and of how I understand the halachic process to work.

“God says, ‘I am taking this divine law and I am giving you the rules. You apply it. If you have been loyal to the process, then whatever decision you reach is the one I will agree to.'”

The sota, however, has to drink a potion, and if she is guilty she will die. If she is innocent, she will be unharmed.

What can it mean for us? Or, as Goldin asks, “Why is God making an exception here?”

What this section of the Torah really is about, Goldin suggests, is shalom bayit – peace in the home. “We understand that this situation didn’t happen in a vacuum. It is a pattern of behavior, of suspicion, that is destroying a family.

“What sota is dealing with is the threat to the harmony of the family.

“If you talk about one key element of a marriage that has to exist, it is trust.”

In his book, Goldin underlines the procedure that the husband must carry out in order for the trial by ordeal to take place. There are many steps, and they are not easy ones. At each juncture, it would be far easier, and perhaps even more reasonable, for the husband to turn back. The assumption is that most would have done so; this ritual is not one that would have been carried out often, Goldin makes clear.

Another way to look at it, he continues, is that the ordeal is psychological; that the only reason the potion could hurt the sota is because she believes it can and knows that she is guilty. That is not the majority opinion, but it is a valid one.

“I offer numerous approaches,” Goldin said. “Sometimes I offer my own. In this case, I think that the key element I’m injecting is the awareness of the profound threat of the rending of the family.”

In fact, he said, there really is an overall theme to the parsha. “It’s about the creation of harmony within the camp.

“If you back up and look at the last parshiot, you’ll see that they are about the external structure of the camp. This one seems to focus on what’s going on inside, and on how harmony and peace can be perpetuated.”

He is aware of the inherent inequality of the text. It is indicative, in fact, of the delicate balance he feels called upon to use throughout his life as a modern Orthodox.

He has no easy answers. “Here, then, the challenge in a nutshell,” he writes in the beginning of the chapter on Naso. “To walk a fine line. To plumb the depths of even the most difficult passages of the Torah, but to recognize that the conclusions we reach may well be incomplete, if not inherently flawed.”

In conversation, he returned to that theme. “Part of what I’m trying to do in this text as a whole is inspire conversation and to struggle with it,” he said. “It would have been easy for me to skip the section on sota.” (He does not discuss every line and each verse of all five biblical books.) “But I couldn’t do that.

“I felt that I were going to be honest, and really deal with the challenges of the text, I had to take them on and relate to them as best I could.”

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