Rupture and Reconstruction Revisited Parshas Shmini

This past Thursday, we observed Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. In Israel, a siren goes off, people stop in the streets, and reflect. They remember loved ones. They imagine the many relatives they never met. And they silently lament the ongoing and seemingly never-ending assault of antisemitism.

Over the years, my reflections on the Holocaust have evolved, as they should. As a young child, the Holocaust was a nightmare, quite literally. I would think Nazis were gathering to invade us, or maybe even hiding in my closet. Trauma, as I spoke about last week, gets passed on. As I got older, prouder in my Jewish faith, I thought of the Holocaust in the terms of heroism. The stories I heard of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Stories of people maintaining their faith in G-d in the face of such godlessness. More recently, I have been thinking of the Holocaust in terms of the long-lasting trauma to survivors and their descendants. Memory is alive; it is malleable and ever shifting. It is a weakness of the human condition, but it’s also a strength, it’s beautiful. If our memories don’t take on new meaning and cannot be seen from fresh perspectives, then it is not only our memory that is dead, but in some way, we are as well.  

And so today, I want to revisit the Holocaust from a fresh perspective; fresh, at least, for me, and that is from the perspective of Jewish law and practice.

In 1994, Professor Haym Soloveitchik, the son of Rav Yosef Soloveitchik, penned what is considered to be one of the most important articles and assessments of Orthodox life. The article, titled, Rupture and Reconstruction argued “that from the beginning of the twentieth century and continuing after World War II, the Holocaust and the destruction of European Jewry, contemporary religion lost its roots or, more precisely, what he called “a mimetic tradition,” (from the word, mimic, to copy) a phrase which from that day on entered the Modern Orthodox lexicon. In the past, not only values but also religious practice was conveyed by living example, and not through texts. The absence of a continuous tradition, or masorah, led to religious insecurity; people now turned to detailed texts, as opposed to their parents and elders, to learn how to observe Jewish law and live an observant lifestyle.” (R. David Brofsky)

The impact, he suggested, led the Orthodox community to shift to the right and to more chumra, more stringency as Jewish texts tend to cautiously advise more stringent practices, even if the community they were written from and for, did not always act in the same fashion. And so, Professor Soloveitchik lamented this rupture in our mesorah, in the parent-to-child-tradition, caused by the Holocaust, which created a community that was dependent on books, and therefore more conservative in their approach to Jewish law and practice.

In the two and a half decades since he wrote his essay, the shift to texts over community, has also caused the exact opposite phenomenon, one that is equally, if not more, lamentable. As many have pointed out, the explosion of Jewish education for men and especially for women, the existence of the internet and social media with all its sharing abilities, has caused a tremendous amount of kulos, of leniencies, to be shared and adopted widely. Instead of turning to their shul rabbi, many an observant Jew, turns to rabbi Google, where he or she could often find not just an answer, but quite often, the exact answer that they’re looking for.

A prominent rabbi once told me that when a congregant asks him a question, he also Googles it. Not to look up the answer, but to know what alternative approaches he has to contend with. It’s like going to the doctor after you’ve spent a few hours on WebMD and the doctor has to reassure you that, “No, not every headache is a brain aneurism.”

Muhammad famously described the Jewish People as the people of the book. But he was mistaken. We are first and foremost a people. Full stop. A nation. A family. Yes, we have a book, but it is called a Toras Chaim, a Torah of life. It is a living book. Not only is it relevant in every age and era, but it is constantly evolving. Where does it evolve? Right here. Among the people, in a community, in discourse, in dialogue, and debate.

This week’s parsha speaks of the inauguration of the Mishkan. Vayehi bayom hashmini, and it was on the eight day. The eight day of what? For seven days preceding the inauguration, Moshe taught Aharon and his sons how to serve in the Mishkan, what to do, how to do it. But he didn’t use a book, he didn’t even give a lecture. Moshe himself served in the Mishkan and the Kohanim observed. The mimetic experience was born.

And on that very day, Nadav and Avihu, two of the most brilliant rising stars of the Jewish People, slated to be the next leaders, they died, actually killed by a heavenly fire. Why? Our Sages teach us that they were waiting for the elders, Moshe and Aharon, to die, so they could take over.

Now you have to understand – this wish of theirs, for Moshe and Aharon to die, was not selfish, and not as cynical as it may sound. Moshe and Aharon were old men. They were likely a little out of touch with the sentiment of the people. Nadav and Avihu, they “got it.” And they were fully capable of learning, of teaching, of communicating to G-d and receiving Divine instructions. “Moshe and Aharon, you did a great job; you got the Jewish People out of Egypt, you brought them the Torah. But now it’s time for the new generation. Enough with the old men.” 

What they failed to appreciate is that without the elders, without the connection between the past and the present, without their roots, they had nothing. That is not Judaism. The text is not enough; the community, the relationships developed in a community, the experience of learning from one another, that is who we are. That is what means to be a Jew.

Community is not only the medium through which we study and apply the law, it is the driving force behind some of the most challenging laws in the Torah. The second half of the parsha describes in great detail the laws of Kashrut; of what we can and cannot eat. Although we cannot fully understand why certain foods are allowed and others aren’t, in a very general sense, the rules of Kosher, as difficult as they may have been and sometimes are, have kept us united. They have forced us to live in close proximity to one another. For all the complaints of mark-ups and the like, what price would we not pay for the gift of community?

In the tenth century BCE, King Solomon, the Gemara tells us, instituted the Eruv, the mechanism through which a semi-public domain can be treated like a private one. People can mock the Eruv, people can fight against the building of an Eruv, but tell me, is there anything that had a greater impact on ensuring that we live next door to one another? There’s a reason King Solomon was described as the wisest of men.

And then, years later, as the Jews were dispersing all over the world after the destruction of the Temple that King Solomon built, another visionary came on the scene. His name was Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai, and according to many, he is credited with instituting the Beis Knesses, literally, the house of gathering, the shul. It was designed to be a place where people could pray and to learn, but also to gather. You could pray at home – G-d is everywhere. You could learn wherever you’d like – all you need is a book. But for Judaism to survive, you need a community.

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If I were to be perfectly honest, I relate deeply with Nadav and Avihu. I sometimes think I know what’s best for the Jewish People, and the old rabbis, the ones who can’t even turn on their phone, let alone keep up with the latest Jewish Twitter controversy, they’re out of touch. I relate to Nadav and Avihu, because I too, prefer to serve G-d alone, as they did. I sometimes feel lost in the crowd or distracted by a congregation. I feel that when I pray alone, my tefilah is more elevated. I’d like to believe these are holy sentiments. But they are not Jewish sentiments. Because Judaism is not just a faith. It is a peoplehood, a community, a family.

The Holocaust caused a rupture in our community life with lasting impact. Though radically less dramatic, the pandemic did the same. It’s really nice to see so many of you coming back, but there are many scratching their heads, wondering, why bother. And they’re in good company! Nadav and Avihu, the all-stars of the Jewish youth, felt very much the same, and I too have a hard time articulating why people should start coming back to shul. But I think the answer is this:

We serve G-d, and we study books, but first and foremost, we are a people. As we learned this past year, a Zoom family get-together is just not the same. Learning on one’s own is nice, but real Jewish learning takes place in the walls of the noisy study hall. There’s a lot of really good information on the internet, but I would never trade that in for the wise advice of my personal rabbi – even when I disagree with him. And praying in one’s home can be uplifting, but G-d, our Father, listens more closely when we stand together as one.

For every rupture, there is a reconstruction. I look forward to rebuilding with each and every one of you; growing together, learning together, praying together, and with a deep and shared appreciation for the central role of peoplehood in our faith, becoming an even stronger community than we were before.