Welcoming Infinity

Now that I have another deeply satisfying Shavuout under my belt, I have a confession to make. Until the very last moment, when I was finally immersed in the day (or, in this case, the evening), I wasn’t really sure I could bring it off,  wholeheartedly celebrating receiving the Torah.

In these religiously polarized days, especially in Jerusalem, but I suspect wherever Jews take traditional practice seriously, Modern Orthodox (for want of a better label) Jews seem to be trapped in a high-speed march, if not to actually join the ranks of the haredi, ultra-orthodox, they are continuously looking over their collective shoulder hoping to avoid criticism or delegitimization. Being declared “not really frum” seems the equivalent of being declared “Not Really Jewish”. Do I really want anything to do with this Torah?

The Torah and by extension The Creator, are by definition and by logical necessity Infinite. Of course, we’re quick to pay lip service to this concept, but too often don’t realize that when placing any limitation whatsoever on the fractalized infinity of Torah we simultaneously deny God’s Infinity. And in a society where we seem to have, chas v’Shalom, granted infallibility to certain Torah scholars, declared by a small insider group within a tiny corner of the Yeshiva World, or, even worse, self-declared, as Gedolim, literally Great Ones, using the faulty principle of Daas Torah, an assumption that since Torah reflects God and God is omniscient, one can acquire complete and perfect knowledge of Absolutely Everything, exclusively and only through Torah study.

This then implies that these “semi-divine” Gedolim not only know everything there is to know (including about subjects (for example in highly technical specialties of science, but that they can determine an eternal and universal Psak Halacha (ruling in Jewish Law) which is binding on everyone, regardless of their individual situations and the individual situations and event which brought them to where they are).

This makes for not only a very lazy Halacha (even if conforming to specific rulings might be very effort- (and often financially) intensive. It often seems “martyr”-oriented, rewarding hardship and a meanness in everyday life, over actual achievement and intimate closeness to The Creator. Remember, as I have always been taught by my rabbis and teachers, a great Posek (halachic decider) is one who can make something already being done permitted, to bring more Jews into the realm, the “big tent” as it were, Tachat Kanfei HaShechinah (Beneath the Wings of the Shechinah (Feminine Divine Eternal Presence), rather than one who can exclude and disqualify.

You see, the purpose of Mitzvot, including immersing ourselves as fully as each of us is individually able in Torah, is in order to keep ourselves in constant engagement and relationship with The Creator Who, with his His Holy Torah, is One.

Shavuot, two weeks ago, celebrated receiving this Torah. Like all Jewish holidays, we mark God’s active intervention and participation in human events, more specifically, the ongoing experience of The Jewish People. Although this year we observe an approximate 3300 year anniversary, we’re supposed to re-experience this Divine Ecounter and Spiritual Explosion anew, as if it’s happening for the first and eternal time right now.

It takes a bit of mental self-manipulation to keep this up with much excitement and happiness year after year throughout a normal human lifespan. For me it has to be much more than a Groundhog Day Deja Vu (watch the 1993 Harold Ramis movie starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell both to catch the reference and to spend an enjoyable hour-and-a-half) experience (one that’s always new because my memory is wiped out between repetitions). The actual Torah, or at least my honest experience of it, must evolve and deepen each year.

But how can that work if the Torah is eternal, timeless and unchanging, just as we try to define The Creator. What appears to me as necessarily obvious is that God is also Infinite, and that in a way we can sort of point at, give a mental nod to, but never, Chas v’Shalom, actually define or experience.

One important implication of this is that Torah can never be simplified and unitary. Just as there are 613 Mitzvot (Commandments, Rules, Requirements), they are necessarily individuated for each Jew, and not just that, but for each Jew at each moment of his or her life. This is because a Mitzva is much more than a rule or a prescribed action to take or to avoid, but, rather, as the encompassing term Halacha (The Walking), system of Mitzvot implies, each is an approach to Divinity, to one’s individual and personal relationship with The Creator. And just as God created myriad people (there are at least 600,000 root souls (shoreshei neshama) in the Jewish People (the same as the number of letters in a Sefer Torah, written Torah scroll (including the “hidden” letters (which aren’t seen and “exist” only in oral tradition), which have, over the millennia, combined and recombined to countless individual Jewish personalities, each of which has not only the opportunity but the obligation to forge a relationship with The Creator, but to refine, i.e. closen and deepen it, every moment.

Perhaps no earlier than 1980, the Haredi world became enamored with the concept of Daas Torah, that the Torah “speaks”, i.e. has an absolute say and opinion in every topic and area of knowledge in the universe. This has enabled a perhaps idealistic, but perhaps politically-minded and small group of leaders of a particular grouping of rabbis to claim perfect knowledge of all reality and, thus, to be able to almost mechanically derive halacha in every single situation. Obviously, this requires a massive reductionist effort to simplify halacha to a single, unchanging answer which is not effected by time, place, the individual situation and experiences of the individual Jew involved.

Although this view has gained much traction in recent years and it’s supporters will obviously condemn my opinion, I must reject this idea as absolutely heretical, requiring a limitation on God, chas v’Shalom!

Because, ultimately, this is the bottom line. We cannot even, in any way whatsoever, especially not in a well-intentioned attempt to “honor the sanctity of the Torah” accept even the slightest movement towards limiting the Infinitude of The Creator.

So, when forcing oneself to always retain the awareness that the Torah cannot be limited, that Halacha cannot be frozen in any era or mement in time, that change and evolution is built into the very fabric of the Torah and, perhaps, most importantly, that I and no one else is ever, by definition, able to comprehend the entire Torah, it does, indeed, become something so special, so precious, so divine, there can be no responses but to welcome, to celebrate and to treasure it. And to eternally thank the Holy Creator who renews our receiving of it every year at this time.

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9 Responses to Welcoming Infinity

  1. This is gorgeous! Thank you for your deep Torah. With permission (which I am assuming because it’s already — or almost — Shabbat in Israel) I will be quoting you in my sermon tonight. Shabbat shalom, my holy teacher!

  2. Thank you for your deep Torah. This is gorgeous. With your permission (which I am assuming because it is already, or almost, Shabbat in Israel) I will be quoting you in my sermon tonight. Shabbat shalom!

  3. Maury Hoberman says:

    Great post. I’ve already shared it.


    From: Rabbi Zeitlin
    Reply-To: Rabbi Zeitlin
    Date: Friday, June 21, 2019 at 11:34 AM
    To: Maury Hoberman
    Subject: [New post] Welcoming Infinity

    Harry Zeitlin posted: “Now that I have another deeply satisfying Shavuout under my belt, I have a confession to make. Until the very last moment, when I was finally immersed in the day (or, in this case, the evening), I wasn’t really sure I could bring it off, wholeheartedly c”

  4. Jacques Ruda says:

    It is always a pleasure to read your posts. That is especially true when I agree with your conclusions. There is a danger, however, in interpreting halacha so broadly as to take away its substance or making subject to a popular vote as occurs among some groups. It then loses meaning or any compelling reason to follow it. Shabbat Shalom.

    • Of course, Jacques, you’re right in your caution. Perhaps I need to state and restate that my comments are based on being an orthodox Jew and an orthodox rabbi and that I am not, chas v’Shalom, by any means, opening Halacha to a free-for-all. I’m objecting to those who are engaged in serious study and relationship with Halacha, but who might have forgotten the actual goal, our direct relationship with HKBH. Which is, of course, according to our tradition, reached only through Torah and Mitzvot.
      Of course, living in Jerusalem, my frame of reference makes it easy to overlook those who aren’t even in the game, even though they obviously represent a large voice in the US. Which, of course, is one of the many reasons I’ve chosen to live here (or taken advantage of the precious opportunity to actually live here!).

  5. Pingback: Is The Breach Bridgeable? | Rabbi Zeitlin

  6. ChanaOra says:

    Thank you, Reb Zeitlin, for opening this conversation and revealing the fears you express about those who claim to know all the Divine answers. Great scholars like Daniel Matt take the perspective of the Haredi “Gedolim” on the alleged perfection Torah and turn it on it’s head! He contends that the the written and oral Torah are “unripe fruit” and it is Torah Qedumah, Ancient Torah, Primordial Torah, that Divine Wisdom known as Hokhma that cannot be spelled out in words, that is the true Torah. The Torah that we deal with, therefore, is not Torah Qedumah! The Torah is “unripe” “because the particular form it has assumed – the Written Torah – is just one possible reading of Divine Wisdom, of Primordial Torah.” Moreover, if halakhah becomes too regulated, then the way we “move” through the world becomes rigid. Daniel Matt states: “An evolving halakha enables us to move freely – or to be perfectly still. Engaging with the world spiritually, we realize there is no sharp line between the here-and-now and the ultimate.” Further, he states that a contemporary halakha can draw on tradition, yet grow and change day by day. The path of halakha is, to a certain degree, path-less. Like the Hevrayya of the Zohar, the way to walk through life is to innovate, create new paths based on conscience, heart, mind, human and planetary needs that can and should be integrated within our ever expanding understanding of God in the cosmic universe.

    • Dear ChanaOra,
      Thanks for joining the conversation.
      Although I have a number of friends who know Daniel Matt well and admire his translation of Zohar, I have to admit that he really isn’t on my horizon–there are so many approaches and commentaries to Zohar. I’m very engaged with the Metok MiDvash, although I think that’s only available in Hebrew.
      Are these statements or summaries of Matt’s or are these quotations from his translation? I don’t necessarily disagree with any of this, but I’d love to see how her derives this. I do think, and this the result of my own years of Torah study, that there are some sharp lines, but not necessarily where others often draw them.
      This is a lot longer conversation than a comment/reply forum….
      Again, thanks for joining in and I look forward to further thoughts.

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