Monday, July 30, 2012

"Eliminate Denominations" Objection #1

In last week's Washington Jewish Week, two letters were printed in response to my letter "Eliminate Denominations". Feel free to look at them here. I will reproduce the text of the objections here as well, followed by my detailed response to each letter.

Objection Letter #1

In his letter urging the elimination of non-Orthodox denominations ("Eliminate denominations," Letters, WJW, July 12), Rabbi Joshua Maroof contends that Orthodoxy is the "one, unaltered, authentic, traditional Judaism," the "original" version dating back 3,500 years.
This contention is not supported by the historical record. To name just a few major changes or modifications of the "original" Judaism:

• Animal sacrifice has been eliminated, replaced by prayer.

• Daughters can receive an inheritance, contrary to the sons-only stipulation in the Torah.

• The legal subterfuge known as "Prosbul" circumvents the Torah's requirement that debts be forgiven in the Sabbatical year.

• Rabbi Gershom ben Judah's edict prohibiting polygamous marriages.

• The failure to carry out (thankfully) the many death penalties mandated in the Torah.

In the area of beliefs, there is the introduction of a hereafter, a theme nowhere to be found in the Torah. We also recite, in the Amidah, our belief in the resurrection of the dead. Whence comes this notion?

One should feel free to criticize Conservative and Reform Judaism's practices and trends, but to claim that only they are departures from an "original" version is either naive or unbelievably disingenuous. The bottom line is that we are all Jews. When we have so few friends into the world, it ill-behooves us to foster alienation within our own ranks.


My Response to Mr. Finkel
Mr. Finkel's letter claims that my statement that authentic Judaism has not changed over time is not supported by the historical record. To bolster his argument, he cites a number of pieces of "evidence" that he feels disprove my point. While his letter may seem convincing on the surface, an examination of his list of "changes" in Judaism reveals many gaps in his Jewish education. I will respond briefly, point by point, to the issues he raises:

1 – Mr. Finkel states that the absence of animal sacrifice in Judaism and its “replacement” with prayer is a sign that the religion evolved. However, animal sacrifice was not "eliminated and replaced with prayer" as he claims. Animal sacrifice was only permitted in the Holy Temple, where it coexisted with prayer, as the Bible clearly states. Animal sacrifice was discontinued because the Temple was destroyed. Prayer was not "invented" to replace sacrifice, although the schedule of prayer was later modeled after the Temple service.

2 – Mr. Finkel claims that the Torah does not allow daughters to inherit but that, nowadays, daughters do inherit. The truth is that nowhere in Jewish law does it say that daughters cannot receive an inheritance if the parent stipulates this before his/her death. If the parent dies without a will, Jewish law dictates that the sons inherit. This law was never modified in any way. I am not sure where Mr. Finkel heard otherwise.

3 – Mr. Finkel argues that the Prozbul, instituted by Hillel to encourage lending by sidestepping the cancelation of loans in the Shemitta year, demonstrates that Judaism was, in fact, altered over time. It is beyond the scope of this brief response to explain the logic behind "prozbul". However, it is not effectuating a change in the law, but is working around (or through) a loophole in the law for a good purpose. There is a big difference between modifying and working within/around the system. The latter is done all the time, in all legal systems, and does not amount to changing them.

4 – Mr. Finkel points to the decree of Rabbenu Gershom, forbidding polygamy, is an example of Judaism changing with the times. However, an official decree of policy made by one rabbi which was accepted as custom by many (not all) Jewish communities is hardly a "change in Judaism". No one claims that the Torah changed. Everyone acknowledged that polygamy remained permitted, at least on a Biblical level. However, Rabbenu Gershom decided to institute a rabbinical ban on polygamy in the countries under his authority.

5 – Mr. Finkel further claims that the fact that the death penalties legislated by the Torah are not implemented suggests that Judaism has changed. Death penalties are not carried out because we don't have a Sanhedrin authorized to carry them out, not because the religion has been changed. Even when the Sanhedrin existed, the death penalty was used sparingly. But its complete absence from contemporary life is the result of a change in the external world (the lack of a Sanhedrin) not a change in the Torah.

Mr. Finkel proceeds to claim not only that Jewish practices changed, but that many Jewish beliefs were added to the religion later and did not exist in Biblical times. Specifically, he asks where the belief in the afterlife or the resurrection of the dead, widely held among traditional Jews, could possibly have come from. The concept of the afterlife, while certainly not the focus of Biblical or post-Biblical-Era Judaism, is alluded to in the Book of Psalms and in the Book of Ecclesiastes, and the resurrection of the dead is mentioned in several places, most notably the Book of Ezekiel and the Book of Daniel.

Moreover, with respect to belief in the afterlife, it is most certain that the Jews subscribed to it throughout their history, since it would be quite bizarre for any nation existing 4000 years ago to have not only denied but to have failed to address or even mention an idea that was a fundamental cornerstone of every other religion en vogue at that time, particularly the Egyptian cults. Its omission from the Torah and relegation to oral tradition is understandable when we consider that it is a topic subject to great misunderstanding and distortion when approached improperly.

Mr. Finkel concludes with these words: "The bottom line is that we are all Jews. When we have so few friends into the world, it ill-behooves us to foster alienation within our own ranks. "

My point exactly! This is why we were given one Torah and no denominations into which to group ourselves.


Yossi said...

I'd just like to point out that the existence of a soul after death is explicit in the story of Shaul raising Shmuel after his death.

Anonymous said...

Your response is a pretty Clintonesque redefinition of the word "change." If by "change" you mean complete reversal of the Torah (e.g. deciding to worship idols or eat pork), you are right- I think Moses and Joshua would somewhat recognize today's Orthodox Judaism.

But the common definition of the word "change" includes changes that are less important than that. And I don't think you can deny that halacha has changed in many, many small ways.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Yossi, you're right...I'm not sure why that example didn't occur to me immediately!

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


Actually the issue is not what we mean by "change" but what we mean by "Torah law" or "halakha". No changes occurred in the beliefs or legal principles of Judaism. Change may have occurred in the external world, and this may, in turn, have had an influence on how halakha is applied and manifest in the world. But this is a change in circumstance, not a change in substance.

Y said...

Good post -- just something to add. It is true that Orthodox Judaism is not exactly the same as it was 2000 years ago, but the changes that have occurred have happened within the halachic process. The changes introduced by Conservative Judaism have been so radical that they are unrecognizable from the perspective of traditional Judaism. This has involved, for example, striking down both rabbinic laws (waiting seven days before mikvah) and Biblical laws (kohanim marrying divorcees).