Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

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Twice in the book of Devarim, Moshe warns the people to keep the totality of the Torah, not adding to or detracting from it. In Parashat Re’eh we read: “Whatsoever I command you, that thing you shall observe to do; you shall not add to it, nor diminish from it” (Devarim, 13:1). This echoes a parallel prohibition in Parashat Va’Etchanan (4:2).

While the literal, simple sense of these verses is that one should not add or detract from the entire body of mitzvot, the halakhic meaning is quite different. As Rashi concisely states:

You shall not add – for instance, five compartments of tfillin, five species for the lulav, and five tzitzit. And similarly is the meaning of “you shall not detract” (on Devarim, 4:2).

That is to say, an individual cannot perform a mitzvah in a way that changes its core components. However, the Talmud never interprets this verse to mean that one should not add to the corpus of mitzvot. To read this verse in the latter sense would raise many challenging questions about the Rabbinic enterprise, for isn’t that what the Rabbis do – create new laws, adding to those that are commanded in the Torah?

Before attempting to answer this question, we should stop to consider what is so wrong with adding to the Torah. The reason to prohibit detracting is clear: It leads to transgression of Torah prohibitions and non-fulfillment of Torah commandments. But why not add? What is wrong with doing more?

The most obvious answer is that doing so would compromise the integrity of the Torah. Adding to the Torah leads to misrepresentations of what the Torah is really saying; it is a perversion of dvar Hashem, of the actual word of God.

This is illustrated by the following tale from Irish mythology. A man travelling in a forest in Ireland chances upon a leprechaun and succeeds in catching him, forcing the leprechaun to reveal under which tree his pot of gold was buried. The Irishman tied a red handkerchief around the trunk of the tree so he would be able to locate it when he returned with a shovel. Before leaving, he made the leprechaun swear that he would not remove the handkerchief. When he returned the next day, he found that the leprechaun had tied red handkerchiefs around every tree in the forest!

We can efface a thing’s identity by adding just as easily as we can by taking away. In the words of the Rabbis: Kol ha’mosif goreya. Whoever adds, diminishes.

There is another danger inherent in adding to the corpus of mitzvot: It may undermine observance. If every law and practice is treated as God’s direct word and given equal weight, then a person who finds herself unable to keep one law might wind up rejecting all, seeing it all, as she does, to be of one piece. The Haredi world, for example, is a culture where the weight of different halakhot tends to be less differentiated (consider the current intransigence of Haredi rabbis when it comes to the practice of metzitza b’peh). Often when people leave this world, they land in a place of full secularism and non-observance rather than finding a home in a different form of Orthodoxy or in one of the other movements. Of course, each individual’s story is different and has its own dynamics, but often we hear that this phenomenon is rooted in a belief that it is all or nothing. If some of it can’t be upheld then none of it can.

A related concern is that adding prohibitions to the Torah can sometimes work at cross-purposes to the Torah’s goals. This is what the Rabbis refer to as a chumrah ha’asi lidei kula, a stringency that leads to an unwarranted leniency. This may happen much more frequently than we are aware, since we are often not sensitive to what we might be sacrificing or compromising by adopting additional strictures. For example, greater demands in the area of ritual mitzvot often translate into compromises in the area of interpersonal mitzvot. 

Consider the following statement from the Shakh, Rabbi Shabtai Kohen, a seventeenth-century, classical commentator on Shulkhan Arukh:

For in the majority of cases there is a leniency (i.e., a compromise of the law) that results in another area because this thing was made forbidden, and it will thus be a stringency that leads to a leniency. And even if it appears that no (unwarranted) leniency will result, it is possible that one thing will lead to another and a hundred steps down this will be the case (Practices of Prohibitions and Allowances, Yoreh Deah, 248).

Now of course, stringencies are sometimes necessary, but in such cases, Shakh warns, the posek must be careful to make it clear that his ruling is merely a stringency and not the actual halakha. This will help ensure that such rulings are not given undo weight and do not compromise more core values and principles.

So the concerns about adding to the Torah are clear – it will undermine the Torah’s identity and potentially undermine observance and compromise core values. So how could the Rabbis do what they did?

This question can be skirted by insisting that the meaning of the verse is restricted to its narrow, halakhic definition – not to add to the core components in the performance of mitzvot, such as five tzitzit. However, both Rambam (twelfth century) and Ramban (thirteenth century) insist that this verse does indeed prohibit adding to the body of mitzvot as a whole.

Rambam states (Laws of Rebels 2:9) that this verse also forbids the Rabbis from presenting a Rabbinic law as a Biblical one, or from representing the meaning of a Biblical law as broader or narrower than it actually is (Laws of Rebels, 2:9). Ramban echoes this position in a slightly nuanced fashion in his commentary on the Torah when he states that one cannot add new practices to those that the Torah commands (Devarim, 4:2).

So now the question returns in full force: But isn’t this what the Rabbis are always doing, adding new practices? Here is Ramban’s answer:

Now regarding what the Rabbis prohibited as safeguards… that activity is a Biblical mitzvah, provided that they make it known that these restrictions are made as a safeguard and are not from God’s word that is in the Torah.

According to Ramban, then, there are two things which make the Rabbinic activity allowed. The first is that they are given explicit license in the Torah to make their legislation and safeguards. This refers to the verse, “u’shmartem mishmarti,” “and you shall guard my ordinances” (Vayikra, 18:30). The Rabbis interpret this to mean, “asu mishmeret li’mishmarti,” “you – the Rabbis – must protect My mitzvot, you must make safeguards.” This is key. It states that there is a value that is equal and opposite to the concern of adding to the Torah: the mandate to protect the Torah, to respond to contemporary realities and create practices, institutions, and laws that will ensure the survival of the Torah.

Does this mean that the concern of adding to the Torah can be discarded? Hardly. Here is where the second part of Ramban’s answer comes in. All of this is only allowed if the Rabbinic legislation does not obfuscate what is and is not the Torah, that is, if the Rabbis clearly identify that their activity is of a Rabbinic nature. This is also the point made by Rambam – the prohibition only applies when Rabbinic rulings are misrepresented as Biblical.

The problem with this is, as Ra’avad states in his critique of Rambam, that the claim that the Rabbis were clear about the lines is not borne out by the facts. There are many laws in the Talmud which are not clearly identified as Rabbinic or Biblical. Moreover, the Rabbis sometimes intentionally present Rabbinic laws as Biblical to give them more backing, i.e., an asmakhta.

Ra’avad thus rejects that there is a problem adding to the mitzvot! He states that the meaning of the prohibition is only that one should not alter the performance of a mitzvah. There is no prohibition against adding to the corpus of what is Biblical – the Rabbis do it all the time!

So, either the Rabbis clearly identify what is Rabbinic and what is Biblical (which they don’t) or the pshat meaning of the verse is inaccurate, and one can add to the mitzvot. Neither explanation is fully satisfactory.

In the end, there are no easy answers. The concerns with adding to the Torah are too often forgotten or ignored. But the importance of the rabbinic safeguards and of well-chosen stringencies cannot be minimized. It is only by maintaining this uneasy dialectic that we can hope to truly succeed both in protecting the Torah and in maintaining its integrity.

Shabbat shalom!

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