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February 16, 1990 - Image 48

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1990-02-16

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

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AMERICAN
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Where Does The Torah's
Effectiveness Really Lie?

RABBI MORTON YOLKUT

Special to The Jewish News

T

wo traditions con-
cerning the manner
in which the Jewish
people received the Torah at
Mt. Sinai have been transmit-
ted to us.
The biblical tradition as
recorded in this week's sidra
describes in glowing terms
the enthusiasm and fervor
that marked the revelation.
Later, the text informs us
that the Israelites proudly
proclaimed: Naaseh ve-
nishma — "We shall do and
we shall hearken." In their
passionate desire to receive
the divine law they even put
the naaseh (practice) before
the nishma (understanding).
The rabbinic tradition, on
the other hand, describes our
ancestors as quite reluctant
to embrace and accept the
Torah. In fact, the Talmud
teaches that the Israelites
refused to accept the law un-
til God forced it upon them by
holding the mountain over
their heads and threatening
to crush them unless they ac-
cepted. (T.B. Shabbat 88a)
All our commentators are
troubled by the obvious
discrepancy between the two
traditions. We are dealing
here, after all, with a
historical event that could
have occurred only in one par-
ticular manner. Why, then,
this divergence of opinion?
One answer suggests that
the biblical narrative refers to
the written law, which the
Jewish people were more
than willing to accept. But
the rabbinic tradition alludes
to the oral law — the Torah
she'be'al peh — which our
ancestors received only after
divine coersion.
The question still remains:
Why should we draw a
distinction between the oral
and written law? According to
our tradition, both possess
equal validity and are equal-
ly binding upon every Jew
Why, then, were the Israelites
eager and willing to accept
the written law but far less
enthusiastic about receiving
the oral tradition?
The answer is an important
lesson in itself. Most people
find a written law far less
threatening than an oral law
that requires continuous
transmission and implemen-
tation. A Torah she'bi'ktav is
perfectable acceptable as long
as it remains just that — a

Morton Yolkut is senior rabbi
of Congregation B'nai David.

written law on parchment or
paper.
Every nation is proud to
display exalted charters that
glorify human rights and ex-
alt human and divine aspira-
tions. Such written
documents are admired and
revered as long as they re-
main Torah she'bi'ktav —
written on parchment or etch-
ed on tablets of stone,
obligating no one anything.
But when you demand that
this Torah become a living
Torah — a Torah she'be'al peh
— to be communicated from
teacher to student, from
parent to chid, from one
generation to the next — such
a Torah becomes unaccep-
table, except under duress.
The 20th century has seen
the evolution of a number of
glorious written charters in-
cluding Wilson's 14 Points,

Shabbat Yitro:
Exodus 18:1-20:23,
Isaiah 6:1-7:6,
9:5-6.

the Atlantic Charter, the Four
Freedoms and the United Na-
tions Charter. All were eager-
ly accepted and applauded as
precursors of a new era of
peace and brotherhood. But
with all the marvelous pro-
mises contained in the writ-
ten documents, those sublime
goals remain as elusive as
ever, nor has the world been
transformed.
We forget that charters are
not works of art to remain
forever enshrined in national
museums. They must be
translated into oral laws that
govern man's conduct and
behavior.
One of the saddest moments
of my recent visit to Poland
was seeing the ubiquitous
restoration of a number of
synagogues. These syna-
gogues have been completely
restored to their original
beauty by the Polish govern-
ment. They are now monu-
ments to the vital Jewish life
that once thrived in Poland
before the Holocaust and is no
more.
The arks that remain in
those synagogues — without
worshipers — are ornamental,
polished and attractive. But
for me they were merely
caskets for the remains of a
religion that no longer
flourishes and, indeed, bare-
ly exists in Poland today.
Our greatest tribute to the
memory of Polish Jewry will
be our resolve to uphold the

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