Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Stability and Flexibility of the Torah

R. Zvi Kanotopsky, Rays of Splendor (Brooklyn, 1956), pp. 22-23:

What of the Oral Law itself? What should be the conception of the Orthodox Jew with regard to the nature of the Oral Tradition? We hear so much in our days of the inherent flexibility of Jewish Law! The cry of flexibility and its component clamor for change has contributed no little to the existing confusion. It is a difficult problem. But a position of some clarity should be established. Now, notice the simple teachings that our Rabbis are suggesting in their intriguing remarks ואת הארץ כי נעמה זו תורה שבעל פה. He saw the land that it was pleasant. This refers to the Oral Law [Yalkut Reubeni Vayehi]. The Oral Law, the Halacha, is symbolically compared to land, to soil. Draw this analogy to its logical conclusion and you will find a beautiful and concise analysis of the nature of our Oral Tradition.

The very first characteristic which is suggested by ארץ, by land or soil, is its stability. Of all the objects in the world, of all the property a many may possess, nothing suggests the characteristic of stability as does land or soil. And this we must learn above all else as the foundation of our thinking. After all the talk of the development of Jewish Law is said and done, our Rabbis saw fit to emphasize the inherent stability of the Law. The Oral Law remains the same and retains the same stability as suggested by ארץ, by soil. The analogy is so startling. The student of the soil can at best devise means and methods of drawing the most from the soil he is studying. The basic nature of the soil remains the same. The student of Halacha can again draw from the Halacha as much as is possible, but can never change one iota of the Halacha. Regardless of our secular moral code, the laws of modesty and the segregation of the sexes at services remain unchanged. Regardless of every advance in science and medicine, the laws of מקוה remain untouched. This is stability. This is what our Rabbis meant when they compared the Oral Tradition to Land.

Surely there is development in Jewish Law. The one who tills the soil, plants the seed and cares for it, finds out that it soon produces fruit. We have new problems today, new technological problems. We have situations today which did not exist in ancient times. Here the problems have to be planted in the soil of the Halacha and the solution will be forthcoming. But something strange happens! With the solution to the problem, Halacha is clarified. In the process of abstraction of principles and application to the specific, the concepts of the Halacha themselves become clearer and more profound. This is development. This is flexibility as we recognize it, and as we accept it.

But one other point must be clearly emphasized. The one who tills the soil has a great deal of respect and love and reverence for the soil. The farmer always speaks with reverence of his land. A similar attitude must exist in Torah. In the process of development, that reverence must be expressed. It is only that individual who has lived with Torah, whose entire life is integrated with Halacha as the life of the farmer is integrated with his soil, it is only that individual who can interpret the Halacha and apply it and develop it.

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