Let tradition course through you

Let tradition course through you

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin talks about the last of his Torah books

Here, at the wedding of Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s parents, his paternal grandfather, white-suited Hyman Goldin, accompanies Rabbi Goldin’s father and his mother’s father. Hyman Goldin, a prolific writer, inspired his grandson as a writer and Torah scholar.

It’s not as if it ever were easy.

The five books that make up the Torah are at the heart of our tradition. They are ancient, and unlike other, slightly newer texts, they are sparsely, even starkly written.

The Five Books of Moses are our most basic source, the magnet that pulls us in as if we were iron filings, and attaches us not only to it but to each other. The books also often are hard to understand. The world they describe is not entirely ours; people with recognizably human emotions and behaviors live in settings and react to realities with which we cannot identify immediately or easily.

Those five books also are the source from which we read three times during a regular week, and that provide the core of Shabbat services. So if you are a frequent shul-goer you are familiar with the words, even if you are not entirely clear about what they mean or how they are relevant to you.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, who leads Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood and is the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Council of America, has undertaken the challenge of analyzing each parsha – the weekly Torah reading. It has been a nine-year challenge, and it is newly completed. On Sunday, October 12, at 7 p.m., his shul will fete him in its sukkah to mark the publication of the last book in the series, “Unlocking the Torah Text: Devarim.”

All the “Unlocking the Torah Text” volumes provide a summary of each parsha, and then zero in on what Rabbi Goldin calls “critical questions.” He presents readers with the traditional answers, and then offers his own interpretation, which may elaborate on the earlier ones or strike out in new directions. He aims for a tone that balances the line between scholarly and accessible.

Balance, in fact, is the value that is key to the entire enterprise. It is his mission as a modern Orthodox rabbi always to counterpoise tradition against modernity, so that although he might occasionally wobble a bit on the very taut high wire he walks, he never falls off it.

Devarim – in English, it’s Deuteronomy – is inherently different than the books it follows, and Rabbi Goldin found it the most difficult of the five to write about, he said.

There are many reasons for that, and one is entirely modern-day and pragmatic. Because it is at the end of a cycle that begins in the fall, with Simchat Torah, most of Devarim is read during the summer. “I’m away for part of the summer, so I don’t give as many sermons on it,” Rabbi Goldin said. He also has taught it fewer times, for no particular reason, he added.

Devarim also is hard because it’s not written from the point of view of an omniscient narrator – God – but is a transcription of Moshe’s final speeches to the people. They are about to cross into the Promised Land, the culmination of 40 years in the desert, slavery in Egypt, the patriarchs’ wanderings, and all of created history, and he is not going to go with them. God will not allow it.

Rabbi Goldin is Orthodox, so he approaches the text with the clear and firm understanding that it is God’s word, dictated by God to Moshe. That is a straightforward approach in the first four books, but it gets complicated in Devarim, much of which is written in the first person. The “I” in Devarim is Moshe. “Is Moshe just a scribe?” Rabbi Goldin asked. “Are the words God’s words, written down by Moshe, or are they Moshe’s words, that God agrees to afterward?

“That is an open debate among scholars, even those like myself, who do not believe in biblical criticism,” Rabbi Goldin said. (Biblical criticism is the approach that begins with the belief that although the Torah may – or may not – have been divinely inspired, it was written by human beings, and that it is a pieced-together work, coming from many authors. Therefore, scholars can analyze the text to see when and by whom it is likely to have been written. It is an approach first championed by the Conservative movement and is one of the differences between it and the Orthodox world in which Rabbi Goldin firmly stands.)

“There is no one answer,” he continued. “The standard approach is that no matter how it originated, it is God’s word. No matter how you view the development, it is still part of the holy Torah, which we believe is God’s word to Moshe.” And that is his approach as well, but the details vary. “What I do is go through various opinions and look at what we learn.

“It is clear that there is more of Moshe in this book, so in my perspective, God is giving us a message. The Torah would have been incomplete without the clearer view of Moshe that we get here, and that is because Jewish tradition is the sum total not just of the pages of books but also of people.

“Tradition changes as it courses through individuals, and God wants us to see that.

“When we talk about mesorah” – about tradition – “often in my mind we define it erroneously,” he said. “We often say that if you ask someone what mesorah is, they say that it’s tradition that you get from one generation and hand to the next. That is the classical definition.

“But what’s missing is that it courses through you, and then you hand it down to the next generation. It courses through you, and through your time and your generation, and as it does, it acquires a flavor that changes it somewhat.

“As an Orthodox rabbi, I can tell you that although the foundation remains the same, there is no question that the flavor changes. There is no question that our tradition changed as it coursed through Poland or Spain or Africa or China or Germany. And therefore I think that by putting Moshe into the chumash, God is saying, ‘Don’t forget that your Judaism will be a product not only of what is taught to you but of the people who teach it to you.”

The book of Devarim is unlike the other four also in that the element of tragedy – of Moshe’s being unable to reach the goal toward which he has worked and led and yearned for most of this life – is unmistakable.

“The tragic element is powerful and all-pervasive,” Rabbi Goldin said. “To recognize the power of this book, you have to recognize the turbulence of the emotions that everyone must be feeling. From Moshe Rabbenu, who is so proud of this people because they have reached this point but who is profoundly sad that he will not be able to go with them, to the people themselves, with their conflicting emotions, their excitement at being on the verge of entering the land and their sorrow at bidding farewell to the only major leader they have known. And their faith despite the uncertainty of what it will mean to go on and live in the land without him.

“There is so much going on in this book!”

Another set of questions that arises from the text have to do with the mitzvot Moshe discusses. “There are some mitzvot that are commanded for the first time here. Why did they not appear before? And why are others not mentioned at all, and why are others repeated?”

There are also very difficult sections in Devarim, including the one about the rebellious son, whose parents are told to stone him. “Sometimes when we learn Torah we shy away from these sections, but I think we have to study them, to try to understand what the Torah is telling us,” he said.

Although he began his work on the five-volume set during a sabbatical in Israel, at his wife’s urging, most of the time Rabbi Goldin has worked on his books he has also been an active pulpit rabbi, responsible for his big, prominent shul. During that time, he also has taught at Yeshiva University, and of course he had policy-making and administrative commitment at the RCA. He is grateful to his community for its willingness to see his work on the books as an asset to the shul rather than a drag on its resources. “I worked hard not to let it interfere with my responsibilities to the community, and the overwhelming response was that it was both good for me and good for them,” he said. “I am extremely gratified.”

How did he do it? He found himself carving out little chunks of time from unexpected places; he would take advantage of waiting for meetings or even weddings to begin, he said. “I would carry pieces of the book that I was working on with me at all times, and I learned about the vast amount of time that we have that we don’t realize we have.”

Technology helps, he added, but he goes back and forth between high- and low-tech methods. He writes out his first drafts in longhand, he said, and then he would read it into a speech recognition machine, and then edit the product of that process online. “I don’t type well,” he said. He marvels at the way his grandfather, Rabbi Hyman Goldin, was able to write more than 50 books without such technology – and without the Internet – and the way his grandfather’s predecessors were able to write at all, even without typewriters.

He feels strongly about longhand, though. “I read an article that said that kids who are going straight from learning to write to writing with keyboards are missing a part of normal development,” he said. “They were missing some part of motor development; it was the physical act of writing that gave them that. That made me understand myself a little more – that I need the concreteness of pulling out papers.”

Now that he has finished his massive project, and particularly now that he knows how many little bits of time he can carve out from his busy life, Rabbi Goldin is feeling a bit at a loss. “Letting go of it when it was finished was hard,” he said. So something, some project, some intellectual undertaking, will be next. He just doesn’t know what yet.

For now, he is looking forward to seeing the first new copies of his book and the first boxed set of the complete work, as his community celebrates their rabbi and his work next Sunday.

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