A matter of substance

A matter of substance

I admit it. The seemingly never-ending shift to the right within Orthodox Judaism is a source of great personal anguish for me. It is not because I find something evil in the desire of people to be more scrupulous in their observances. It is because right-wing shifts focus on form, not substance, and the truth of Torah gets buried in the minutiae of ritual.

In fact, the Torah does not care for shifts in either direction – left or right. It is very clear on this. There are no ambiguities here, no between-the-lines hidden meanings. “Do not turn aside to the right or to the left: Follow only the path that the Lord your God has enjoined upon you, so that you may thrive and that it may go well with you….” (See Deuteronomy 5:29-30.)

Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day Certainly, there have been – and still are – rabbis who would put their own spins on so simple and clear a statement (even me, probably; as I wrote here two weeks ago, nothing is ever that simple in Judaism), but the intent of Deuteronomy 5:29-30 is as clear as its words are plain: Not following the moderate middle path, but veering to the extremes (left or right, it matters not), violates God’s law.

Many people believe, for example, that a nazirite – one who separates himself from the community to pursue a monk-like existence – is considered a holy person by the Torah and someone to be admired and even emulated. On the contrary, a person is allowed only a limited run as a nazirite and is penalized by having to bring several different and expensive offerings at the end of his term, including a sin offering. Why a sin offering? Because the person had gone to an extreme, and in doing so rejected what God saw was “very good.”

As for the argument that the Torah contains “hidden” meanings accessible only to lifelong scholars, this argument borders on heresy – or may actually be heresy. Says the Torah, in Deuteronomy 30:11-4:

“Surely, this instruction [mitvah] which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”

Put more simply, God’s law is easily understood by everyone who wants to understand it. There is nothing hidden beneath the surface. What you read is what it says.

Of course, what it says may not always be all that it means, but that is a necessary consequence of a code of law that is meant for all times, in all places, and covering all circumstances. This does require careful study. It does call for input by scholars immersed in halachah. Thus, the prohibition against moving a neighbor’s boundary marker becomes a prohibition against planting on a slant so as to make use of a neighbor’s more fertile soil, which opens the door on a whole body of law against unfair competitive practices.

There is nothing in Torah law that even discusses pizzas, much less whether a small community of kosher consumers can keep five pizza shops in business. The “boundary marker” changes that. By seeing it for its intent rather than its content, the verse gives birth to a body of law that does deal with the pizza problem.

That is not the same thing, however, as constantly raising the minimum amount of a food or beverage that must be consumed in order to prove a person’s commitment to God. Should the kiddush cup used on a Shabbat morning contain a minimum 3 ounces, or 3.5 ounces, or 5.4 ounces? Should the person reciting the blessing drink a minimum of half the cup, most of the cup, or just enough of the cup to fill up one side of his or her mouth (women are obligated to make kiddush, as well)?

In today’s world, the size of your yarmulke and even its color and the material used determine how frum a person is (or is not).

The same goes for the size and construction of a person’s pair of t’fillin, or how large the tzitzit are on the tallit (and how big a garment the tallit is supposed to be).

To all of this, the prophet Isaiah had something to say (for the entire reading, see Isaiah 1:10-18): “[W]ho asked that of you…?”

Rather, he said in God’s name, “Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.”

In other words, stop falling back on ritual as the end all of Torah observance and start paying attention to the totality of Torah.

The shift to the right today focuses on the volume of the kiddush cup but ignores how the workers were treated who produced the wine that fills that cup. Kashrut authorities argue that the method of slaughter is what determines kashrut; how the animals or the abbatoir’s workers are treated are of no consequence.

The Torah is a single unit, not a pack of individual laws strung together with no connective purpose. If your life is in danger and only by eating a ham sandwich can you survive, you must eat the ham sandwich. Why? Because the Torah says so.

Of course, the Torah does not say so. It does say that we are to live by its laws, not die by them. It is because we are obligated to see the Torah as the sum of its parts that we connect the dots. A law prohibits something; following that law threatens our life; the law says that life comes first; the prohibition is temporarily suspended.

The Torah is very concerned about how an animal is killed, but that is because it is very concerned about how the animal is treated. The Torah is also concerned that employees be paid fair wages in a timely fashion. Connecting the dots, kashrut, then, requires a broader definition than kashrut authorities are willing to give it.

Right-wing shifts focus on form, not substance. That is a sin.