The Perfect Torah Versus the Evolving Torah Part 3

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 13 maart 2020

Dear Friends, Shalom. I am pleased to send you the third part of Yehudah DovBer Zirkind’s essay on my observations at our Think Tank session on January 29, 2020, related to the writings of the Mei Hashiloah, by the Chassidic master, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner (1800-1854).

In the last essay (Friday, 28 February) Yehudah DovBer discussed the tension between two well established views how to see the Torah: either to see it as a Torat Emet, a “true Torah” which text is final, absolute and “non-negotiable” or on the other side the view that there is a need to make sure that the Torah is also a Torat Chaim, a “living Torah” which is capable of responding to the constant new circumstances and challenges which the Jewish people encounter throughout history and which may require from the Torah its “negotiability”.

On one side it was the famous Chatam Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762-1839) who formulated the concept of “chadash asur min HaTorah”, “any innovation is prohibited according to the Torah” and on the other side the just as famous Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935) who stated “Ha-yashan yitchadesh vehachadash yitkadesh”, “the old shall become new and the new shall become holy.”

Both these views are not without their problems. The idea of the Chatam Sofer that all innovation is prohibited is in itself an innovation, since we see throughout all of the Talmud and later authorities that innovations were made by the sages. And Rav Kook’s call for novelty especially within in the halachic system needs to be limited or at least postponed till “better” days since for now it may undermine the very structure of the Halacha which needs to correspond to our often limited spiritual circumstances. (See his radical ideas in Le-Nevuchei Hador, “For the perplexed of the generation”, newly published by Yediot Acharonot-Sifrei Chemed, 2014, see especially Chapters 6 (1) and 13.)

This matter touches on the dialectic between the eternal Torah shebichtav, the written Torah, and the Torah sheba’al peh, the Oral Torah. Are all the laws in the written Torah reflecting ideal religious moral values on their highest level, or are some of them “Torah tolerated” since these laws were the product of inferior moral value systems which were incorporated by God in the Torah so as to accommodate the conditions of the time in which the Torah was revealed at Sinai? (i.e. the need for sacrifices and the partial acceptance of slavery). In such a case it becomes the obligation of the Sages to find ways, via interpretation to “update” the Torah but always within its divine eternal spirit. (See my Jewish Law As Rebellion, Jerusalem Urim Publications, 2018, chapter 27.)

Ultimately there is the question whether or not many laws were given as a compromise to human weakness such as those given after the incident with the golden calf after which more laws such as the Kashruth laws were given to heal the spiritual damage caused by this sin. (See for example the commentary of Seforno on Vayikra: 11:2; 26:11.)

There is also the question whether the most advanced form of Torah is to be seen in what I call the “Embryonic Abramaic Torah” which resembles an even higher level of spirituality as it was lived by the Avot, such as Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov, who were hardly in need of any mitzvot. (See the observations by Chovot Halavavot, by Rabbi Bachya Ibn Paquda, 11th century, chapter 7.) This may lead to the observation that nearly all of the mitzvot of the Torah, given at Sinai, are to be seen as a compromise to human weakness.

This matter relates directly to the question whether or not the mitzvot will be abolished in the messianic age. (Mitzvot beteilot le atid lavo. See Niddah 61b.) Those who maintain that no innovation can ever be made will probably argue that the Mitzvot will continue to be applied even in the messianic age, while those who follow the idea that the Torah’s mitzvot are to a great extent a compromise to human weakness and specific conditions will argue that many if not all mitzvot will be abolished in the messianic age.

As stated earlier, it is my opinion that it will only be possible to ensure the relevance of the Torah in every age when we take into account that its divine text was conditioned by the spiritual and moral circumstances which prevailed at the time and that the sages were consequently instructed by God to “rework” it when circumstances had changed.

Yehudah DovBer will now continue to discuss these matters based on the observations of the Mei Hashiloah and my own. Many thanks to him!

Nathan Lopes Cardozo


The Abolition of the Mitzvot in the Messianic Era

While Rabbi Cardozo discussed the Mei Hashiloah’s ideas as a point of departure, the Mei Hashiloah himself made a number of statements which relate to Rabbi Cardozo’s arguments.

First, the Mei Hashiloah discusses the Talmudic statement (Nidda 61b) thatמצות בטילות לעתיד לבא, the Mitzvot will be annulled in the future.

This is a complicated issue that has sparked much discussion and debate. Although the Mei Hashiloah’s ideas are cryptic and difficult to understand, he does make the radical claim that Torah and Mitzvot are Divine garments, and not the divine essence. (This idea finds precedents in Kabbalistic sources, but I won’t elaborate on this here). (1) Moreover, he maintains that, whereas at the present time the only way to connect to the Divine will is through the garments of Torah and Mitzvot, in the messianic age there will be a direct apprehension of Godliness without these garments. It is unclear whether he means that in the Messianic age there will be no performance of Mitzvot at all, or merely that their performance will be altered in some way.

The Mei Hashiloah is known for his highly original approach of vindicating biblical sinners and villains by uncovering the spiritual intention behind their ostensible sins (although they are ultimately inappropriate for that specific situation). For example, he discusses the juxtaposition in Parashat Shelach of the story of the מקושש (the person who gathered wood on Shabbat) and the commandment of Tzitzit. (2) The Mei Hashiloah explains that Tzitzit alludes to and represents יראה – the need to exercise fear and restraint in one’s actions, lest they transgress God’s will. According to the Mei Hashiloah, the wood gatherer reasoned that since Shabbat is a foretaste of the Eternal Shabbat when Mitzvot will be suspended, he need not be guided by the discipline of fear and restraint. Thus, the Mitzva of Tzitzit – which is supposed to evoke the fear and awe of God – is written in the Torah in close proximity to the story of the wood gatherer, in order to warn us that contrary to the wood gatherer’s belief, we must serve God with fear. However, this is true only until we reach the point of complete Berur (the process of clarification whereby we remove all ulterior motives and only do what God wants us to do). Thus, the spirit in which we do the mitzvot may be altered by our personal status.

In another passage, (3) the son of the Mei Hashiloah, Rabbi Ya’akov Leiner of Radzin (1828–1878), also known as the Beis Yaakov, quotes a teaching in the name of his father regarding איסור ערלה (the prohibition to eat the fruits from a tree during the first three years of its yield). The Mei Hashiloah uses this law to convey the idea that certain things are prohibited only temporarily, because the person is not ready to absorb them, like unripe fruit which cannot be digested properly. Likewise, all forbidden foods contain a spark of holiness, but they also contain harmful properties. Therefore, these foods cannot be consumed before the time is right, but there will be a time when the fruits will become ripe for consumption. He invokes the concept of the annulment of the commandments in the future as support for his idea.

Contraction and Expansion

Another key concept in the Mei Hashiloah’s philosophical system is the tension between צמצום (contraction) and התפשטות or הרחבה (expansion). (4) He holds that in the earlier stages of divine service, we must exercise maximum restraint (צמצום) and fear (יראה) to ensure that we do not veer off the path of divine service. At this stage, we may be required to take upon ourselves additional restrictions and stringencies (גדרים וסייגים) not required by Halacha. The rationale is that in order to engage in a specific activity we must ensure that the action can be infused with holiness (or at least, does not oppose Godliness and holiness). If we have not fully developed our divine consciousness such that it permeates everything we do, and instead we engage in a certain activity only to satisfy our desires, then that action can interfere with our divine service and the manifestation of divinity in the world. However, if we have already attained a higher stage of divine consciousness, we can engage in a mode of הרחבה (expansiveness) instead of restraint. At this point, we can let go of certain restrictions, releasing ourselves from the more inhibited approach. Instead of excluding certain activities from the sphere of our divine service, we can broaden the “playing field” and partake of many more activities and physical pleasures.

One of the examples cited by the Mei Hashiloah (5) is the permission given in Devarim for the mundane consumption of meat, as opposed to the previous requirement that only meat brought as a sacrifice may be consumed.

The Torah states, “When the Lord, your God, expands your boundary, as He has spoken to you, and you say, ‘I will eat meat,’ because your soul desires to eat meat, you may eat meat, according to every desire of your soul. (6)

Thus, the only permission to eat meat is, “When the Lord, your God, expands your boundary.” The Mei Hashiloah explains this based on the statement in the Talmud (Pesachim 49b) that an Am Ha’eretz (ignoramus) is not permitted to eat meat. The Am Ha’eretz, writes the Mei Hashiloa, will eat meat only in order to indulge his appetites, rather than to gain strength to speak words of Torah. Hence he is proscribed from eating meat. Only someone who has attained a state of הרחבת הדעת (an expanded consciousness and greater spiritual awareness) may eat meat, since the energy derived from the eating will serve a higher purpose. This, according to the Mei Hashiloah is the spiritual meaning of “When the Lord, your God, expands your boundary” – it refers to an expanded spiritual consciousness. Based on the this, he offers an ingenious interpretation of why we eat dairy foods on Shavuot: we commemorate the fact that before the giving of the Torah, the Israelites – like the Am Ha’eretz – were afraid to eat meat.

This dialectic between צמצום and התפשטות – when we are allowed to expand our sphere of activity because we are “spiritually safe” vs when we must restrict our sphere of activity out of concern that they are not yet on a high enough spiritual level for that activity to be spiritually safe – is the basis for another idea brought up by Rabbi Cardozo in his presentation. This is the idea that there are certain prohibitions that we must observe, not for their own sake, but because those around us are on a lower level, and are not yet spiritually refined. In Rabbi Cardozo’s words: “There could be mitzvot which I must keep, not because I need it, but because my neighbor needs it.”

This idea is illustrated by the Mei Hashiloah’s commentary on the verse in the story of the Akeda: עתה ידעתי כי ירא אלקים אתה (“now I know that you are a God-fearing man.”) (7) There is a difference, writes the Mei Hashiloah, between יראת אלקים (fear of God) and יראת יקוק (fear of Hashem). The fear of God refers to a situation where someone refrains from an activity (he uses the word צמצום) because he has not yet reached a level where this activity can be done in an untainted manner. On the other hand, fear of Hashem (יראת יקוק) refers to a situation where one is allowed to engage in a particular activity based on their spiritual status, but is prevented from doing so by God’s command only for the sake of his/her fellow.

The Mei Hashiloah elaborates upon this idea in many other places. In an interesting comment he offers a clever homiletical interpretation for the difference between the way the word אני קדוש (I am holy) is vowelized at the end of Parashat Shemini (8) (dealing with forbidden foods) and Parashat Kedoshim (which discusses the mandate of holiness). (9) In the former case, the word אני is vocalized with a Kamatz קמץ, whereas in the latter case, it is vocalized with a Patach פתח. The Mei Hashiloah explains that קמץ alludes to tightness and restriction, similar to the action of clenching the fist (like the Hebrew words לקמץ, קמיצה). This alludes to the state of affairs that prevailed when the Israelites were first commanded to keep the laws of kashrut. Due to the sharp transition from being allowed to eat whatever they desired to keeping the strict dietary laws, they had to exercise great restraint and צמצום. The ,פתח on the other hand, refers to openness (related to the word פתח and לפתוח) and is related to the mode of הרחבה, or expansiveness, when one reaches a higher state of holiness. (10)
To be continued.


(1) See source sheet #6.

(2) See source Sheet #7.

(3) See Source Sheet #8.

(4) See Morris M. Faierstein, All Is in the Hands of Heaven, 38, 64-66.

(5) See source sheet #9.

(6) Devarim 12, 20.

(7) Bereshit 22:12. See source sheet #10.

(8) Vayikra 11:44-45.

(9) Vayikra 19:2; 20:26. See source sheet #11.

(10) For more examples, see the source sheet.

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