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On Torah, TALI and Tolerance

Jewish Education
Pluralism and Politics
Responsa by David Golinkin

Insight Israel

Volume 6, Number 10

June ‏2006

 On Rosh Hodesh Tammuz 5766 (June 27, 2006), a Torah dedication ceremony was held at the TALI Bayit Vagan school in Jerusalem with the active participation of hundreds of children, parents, teachers and visitors. The Sefer Torah was donated to the Schechter Institute, which is lending it to TALI Bayit Vagan. This gift was arranged by Eitan Cooper, Vice President of the Schechter Institute. The following is based on Rabbi David Golinkin’s remarks at the ceremony.

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I would like to begin by welcoming those who donated the Sefer Torah to the Schechter Institute for use at TALI Bayit Vagan: Fran and Buddy Brandt, Rabbi Mark Greenspan, and the other members of Oceanside Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in Oceanside, New York. Tali Bayit Vagan is an Israeli public school affiliated with the TALI Education Fund and with the Reform movement in Israel. Why did a Conservative synagogue in Long Island donate a Sefer Torah to the Schechter Institute for use at one of the two TALI schools affiliated with the Reform movement? Because “pluralism and tolerance” is one of the basic values taught at Schechter and TALI. As we read in “Tali’s Guiding Principles”:

Pluralism and Solidarity: Education towards Jewish pluralism that upholds the value of a multitude of opinions and ways of life, both within Judaism and outside it; development of a sense of kinship, fraternity and partnership between all sectors; and strengthening the mutual responsibility between the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora, its different religious streams and different ethnic communities.

At TALI, these are not mere words. This Sefer Torah symbolizes that goal and the atmosphere which prevails at TALI schools throughout the State of Israel.

We are about to read from the new Sefer Torah in honor of Rosh Hodesh. We take the Torah scroll and the Torah reading for granted. We should not. I don’t think that there is another religion in the world which requires the public reading of its Holy Scriptures four times every week – and this has been going on for 2,500 years since the days of Ezra!

I would like to emphasize the centrality of the Torah and its public reading through three passages – two from the Bible and one from the Mishnah – which place the Torah at the very center of our political military and religious life.

Deuteronomy, Chapter 17, describes how the ancient Israelites should appoint a king. In that passage, there is only one positive commandment (v. 18-19):

When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Torah written for him on a scroll…let it remain with him and let him read it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and to observe every word of this Torah…

This is an amazing passage. It says that the political leader of the Jewish people – the king – must write a Sefer Torah so that he should study and observe the Torah all the days of his life. It does not tell him how to govern or rule or collect taxes. His only positive commandment is to write a Sefer Torah so that he can study and observe the mitzvot!

In Joshua, Chapter One, God instructs Joshua to cross the Jordan with the people of Israel and to capture the Land which God had promised to their ancestors (v. 7-9):

But you must be very strong and resolute to observe faithfully all the Torah that my servant Moses commanded you… Let not this book of Torah cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful.

This, too, is an amazing passage. In God’s first speech to Joshua, the military leader of the Jewish people, He does not talk about military strategy or armies or typography. God simply says that Joshua and the people should study Torah day and night, observe what it says – and then they shall be victorious.

The third passage is from Mishnah Yoma (1:7) and it describes what the High Priest, the religious leader of the Jewish people, did in the Temple Courtyard on Yom Kippur:

Then the High Priest came in to read. If he wanted to read in the linen garments he would do so, otherwise he would read in his own white vestments. The sexton would take the scroll and give it to the chief of the synagogue, who in turn gave it to the High Priest’s assistant (segan) and the latter would then give it to the High Priest. The High Priest would then receive it standing and read it standing.

As Rabbi Max Arzt has pointed out, (1) the fact that the people heard the High Priest read the detailed description of the sacrificial order from the Torah scroll was in marked contrast to the prevailing practice of other ancient religious, which withheld their sacred lore from the view or knowledge of the masses. Prof. Elias Bickerman tells us (2) that the sacred books of other religions, from the Avesta to the Commentaru, were ritual texts used or recited by priests only. In Babylonian religious texts, and even in mathematical texts, the instruction is often repeated that they are not to be shown to the uninitiated. In Judaism, there were no such “secrets.” The contrast is visually exhibited in the difference between a painting found on the wall of the Mithra temple at Dura and one of the paintings on a wall of the Dura synagogue. In the pagan temple, the sacred scroll is held by the Magian dressed in priestly attire, in his closed hand – since no layman was entitled to view the holy text. In the Dura synagogue, the painting depicts a layman, a man without priestly attire, reading the open scroll. (3) The reading of the scroll is central in the synagogue service, and this is symbolic of the translation into life of the verse: “Moses commanded us a Torah, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deut. 33:4).

The Torah does not belong to Orthodox Jews or Conservative Jews or Reform Jews – it belongs to all Jews. The goal of the Schechter Institute and of TALI is to teach Torah in a tolerant fashion to all Israeli Jews – sabras and new immigrants, Ashkenazim and Sefaradim, Russians and Ethiopians. Next year, 8 schools and 29 pre-schools will join the TALI system, bringing the total number to 71 TALI schools and 104 TALI pre-schools, teaching over 30,000 Israeli children. God willing, this number will continue to expand rapidly in years to come, so that one day all Israeli “secular” public schools will be TALI schools. When that day arrives, we will have fulfilled the vision of the Prophet Isaiah: “for the land shall be filled with devotion to the Lord as water covers the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).

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Note: Many TALI schools are in need of a Sefer Torah. If your synagogue has an extra Sefer Torah to lend to the Schechter Institute for use at a TALI school, please contact Linda Price at pr@schechter.ac.il

Notes

  1. This entire paragraph is taken from Max Arzt, Justice and Mercy, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, 1963, p. 234.
  2. Elias Bickerman, “The Septuagint as Translation”, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research XXVIII (1959), p. 39.
  3. See, for example, Encylopaedia Judaica, Vol. 6, Col. 286, s.v. Dura-Europos. The caption there is debatable.

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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