Law-breakers, Law-makers

4 Jul

This is NOT a blog entry about former president Moshe Katzav, or any of the other less than upright individuals in positions of political power around the world – although the title of the blog may seem to indicate otherwise….

Rather, I want to talk about another pressing concern for the Jewish people…the diminishing relevance of Jewish law.

It all begins with a Mishnah in Masechet Taanit, 4:6, that tells of the five disasters that our ancestors suffered on the 17th of Tammuz, observed on Tuesday of this week, and the five that occured on the 9th of Av.

 The first occurance listed, the tragedy that first established the 17th of Tammuz as a bad day for the Jews, was, according to the Mishnah, the breaking of the luchot – the tablets upon which God had written the 10 commandments (or statements, if you prefer).

As we recall in Exodus, Chapter 32, Moses came down Mt Sinai and witnessed the People of Israel dancing around the golden calf.  Out of anger, says the Torah, he threw the tablets of stone from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.

No doubt, quite a party stopper.

How are we to relate to his actions?  After all, he was carrying in his arms tablets upon which the “finger”of God Himself had carved out these sacred words.  Moses lost his temper and smashed these sacred objects?  Imagine a parent, angry at her child for misbehaving, for lying, for stealing, etc…marches up to the child’s room and says: “You want to see how angry I am!  You see this mezuzah on your door…watch this.” And Mom or Dad rips the mezuzah off of the doorpost, and thows it at his child’s feet. “Now do you understand what I am saying?”

I imagine any one of my kids would just stand there in bewilderment…assuming that I had defininitely gone mad….

 So, back to our leader Moses.  On fast days, like the 17th of Tammuz, we read from Torah the section just before this desparate moment, as well as a section that follows it.  In the aftermath of the breaking of the luchot, God tells Moses to reascend the mountain, and to make new tablets to replace the first ones that he had broken.  The Talmud interprets the words asher shibarta – that you broke to indicate that God was saying to Moses at this point – yishar kochacha sheshibarta – roughly translated as, “By the way, even though I did not tell you to break the tablets, let me be the first to say GOOD JOB!” (Tractate Shabbat 87a)

How are we to understand the rabbis’ interpretation here? Why did God give his after-the-fact approval to Moses’ actions here? Moses lost his cool and that’s supposed to be praiseworthy?

Here’s my take on the talmudic explanation – and you probably won’t find this explanation  anywhere else.

Moses here demonstated to us something criticial about Jewish law; that is, that it takes a “law-breaker” to be a “law-maker.” 

Let me explain. The rabbis give us a glimpse into what may have been going through Moses’ head at that moment:

Said Moses, “How can I give them the commandments, which will make them immediately guilty and punishable by death for their bringing sacrifices to the golden calf? No, I will shatter the tablets, then I will bring the people back to proper behavior, and then I will once again give them the laws.” (Avot deRabi Natan, Chapter 2)

For Jewish law to maintain its relevance, those who make the law – those who legistlate it, those who interpret it, those who apply it – must be aware of how the law can be “broken”- that is to say, how it can be stretched, where it can be tweaked, what elements can be made more flexible, or more stringent – depending on the needs of those who are assigned to live by it – we, the Jewish people.

Moses’ breaking of the tablets of stone was much more than the result of a fit of anger – it was for the purpose of protecting the people from violating its teachings- – particularly, the prohibition of worshipping another god.

Think about the ramifications of this idea…it’s an incredible idea!  When the people are sinning, when their transgression of a certain law is out of hand, Moses decided that it was best to literally “break”the law – suspend it – correct the people, and then once again, give them the law. 

At times, law-making requires law-breaking.

Contemporary issues such as agunot world wide and the conversion of some 100,000-300,000 Russian olim demand creative solutions, solutions that must come in order to protect Am Yisrael and its future generations from the serious harm that it will suffer if nothing is done. 

Jewish law-makers cannot throw their hands up and say “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that your grand-daughter wants to marry a non-Jewish Israeli – I know that he was born in Israel, served in the IDF, and speaks fluent Hebrew – it’s just that he never converted, so he isn’t Jewish – and that’s not my problem.”

They are wrong – this is their problem, just like the golden calf was Moses’ problem.

Therefore, I suggest that the reason we mourn year after year on the 17th of Tammuz for the breaking of the tablets is because WE STILL HAVEN’T LEARNED OUR LESSON.  Remember, Moses was praised for his actions, so the only reason we mourn is because we still have not taken his lead, and instead, we continue to sanctify the Torah over its adherents.

I conclude with the powerful ending of the story of Bar Kamtza. The Talmud recollects a story of a man who had a bone to pick with the rabbis during the first century C.E.  He put them in a tough spot, by bringing forth an animal offering sent on behalf of the Roman Ceasar. Bar Kamtza had quietly inflicted a blemish in the lip of the animal, rendering it unfit for the Temple altar.

The rabbis noticed the blemish, and found themselves with a dilemma.  If they allowed the calf to be offered, people might misunderstand, and think it’s okay to offer a blemished animal in the Temple. But, if they didn’t offer the animal, they would be accused of treason by the Romans.

Although the safety of the Jewish people at the hand of the Roman authorities was in jeopardy, one of the great sages of the generation adamantly refused to budge.  The calf was returned, the Caeser heard that his offering had been turned away, and the seige of Jerusalem began. 

The talmudic passage concludes:

Through the humble scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas, our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land. (Gittin 58a)

When will learn, when will we ever learn……

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