Closing Thoughts: Masorah In America

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by J. David Bleich

This essay is excerpted with permission from the introduction to Contemporary Halakhic Problems volume 7, forthcoming from Maggid.

 

The quintessence of Judaism is a sense of masorah, transmission from generation to generation. Fundamentally, that masorah is the corpus of the revealed Halakhah received at Sinai, passed on from generation to generation, father to son, teacher to pupil. But it is far more. “This is my God and I will beautify him; the God of my father and I will exalt him” (Exodus 15:2). How does one beautify God? Beauty as ascribed to the Deity is an anthropomorphic depiction but even such figurative descriptions have limits. As the medieval philosophers well understood, the essence of God is certainly beyond human comprehension but the results of divine activity are perceived by men and so we speak of those actions and their results in the only terms that we can comprehend, viz., the language of human acts and resultant effects. But beauty is neither an act nor a description of the effect of an act. Moreover, anthropomorphic language may be appropriate in describing God’s relationship with us but how could we possibly have any effect upon God? Yet the verse reads, “and I will beautify Him.” What could the attribute of beauty, as applied to the Deity, possibly signify? Even more incomprehensible is the notion that man can somehow endow God with beauty that He otherwise lacks. Understood literally, the words border on the blasphemous.

Quite frequently in rabbinic literature answers are presented without prior formulation of a question. The questions are either obvious or much too subtle to be grasped by every student. But the answers are of tremendous importance and when the answers are properly appreciated one finds that the questions have evaporated. And so the lesson conveyed by the answer is sufficient. The difficulties inherent in the verse “and I will beautify Him” are so obvious to the inquiring mind that they need not be formulated. The answer presented by the Sages, Shabbat 133b, is a rendition of the verse as “make yourself beautiful before Him in performance of mitzvot: a beautiful sukkah, a beautiful lulav, a beautiful shofar, etc.” God could not possibly be beautiful or not be beautiful. But man can and must harness his God-given sense of aesthetic appreciation and channel it to the service of God.

Not explicitly addressed by the Sages is the second clause of that verse, “the God of my father and I will exalt Him.” Scripture is not mere poetry. Phrases are not simply repetitive and synonyms are not employed solely for emphasis. “‘This is my God’—even the maidservant witnessing the splitting of the Red Sea experienced a beatific vision of the Deity surpassing that of Ezekiel and the prophets,” declares the Mekhilta, ad locum. For one privileged to enjoy that beatific experience the prophetic vision is undeniable and self-validating. Faith is not required to accept that which is apprehended by the intellect. “This is my God”—the maidservant perceived God; she accepted God’s existence because of knowledge born of her own perception rather than on the basis of faith in what was taught by others.

For one who can exclaim “This is my God” while experiencing a personal encounter with the Deity, what need is there further to describe Him as “the God of my father?” The passage reflects a recognition that even a prophetic experience does not exhaust the totality of religious awareness. Much of that awareness is conveyed on the basis of a received tradition, a tradition transmitted by the previous generation. Thus, a perception that “This is my God”—powerful and convincing as it may be—is incomplete without the complementary awareness that He is “the God of my father.” To be properly comprehended, the awareness that “This is my God” must be accompanied by an appreciation—and acceptance—of the masorah transmitted by an earlier generation. “The God of my father” expresses the notion that one can properly experience “This is my God” only within the framework of a masorah received from one’s forebears.

I remember quite vividly a discourse delivered by the late R. Ya’akov Kamenetsky that I attended in my youth in which he quoted a statement of Sefer ha-Yashar. Abraham, raised as an idol-worshiper, became convinced of the existence of the one God at a very early age on the basis of his formulation of a teleological argument. But upon becoming convinced of God’s existence, states this source, Abraham sought out Noah, who was still living, and his son Shem.1 That fact in itself did not strike me as remarkable. Abraham either actually heard of the Seven Commandments of the Sons of Noah or recognized that God might have revealed Himself to mankind. The contents of the Seven Commandments cannot be discerned by reason alone. There are myriad minutiae in the application of the Noahide Code that remain ambiguous even today.2 Abraham was certainly in need of guidance with regard to such matters. But Sefer ha-Yashar reports that Abraham had a far more ambitious agenda: Abraham went to Noah and Shem “and lived with them in their home to learn the instruction of God (mussar) and His ways . . . and Abraham served Noah and his son Shem many years.”3 Certainly, information concerning the content of the Noahide Code could be obtained only from the recipients and their successors. But the masorah that Abraham seeks from Noah and Shem is much more encompassing. It includes divine “mussar” and the “ways of God.” Even that which Abraham was able to fathom on the basis of intellect required confirmation by means of masorah.

Human intellect is fallible. Even when its apprehension is correct there can be no certainty precisely because a wise person knows that his intelligence may mislead him. Abraham was in need of confirmation of his own rationally perceived conclusions. Adam received the masorah directly from God; from Adam the masorah passed to Seth and Enoch and ultimately to Shem.4 Abraham sought out Noah and Shem in order to acquire from them not only instruction in the myriad details of both theological and halakhic teachings but also an understanding of the ways of God that may be attained only on the basis of the masorah. Without that tradition, Abraham’s beliefs and comportment, not to speak of his observance of the Noahide Code, would have been riddled with lacunae.

Judaism, and the masorah integral to its essence, involves much more than divine service. It encompasses mores and values that both reflect and enhance performance of mitzvot. Often such matters can be articulated only with difficulty; they must be lived rather than taught. They are encapsulated in familial, social and cultural experience. Masorah is taught by comportment even more so than by explicit instruction. As the Gemara, Berakhot 7b, underscores, serving Torah scholars, and thereby observing their conduct is of even greater import than that which they teach. The words of Sefer ha-Yashar are precise: “. . . and Abraham served Noah and his son Shem many years.”

E.B. deVito’s poem “Graduates” gives eloquent expression to a Chinese tale. A young man comes to his teacher for instruction in how to distinguish between genuine and counterfeit jade. Each day master and student discuss matters various and sundry and all the while pieces of jade are passed between them. One day, after a period of time, the young man pauses, frowns and suddenly exclaims, “This is not jade!” The point of the narrative is that some forms of knowledge cannot be taught directly. Ability to distinguish between the genuine and the imitation requires time, experience as well as repeated and continual exposure to the authentic.

Acculturation and assimilation were the scourge of post-Enlightenment European Jewry. Conscious disaffiliation resulted in the loss of countless numbers of Jews and their total alienation from Judaism. The early American experience was far different but no less tragic. Jews crossed the ocean and established themselves in the New World but the masorah in its pristine, authentic guise did not accompany them. The reasons are many and varied: the immigrant generation tended to be less knowledgeable than confreres left behind; religious leaders were often men of inferior erudition, of less than sterling character and stellar piety; Jewish education was poor to non-existent; a sense of community was lacking; poverty was rampant; and the desire successfully to forge a new life was all-pervasive. The masorah offered by the immigrant generation to the successor generation was adulterated at best. The result, precisely because it was unintended, was all the more tragic.

The masorah that was transmitted was attenuated and hence less than fully authentic. The result was not only compromise, both personal and communal, in religious practice but also a compromised, and hence less than authentic, value system. There is no need to cast aspersions or to assign blame—but the facts remain. The greatest misfortune is that the attenuated masorah came to be regarded—and in some circles is still regarded—as entirely authentic. It is not compromise, but the hallowing of the compromise, that is deplorable. Heavy-hearted resignation in light of changed circumstances might have been acceptable but idealization of the compromise as a norm is a denial, nay, a perversion, of the masorah.

During that epoch, the final years of which I experienced, the level of Torah knowledge both among the laity and members of the American-born rabbinate was appalling. Efforts were concentrated upon prevention of further deterioration of religious observance rather than upon enhancement. Corrective measures could not be undertaken or, if undertaken, met with only limited success because the strength of the masorah, the chain linking each generation to the next, had been severely compromised.

World War II was an unspeakable tragedy for mankind and most certainly for world Jewry. Mysterious are the way of God. Paradoxically, the ashes of the tragedy made possible a phoenix-like blossoming of Judaism on American soil. The masorah that had been disrupted in the United States remained intact in Europe. Post-war immigration of Jewish survivors took place in a social, cultural and economic climate entirely different from that confronted by earlier waves of immigrants. Communities succeeded in reestablishing themselves with both institutions and mores intact and, with time, flourished on American soil. Their masorah remained unbroken and undiminished. By and large, the post-war immigrant generation did not consciously attempt to transform what by then was the indigenous Jewish community, but transform that community it most certainly did. To the unpracticed eye, counterfeit currency may seem real but often the difference becomes readily recognizable when the authentic is placed against the inauthentic. The profound influence of the immigrant community was often both unintended and unrecognized but that influence cannot be overstated. Wonder of wonders, the authentic masorah was reestablished in a plethora of accents and vocabularies.

In many ways standards of religious observance and practice now exceed those of pre-war Europe. Economics, technology and economy of scale have contributed to an across-the-board raising of the bar in dietary kashrut. Glatt kosher has become de rigueur; Bet Yosef glatt is the new platinum standard. Once the story of how the Sha’agat Aryeh travelled with his own cooking utensils was the sum total of most individuals’ knowledge of yashan, assuming that they knew the meaning of the term. Today, in many communities it is impossible to find a bakery that is not scrupulous with regard to the distinction between yashan and chadash. In my youth the cognoscenti went to considerable lengths and expense to procure tefillin made of leather obtained from gassot. Recently, I discovered that the less expensive dakot of reliable kashrut are no longer available. They are not produced because there is no market for them. Modern technology makes it possible routinely to produce tefillin whose deviation from a perfect square can be measured in microns. I am informed that use of “zisse klaf,” if it has not already become, is rapidly becoming the standard for sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot without the legendary man in the street being aware that there ever was a possible problem requiring a solution. A hybrid etrog candidly acknowledged to be the product of interspecies grafting is hard to find; the price of the etrog is commensurate with the strength of its pedigree. The most fundamental expression of “Zeh Keli ve-anvehu—This is my God and I will beautify Him” is scrupulous avoidance of halakhic doubt in performance of mitzvot. The ultimate beauty of the mitzvah is its highest common denominator. “The God of my father and I will exalt Him,” the masorah of earlier generations has been reestablished in its pristine beauty!

Nowhere is this transformation more pronounced than in devotion to Torah study. Aspiration to single-minded pursuit of Torah study was always regarded by Jews as the most noble of endeavors. Throughout the generations, there were always individuals for whom “their Torah was their craft.” They were the pride of the community and held in highest esteem. Such persons did not seek honor, glory or prominence. Often they shunned positions of leadership and responsibility. Yet it is precisely those individuals who are endowed with the discernment necessary to distinguish between the authentic and the inauthentic. The community at large was keenly attuned to the correlation between Torah scholarship and transmission of the masorah expressing the quintessence of Judaism.

Among the lacunae of tradition as transmitted to the American continent was pursuit of Torah study for its own sake. Absent that goal, a cadre of accomplished indigenous Torah scholars could not possibly have been developed. Nature abhors a vacuum. It is the nature of scholarship that it, too, abhors a vacuum. In the absence of erudite leadership, the mantle of authority and the role of communal spokesmen was assumed by individuals of lesser knowledge and a diminished commitment to the ideological postulates of Judaism that so often accompanies a lack of scholarship. Unfortunately, that phenomenon still persists. But now, to paraphrase the comments of R. Naphtali Zevi Judah Berlin, in section IV of the introduction to his Ha’amek She’elah, the prescient observer recognizes that bridal adornments worn by anyone other than a bride are at best a charade.

A remarkable transformation has indeed taken place. Most apparent in the post-war transplantation of undiluted authentic traditions of European Jewry is the reestablishment of educational institutions in the New World replicating those that had been destroyed with standards of scholarly excellence mirroring those they were designed to replace. In terms of sheer numbers, in the aggregate, their enrollment now surpasses the number of students pursuing Torah wisdom for its own sake during any earlier period in recorded history. The influence of the post-war immigrants upon the American-born Jewish community has been profound. Instead of assimilating into what was then the dominant community, large segments of the already existing community have identified themselves with the Torah culture of the new arrivals. The result is an explosion of Torah scholarship.

Despite the many salient developments that we have witnessed, jubilation is hardly in order. The masorah has been reestablished within the committed community and many youths have been attracted precisely because of the genuineness of its teaching. But the countless souls that have not been awakened have become more and more estranged from authentic Judaism. The attenuated allegiance to Judaism that was emblematic of past generations of American Jews has become weaker and weaker. The result is a polarization between those who have accepted the masorah in its fullest sense and those to whom it is an alien concept.

The phenomenon of the “3-y Jew,” yahrzeit, yizkor and yamim nora’im, is fading into oblivion. A generation ago, a person attending a typical American synagogue would often have heard at least half of the attendees reciting kaddish. Those individuals were mourners and men observing a yahrzeit who were in the synagogue solely for the purpose of reciting kaddish. Today, when no mourner is present, I am frequently asked whether it is appropriate, as indeed is the ruling of Rema, for another worshipper to recite the mourner’s kaddish. There was a time when there was standing room only at yizkor. I recall a mailman who serviced the route that included my own synagogue who I saw in shul with mailbag in tow exactly three times a year. Each time he was present for no longer than half an hour, the half-hour timed precisely to include yizkor. Now increased attendance at yizkor is barely discernible. There are still three-day-a-year yamim nora’im Jews but their numbers are rapidly dwindling.

In my memory, there was a time when there were no shi’urim on Sunday for classes in the ordination program of Yeshivat Rabbenu Yitzchak Elchanan. The students were otherwise occupied as teachers in Talmud Torahs that met several weekday afternoons and on Sunday morning. Talmud Torahs are now virtually non-existent. True, some of the counterparts of the Talmud Torah students of yesteryear now attend day schools and yeshivot—and surely that is to be applauded. But it is a source of great anguish that countless others do not receive even the minimal exposure to Jewish teaching that was provided by the most inadequate of Talmud Torah schools.

One may be alarmed by the ever-increasing rate of intermarriage but the phenomenon should not be a surprise. Lack of Torah education results in diminished observance. With the passing of time, observance becomes more and more diluted. The masorah of Judaism is not passed from one generation to another. Judaism without its masorah is devoid of meaning. What remains is simply a residual ethnic taboo against marrying a person who is not of Jewish lineage. Surely, that is the poorest of all reasons for marriage only within the Jewish community. Small wonder, then, that in the sectors of our community in which the magnetic force of the masorah is not felt, intermarriage is rapidly becoming the norm.

The Psalmist writes: “We will not hide from their children declaring unto the last generation the praises of the Lord and His strength and His wondrous works that He has done” (Psalms 78:4). Redak’s elucidation of this verse is remarkable. Redak renders the verse as: “From their children, the children of our ancestors—and they are our brothers—who do not learn and do not know the tradition, we, who know, are obligated (chayyavim anu ha-yod’im) to remind them and not to desist from them, until also they will declare unto their children, and their children unto their children’s children, until they declare the praises of the Lord unto the last generation.”

Redak spells out the challenge and the obligation quite clearly. We are charged with sharing the masorah in all its complexity and beauty with each and every one of our brothers and sisters. The very concept of masorah entails the notion that, not only must it be received, but that it must be passed on as well—passed on, not only to the next generation, but also to those of our generation who have not yet been reached.

 

J. David Bleich is a rosh yeshiva and the Rosh Kollel Le-Hora’ah, at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and Herbert and Florence Tenzer Professor of Law and Ethics at Yeshiva University. He has served as Visiting Gruss Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law. He is the author of Judaism and Healing; Providence in the Philosophy of Gersonides; Bircas Ha-Chammah; Time of Death in Jewish Law; a seven volume series, Contemporary Halakhic Problems; a four volume Hebrew series, Be-Netivot Ha-Halakhah; a two volume work, Bioethical Dilemmas: A Jewish Perspective; and editor of With Perfect Faith.
 
The final installment in this symposium will appear Wednesday night, June 1. See previous installments here: link
 


  1. See Sefer ha-Yashar, Parashat Noach. 

  2. For example, the principle that organ meat of an animal in which the trachea and esophagus have been severed while the animal is yet alive is regarded “as placed in a basket” and hence forbidden as “a limb torn from a live animal” is not a regulation that can be intuitively grasped by the intellect. Those organs are permitted to Jews only if the animal is slaughtered in accordance with the law handed down at Sinai. Would an improperly performed act of shechitah have rendered such organs permissible to Abraham? See R. Moses Sofer, Teshuvot Chatam Sofer, Yoreh De’ah, nos. 18-19. R. Meir Dan Plocki devotes a section of Kuntres Ner Mitzvah, published in his Chemdat Yisra’el, to an examination of many matters pertaining to the Noahide Code regarding which determination is far from obvious. Numerous aspects of the Noahide laws are elucidated in Mishneh le-Melekh, Hilkhot Melakhim 10:7. In recent years a number of compendia have been published codifying the prescriptions of the Noahide Code. 

  3. See Sefer ha-Yashar, Parashat Noach. 

  4. Zohar Chadash, Midrash ha-Ne’elam, ed. R. Reuben Margolis ( Jerusalem, 5738), p. 22b. 

About J. David Bleich

J. David Bleich is a rosh yeshiva and the Rosh Kollel Le-Hora’ah, at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and Herbert and Florence Tenzer Professor of Law and Ethics at Yeshiva University. He has served as Visiting Gruss Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law. He is the author of Judaism and Healing; Providence in the Philosophy of Gersonides; Bircas Ha-Chammah; Time of Death in Jewish Law; a seven volume series, Contemporary Halakhic Problems; a four volume Hebrew series, Be-Netivot Ha-Halakhah; a two volume work, Bioethical Dilemmas: A Jewish Perspective; and editor of With Perfect Faith.

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