From the Rabbi - November 2011 Print
Dear Friends:

The word Torah has been translated into English in a variety of ways.  Many of us simply refer to it as “The Torah,” while others call it “The Pentateuch” and still others refer to it as “The Five Books of Moses.”  Maybe the most appropriate English translation is “instruction.”   For the last nineteen hundred years, however, the Torah has often been termed “The Law,” following the usage in the New Testament’s Epistle to the Galatians (2:16).

“Law” has connotations of severity and rigidity, and anti-Jewish preachers during the first three or four Christian centuries played on these themes, contrasting Jewish harshness with Christian love and forgiveness.  Accordingly, those who kept the law could not look forward to salvation, while people of faith were easily reconciled to God.  Eventually, the legalistic dimension of the Torah was superseded by the love and faith proposed by the New Testament.
I am often conscious of these different concepts as the Torah year comes to a conclusion and begins again at Simchat Torah.  The recycling of Genesis leads me to recycle all the historical associations connected to the idea of Torah as law.  Calling the Torah “law” evokes notions of inadequacy and ineffectuality, of unthinking adherence to a legal structure without any thought as to its meaning or values.  It is, perhaps, the ultimate put-down of the early Christian centuries.

When I turn to these thoughts, as I do almost every year, one figure in more modern Jewish history always comes to mind.  His name was Rabbi Israel Lipkin, and he lived in Lithuania from 1810 to 1883.  He is often known as Israel Salanter, since most of his career was centered in the town of Salant, just twenty miles from the Baltic Sea in western Lithuania.  He was, by everyone’s admission, a great Torah scholar who worked tirelessly to strengthen Orthodox Judaism.

But his major contribution to our life was to popularize the so-called Musar movement.  Musar as a word comes from the second verse of the book of Proverbs: “[The goal is] to know wisdom and ‘musar,’ to comprehend the words of understanding.”  Here, the word takes on meanings like instruction, discipline and right conduct.  Salanter stressed the need to further ethical and spiritual development, even creating a separate learning environment where students would leave the legalisms of Torah and Talmud outside the doors and focus on the values that underlay the law.  A simple lesson involved the oft-repeated Torah dictum that we should be especially considerate of the poor and less-fortunate in society, since we had our own experience with misfortune as slaves in Egypt.  The key for Salanter was not the giving of alms or tzedakah, but the understanding of the ethical lesson that supported acts of compassion and charity.

In his rabbinic life, Salanter practiced what he preached.  In 1848, during a cholera epidemic, he commanded the Jewish population of Lithuania themselves to engage in any necessary relief work on the Sabbath, even if there were non-Jews who could do the same work.  The ethics that underlay Jewish law, he taught, demanded that Jews actively violate the Sabbath in order to save the lives of ill Jews.  So, too, he ordered Jews who were ill not to fast on Yom Kippur.  Saving a life, he reasoned, overrode the strictures of Jewish law.

What Salanter taught was that it is not enough to act in accordance with the prescriptions of the law.  One also needs to understand the values, ethics and morality that underwrite the behavioral norms of Jewish life.  For him this internalized sensitivity to the often-concealed rationales was even more important than the external acts of compliance.  As we turn the Torah once again from Deuteronomy back to Genesis and initiate the annual repetition of the cycle, I am intensely conscious of the teachings of Rabbi Israel Lipkin Salanter.  Unthinking repetition of actions and rituals is, according to his thinking and teaching, insufficient; you always need to look for the meaning and strive to understand the ethical rationale for what you are doing.

                Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi