I believe, you believe, we all believe; well, most of us anyway. Yet not all believers necessarily practice every one of the traditions enshrined in our faith. We subscribe to the ideology. We don’t necessarily advocate moving the goalposts. But not all of us are quite ready to put into practice all those wonderful ideals.
What is the logic that allows honest human beings the luxury of such rationalization? If we hold our faith to be true, shouldn’t it be natural to comply with its principles?
I get the impression that the subconscious criticism of the traditions many have not yet embraced is that they seem to be out of touch with contemporary society. We happily accept those practices we can easily identify with, but we tend to pronounce the others “old-fashioned,” obsolete and out of step with the modern world.
So, some will argue that in the age of government inspection and accepted hygiene standards, kosher dietary laws are obsolete. Others will claim that if G‑d really intended man to walk on Shabbat, then Henry Ford would never have invented the automobile. (I think it was Woody Allen who had a fear of flying and once said that if G‑d intended man to fly, surely He would have made it easier to get to the airport!) And still others contend that today our sexual mores can be determined only by consensus and that if it’s between consenting adults, who cares what people are doing in their bedrooms?
For many of us, the laws of the Torah feel every bit of their 3,300-plus years.
Well, let’s think about it. Are we suggesting that G‑d, who gave us these laws in the first place, had them in mind only for those poor Israelites traipsing through the Sinai Desert? Is He really so myopic that He cannot see beyond His Jewish nose? As one famous rabbi once told an atheist, “The god you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.”
Unless we accept that G‑d could have seen the world of the 21st century, I would refuse to believe in Him, too. A real G‑d sees past, present and future, and is equally as comfortable in our day as He was in the days of Moses. And the promised land of California is no more challenging to His credentials than ancient Canaan.
This week’s Torah reading tells us, “The Ark of the Covenant of G‑d journeyed before them” (Numbers 10:33). The great biblical commentator Rashi interprets this to mean that the Ark, which housed the Tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, would miraculously prepare the groundwork for their future encampments.
What this is also telling us is that the Torah (as embodied by the Tablets) is way ahead of the game. It goes before us. It is not only timeless; it is ahead of its time.
I can think of so many values and lifestyles that have become trendy now, which our tradition has been encouraging for centuries.
In the days when I still subscribed to hard-copy literature, I remember reading a Time magazine cover story focused on a radical new phenomenon—young mothers who were putting successful careers on hold in order to stay home and nurture their children when they needed them most. From the beginning, Jewish law exempted women from time-bound mitzvahs like tefillin or thrice-daily prayers, so that they could fulfill the more important imperative of raising the next generation.
The Jewish tradition of sitting shiva when one loses a family member is now recognized by psychologists of all faiths and cultures as being excellent bereavement therapy. But it didn’t start in the shtetl. When Jacob cooked lentils for his father, Isaac, it was because Isaac was a mourner sitting shiva for Abraham, and he was feeding him round foods as we do bagels and eggs.
Whereas a generation ago women spurned mikvah as demeaning, today’s woman is embracing it as a supreme acknowledgment of her sexuality and as the most beautiful spiritual experience available. But there were mikvahs in Masada, in Jerusalem during the Temple era and long before.
And the phenomenon of a society in search of spirituality, with celebrities and pop icons studying Kabbalah, serves only to validate the teachings of Jewish mysticism, which are indeed of ancient days.
Bell bottoms have come and gone (and come back again) and will soon recede until another season comes. Paisley ties were once compulsory, but these days are verboten. Fads and fashions come and go, but G‑dly values and the morals of menschlichkeit are not behind the times. If anything, they are ahead of the game.
As He is beyond time, so are His traditions. If they appear to our mortal eyes as anachronistic, then that is our challenge: to find ways of relating Torah values to our own realities and to shape our lives accordingly.
I, for one, submit that we need these values today more than ever before in our history.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.
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