• Rabbi Marc Kraus

Are We Hypocrites?

There was once a widow… who had a field, but when she came to plow it, Moses told her not to plow it with an ox and an ass together… At the time of the harvest, she was forced to leave the corners of the field unharvested. From the harvested grain remaining she had to give the priest the share due to him… The widow then vehemently cried out: “Because you persist in demanding [so much], I declare [it] the property of God.” Aaron replied: “In that case all of it belongs to me”… leaving the widow… with nothing. [1]

This is a very unusual story for the rabbis to tell, and they only get away with it is because they insert it into the mouth of the rebellious Korach from the book of Numbers. The authors seem to be broadcasting their own anxiety: Is complete observance of the entire Torah actually possible for all Jews at all times? It is precisely this question that the Reform and Conservative movements have taken up over the past two centuries.

Is it truly possible to abstain from working on Shabbat? For some people it is, for some it is not – it depends on their economic circumstances. Is it possible to avoid causing combustion on Shabbat? Well, avoiding driving a car in suburbia today requires difficult lifestyle choices and financial commitments. Is it possible to refrain from farming the land of Israel one year in every seven? No, not if Israel wants a functioning economy. Is it possible to avoid lending money at interest? No.

However beautiful, virtuous or transformative these practices might be, we must acknowledge that we are not always able to observe them. But how, then, should we understand ourselves and our Judaism? After all, we all know that many Torah norms observed inside the synagogue, such as our dietary practices, are not observed by all of us in the world outside. Are we all just hypocrites?

My teacher, Rabbi Brad Artson, once proposed the following self-understanding: The practices of the Torah are, for the modern Jew, methods of connecting to God[3] that we should aspire to. We should acknowledge that we will not always be able to meet the high standards demanded by the Torah, but they provide a moral framework for us individually and as a community to continually walk towards. That is what “Halakhah” means literally, “walking.”

The idea that the rabbis of antiquity were perfect is both rejected explicitly in their own writings, but also implicitly in the fears that our opening story conveys.

Our aspirations might not always be attainable, but we continue to strive to observe Jewish practices that will transform us into better human beings.[4]

[1] (Tanchuma, Korach 4-6 = Numbers Rabbah, 18:2-3) The actual story is longer, the final subject of the sentence are two sheep that she buys to escape the “immoral” demands made of land owners, but the result is the same.

[2] The second half of Numbers Rabbah is essentially Tanhuma Yelamdenu, which some date early and some date late. See Strack & Stemberger in their Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, Fortress Press 2nd Ed. (1996).

[3] Rabbi Moshe Ephraim of Sudilkov, Degel Mahaneh Ephraim (16th Century) writes: The meaning of the word “mitzvah” connotes connecting oneself, from [the Aramic root] tzavta, meaning connection. For through the performance of each and every mitzvah found in the Torah, we connect, join and attach ourselves to God, may He be blessed.

[4] Midrash Tanhuma (5th Century): What does God care whether a man kills an animal in the proper Jewish way or strangles it? Will one benefit Him or the other hurt Him? What does God care whether a man eats kosher or non-kosher animals? Understand therefore that these practices were given so people could improve themselves.

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