Sunday, November 18, 2007

Rejoice In An Amazing Book On Your Festivals

I've previously quoted a few times insights from R. Zvi Dov Kanotopsky (link). He was, as I quoted from R. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, the top student of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik from the 1940s. He went on to become probably the most popular pulpit rabbi in Crown Heights--a huge Jewish community in those days, a rosh yeshiva in YU, and after his aliyah a instructor at Bar Ilan. Sadly, he died prematurely in a tragic accident in 1973. His synagogue derashos (sermons) were famous and, thankfully, he kept careful records of them. Over the years, a few books have been published of his sermons. This past year, his daughter (my high school teacher), son-in-law (my high school principal) and one of R. Kanotopsky's former congregants teamed up and published a collection of his derashos on the shalosh regalim (Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos) titled Rejoice in Your Festivals.

I've gone through the entire book, cover to cover, and it is fantastic. The derashos are beautiful, many brilliant. Someone who appreciates the art of the derashah will enjoy this book even more because the author was an unquestionable master.

Interestingly, all of the derashos are dated so the reader can know exactly when they were given, and some have footnotes explaining the historical context (one is undated). This adds insight because the derashos span from early 1945 through after 1967, and discuss topics such as the Allied victory in World War II, the discovery of the horrors of the Holocaust, the United Nations debate over and eventual establishment of the State of Israel, and the Six Day War and its aftermath. With a mastery over midrash and Talmud, R. Kanotopsky finds insights that speak to the religious and emotional significances of these momentous occasions.

Click here to read moreGiven that many of these sermons were written half a century ago, one might expect that they are somewhat dated and do not speak to contemporary concerns. I don't think that is true at all. For one thing, many of the essays relate to eternal concerns such as the need to find spirituality and joy in Judaism. Additionally, since Pesach is the holiday of the Exodus and Shavuos is the holiday of the giving of the Torah, R. Kanotopsky dwells at length about the nature of the Torah and Jewish belief. When he speaks out against the powerful Conservative movement of his day and provides the Orthodox responses to their religious challenges, he does not just react to the threat but he builds a thoughtful worldview regarding the development and sources of Judaism that respond extremely well to the challenges of today as well. Perhaps this says more about the cyclicality of life, however I believe that the sermons on these topics are extremely relevant even today.

While the reader must keep in mind that the book does not contain exhaustive essays but synagogue sermons, and that this genre includes loose readings for rhetorical purposes, he will be extremely rewarded with this book of derashos from a master of the trade. Put this on the must-read list.

In a sermon on the five names of the Sinai desert listed in the Gemara (Shabbos 89a-b), R. Kanotopsky writes as follows (pp. 131-135):
Our rabbis say that the wilderness of Sinai is sometimes called מדבר קדמות--the wilderness of Kedemot. Why is it called by that name? שנתנה קדומה עליו--because the Torah, which is kedumah, so ancient, was given there...

There are groups in Jewish life today that insist that the midbar Sinai, that the wilderness we know as Sinai, where the Torah was given, should be referred to and should be known as midbar Kedemot, because upon that mountain and in that wilderness there was given or revealed an ancient Law, the product of an ancient civilization--she-nitnah kedumah alav, an old Law that reflects the moral and ethical standards of an ancient people...

If we say that it is proper for men and women to be seated together at prayer services, we are, in effect, saying we have reached much higher standards of moral values. We are saying that while the rabbis of the Talmud may have been distracted by the presence of women during their prayer, we have no such problem...

Let us now pose our original question again. Has Torah lost its validity and its vitality? Has it been outdated by the tremendous strides of modern civilization and the modern world? I think the answer is both yes and no. It depends from what perspective we approach the problem. It also depends upon what strides and modern progress we are dealing with.

If anyone should tell us that our advanced modern religious philosophy indicates that the concepts of korbanot, of sacrifices to be brought in the Temple, are antiquated and outdated, or if anyone should tell us that we are so morally and ethically advanced that the laws of the Torah do not conform to our standards, then I know that this is the reference to Sinai as the midbar Kedemot. These people are simply wrong and their arguments run counter to our covenant with HaShem. Our Torah, our Law, is absolutely as valid today in its entirety, as it was on the momentous day whose anniversary we celebrate today, when God revealed His Word to us.

On the other hand, if you ask whether we have done everything we can to continue to apply the Torah to the peculiar needs of our times, I think that, unfortunately, the answer is no. Too often we see a reluctance, a fear to really address the problems we face, problems for which precedents are not readily obvious. We face new questions raised by our technological advances. We face new questions as a result of our having our own government for the first time in two thousand years. WE should be facing these new questions with excitement and confidence.

We must not forget that something else happened at Sinai in addition to the formal revelation of the Law. That something is contained in another name for Mount Sinai. It is called midbar Kadesh, the wilderness of Kadesh. Why? שנתקדשו ישראל עליו--because the Children of Israel were thereupon sanctified. We were endowed with kedushah...

In today's world, we often confront new and sometimes challenging issues that call for creative responses from our contemporary sages. Their role is clear. They must be mehadesh within the "four cubits of halakha"; they must innovate but within the very well-defined boundaries that are part of our heritage from Sinai. At the same time, we must be mindful of those who pose as prophets of a new world and wish to eliminate halakhic institutions and practices in the name of modernity. Our Torah may be ancient, but it is as relevant today as it ever was...

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