Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
I’d like to tell you a true story…
Long ago, on an island named Ianis, when trees had not yet grown, vegetation was limited to plants, fruit shrubs, and ground-grown vegetables. The islanders lived in huts made of reeds, for wood was still unknown to them. Years later, a traveling carpenter named Sesom arrived at this island with many types of Harot tree shoots, and planted them there for the islanders’ benefit. After many years, Sesom had grown a beautiful forest. However, since the islanders had never seen trees before, they had no idea what to do with them. Sesom had received his carpentry training from a master, who actually first invented the art of carpentry. Sesom, being an expert, then trained the islanders in woodworking, carpentry, architecture, and construction. He taught the islanders all he knew. Half of Sesom’s training of these islanders addressed the physical characteristics of wood, and various species of trees: how to saw, carve, sand, and finish the wood. Sesom demonstrated this physically. But the other half of his teachings was abstract principles, essential for building furniture, homes, and great structures. This knowledge could not be seen “in the wood” of course, as they were abstract principles and laws. They had to be learned over years from Sesom, orally.
Sesom had to train these islanders to think about construction, as they never knew what construction was. To them, it was a completely new science, something they were unfamiliar with. Without knowing what wood was, and they could never fathom the science of construction. Many islanders, as soon as they got their hands on this new substance called wood, were overeager to start working with the wood, and didn’t attend Sesom’s classes. These few islanders built homes, but they all quickly collapsed. They realized they too required Sesom’s knowledge, so they attended his classes. Before long, all of the islanders were knowledgeable in woodworking, carpentry, and architecture. The islanders built great homes, all of which remained standing for many years.
Sesom desired that no one on even the furthest reaches of this island ever experience a home collapsing again. Sesom desired that the original principles of carpentry and architecture never be lost. He also knew that no one, without Sesom’s original training, could ever understand how to build, simply by examining the physical wood. Training had to accompany any would-be builder, and that training had to trace back to Sesom’s lessons and thinking. Sesom alone possessed the highest knowledge of woodworking and building, and was the best teacher. Therefore, Sesom transmitted his teachings to the islanders with one condition: “Do not deviate from my teachings, because your homes will collapse. Follow my lessons, because they are not seen in the wood itself. Without my verbal lessons, you cannot possibly learn how to build properly. It is impossible. The wood does not come with instructions written in it; those instructions are in my mind, and in the minds of my students. You may learn from them, or from me. But someone who did not train under me, or under my students for many years, cannot possibly have the true, original knowledge of building.” These were Sesom’s instructions, for the benefit of his fellow islanders.
As the years passed, Sesom died. The islanders flourished, spreading out far and wide, and carried with them both Sesom’s wood in hand, and his teachings in their thoughts. For 3000 years, the islanders steadfastly followed the craftsmanship and principles taught by Sesom, and worked only with his wood. All the houses and structures they built were stable. Those who had built homes with incomplete knowledge did have some problems. But they asked for solutions from the older builders, who knew the principles, and they repaired their homes with success.
About that same time, an islander from afar named Demrofer obtained some of the wood, but did not train with Sesom, nor did he follow the teachings of Sesom’s students. He built many homes, but they constantly collapsed, and required daily carpentry. For him, it was easier not to spend years studying the principles of Sesom, but just jump right into building with no training. Although easier, it proved to be a poor decision for Demrofer. So he tried to develop his own ideas about building, but again, his structures all fell to the ground. Whenever he looked at a home that was properly built, he only saw the wood, because the “principles” of building are not things man can see with his eye. The principles were not “in the wood”, but had to be learned from someone who knew them. He realized that the wood itself was only one half of what he needed to build properly. Nonetheless, Demrofer refused to study under Sesom’s followers.
As was Demrofer, other islanders were also impatient and abandoned training under Sesom’s students. They collectively created a new group of islanders. They attempted to build structures as perfect as Sesom’s followers, but they constantly fell to the ground. Although it was a more tedious existence to constantly rebuild, Demrofer’s people were stubborn, and did not take the time to study, and learn how to build perfect structures. True, it was initially easier to bypass study and quickly jump into construction, but each time, that ease met with frustration, as their structures required daily maintenance.
As is the way with mankind, laziness is emotionally attractive, whereas rigorous study requires restrictive discipline. Therefore, Demrofer attracted far greater followers than did Sesom. In time, even many of Sesom’s people defected to Demrofer’s side of the island.
Demrofer’s movement is now about 200 years old. Many follow him. However, Demrofer was never successful at one thing, claiming authorship to carpentry and building. Even those I his camp know that historically, Sesom was the originator.
I’m sure many of you have figured out what I am describing. Yes, this is a true story, but the names must be reversed, if you are to arrive at the metaphor’s true meaning: The island of Ianis is Sinai, Sesom of course is Moses, Harot (wood) is Torah, and Demrofer is Reformed Judaism.
Moses brought “Harot” wood or rather the Torah to the Jews. With it, one can build great “structures” of wisdom, and learn new, true principles which are foundations of even greater ones…but on the condition that the other half of Moses’ teachings accompany the “building” or Torah learning process. This other half of Moses’ teachings is the Oral Law. Moses did not receive a Torah scroll alone, but also a body of knowledge and principles called the Oral Law. These were never written down until years later, for fear of losing them.
On Sinai, G-d gave Moses the Written and Oral Laws. Sesom taught the islanders of Ianis, it is impossible to use this wood and build anything, unless you understand the building process. So too, it is impossible for one to refer to the Written Torah alone and succeed at arriving at G-d’s true Torah, if one ignores training under a teacher, who also studied under another teacher, all the way back to Moses. If one would study the Written Torah alone, and attempt to arrive at an understanding of G-d’s word, he must fail. In such a process, he ignores half of G-d’s word to Moses, i.e., the Oral Law.
The Oral Law is not simply a body of knowledge. It was given orally for a reason: G-d desired that it be taught only in a ‘teacher-to-student’ fashion. In this manner, it is assured that the original “method of study” received by Moses, will be successfully handed down, person-to-person, generation-to-generation. Only in a teacher-to-student style is the exclusive method of study, and are the original concepts transmitted. This fashion of transmission was in fact how Moses transmitted the Torah to Aaron, to his sons, to the elders, and to the Jews. He did not teach it to all of them in one sitting. But if someone does, as did the Reformers of Judaism, and veers at all from the Sages of the Talmud, who received their training all the way back to Moses, then these Reformed Jews no longer have the exact Torah system that Moses had. Herein lies the grave nature of the crime of reforming or conserving the original Torah…it is no longer G-d’s exact Torah, and for that matter, not Torah.
G-d gave Moses 613 commands. Two of them are, not to add, and not to subtract from His words. The Reformers violated these very commands. G-d knew what was the best system for all generations. G-d knows the future. For man to suggest that the Torah requires an update or adaptation based on considerations of “modern times”, man foolishly suggests that G-d was unaware that Torah required the flexibility to tolerate change. Based on this same argument, we discount Christianity’s claim that a “new covenant” abrogates G-d’s prior commands.
It is man’s arrogance and ignorance, which leads him to feel he possesses more knowledge than the original Torah recipients. How can one know better than the teacher? The islanders of Ianis could not figure out how to build without Sesom’s instruction. For 3000 years, from Moses, through the elders and the Prophets, and the Sages through the Rishonim (medieval Rabbis) not one of these great individuals or Prophets suggested what the Reformers suggested. It is truly amazing, that those famous leaders who contributed to the Torah’s content, who wrote Psalms, Proverbs, Deuteronomy, and those like Maimonides and Ramban, never suggested what the Reformers suggest. The original leaders of Torah, the true recipients of Moses law, the Torah’s “authors”, certainly possess greater authority than those who have not trained in Oral Law. Just as Demrofer could not study the wood to gain the principles of construction, the Reformers cannot examine the Written Law to arrive at what the Oral Law is. Without years of tutelage, tracing back to Moses, one cannot arrive at the knowledge, or the method of Talmudic and Torah study and elucidation.
The following are examples of Reform’s deviations from G-d’s Torah:
Samuel Holdheim (a major early reformer):
"The present requires a principle that shall clearly enunciate that a law, even though divine, is potent only so long as the conditions and circumstances of life, to meet which it was enacted, continue; when these change, however, the law must also be abrogated, even though it have God as its author....The Talmud speaks with the ideology of its own time, and for that time it was right. I speak from the higher ideology of my time, and for this age I am right." (Blau, MODERN VARIETIES OF JUDAISM, p.37)
THE PITTSBURGH PLATFORM, "prepared in 1885 by a group of 15 Rabbis...became the guiding principles of Reform Judaism in America for 50 years (Isaacs , p 58):
· We accept as binding only the moral laws and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.
· We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas altogether foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further spiritual elevation. (Courtesy bluethread.com)
For 3000 years since the giving of the Written and Oral Laws, Judaism held steadfast to G-d’s Torah, which He commanded we not alter, nor veer from the Rabbis “left or right”. G-d knows both, the over-religious emotions, and the emotion of modernity. With the over-religious emotion, man desires to do what G-d has not commanded, as seen in Aaron’s two sons who offered a “strange fire”. They met with death. The opposite emotion is to diminish from G-d’s laws, or alter them, for many reasons, including Reform’s rationale of modernity.
G-d created man. G-d knows the future. G-d gave one system. If we are to benefit and live the best of lives, we are well advised to follow what the Creator intended, as is seen in the practice of His Prophets. G-d did not select Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, and all the Prophets, had they deviated from His word. These men were inspired by G-d’s words, precisely because they followed G-d. G-d does not place His opponents in leadership roles. By the very fact that a Prophet was addressed by G-d, we are taught that G-d condones this person and his teachings. It is therefore a clear lesson that we are to follow these Prophets, and those who do not veer from their words.
Orthodox Judaism is the original Judaism, and adheres meticulously to the teachings of Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, the Prophets, and the Sages of the Talmud. For 3000 years none disputed Judaism’s singular identity, an unchanging system, even with the change in times.
Do not be impressed with large numbers, nor with new sects within Judaism. Their founders boast no comparison to a Maimonides, a true genius whose works boggle our minds. Reform’s founders and followers display no sign of Orthodoxy’s adherence to Moses Torah, nor does Reform Judaism have any founder who comes close to the genius of Orthodoxy’s giants.
Had Reform or Conservative Judaism been correct, that they truly possessed G-d’s word and intent, they would have had the Prophets, and not Orthodoxy.
It is to our benefit that we follow G-d’s exact intent and words. Otherwise, we are likened to a builder with no guiding plans. We will watch our entire efforts end in collapse. This applies not only to how we run our individual lives, but how we run the greater body: the Jewish nation.
The greater the structure, the greater the collapse.
Although I mention this periodically, I feel at the end of this article in specific it is important to reiterate: Our goal is to study and teach with complete honesty. We do not respect any other consideration with greater allegiance, as this would forfeit our attainment of new truths about G-d, reality, and how we must live. This means that at times, we must expose the fallacy of false systems. Of course, those not fully appreciating our intent will accuse us of simply bashing others, but nothing can be further from the truth. As an educator, my concern is to make true ideas available to others. I desire nothing other than enlightening a student with a true idea. And the more students I can teach, the greater the good achieved. Conversely, I always ask that if an idea presented is incorrect, that the reader notifies me so I may change it. I hope this article is viewed in the light intended.
Ironically, I need to thank Deborah who wrote in with a critique of my wording here in this Postscript. I originally wrote of “ideas true to me”, as opposed to “true ideas.” Deborah commented that such wording supports Reformed Judaism, which bases itself on ideas “true to them” – the exact opposite intent of my article. My faulty wording misled others to the false notion of ‘subjective truths’, which reason opposes. I have, since her email, reworded this Postscript accordingly. Thank you Deborah.
– Moshe Ben-Chaim