Fundamentals vs. Fundamentalism


In Sefer Bamidbar the daughters of Zelophchad, an Israelite man from the tribe of who died in the desert, approach Moshe with a complaint. The law Moshe has reported allots the land of a deceased man to his sons but Zelophchad had none. Therefore his five daughters will go landless. Moshe consults with Hashem and then changes the law: if there are no men in the family, a woman can inherit (Bamidbar 27:7). The Midrash all too tellingly explains: “The compassion of men extends primarily to other men, whereas the compassion of God extends equally to men and to women, as it is written [Psalms 145:9]: “God is good to all, Whose compassion extends to all creations.” [Sifri on Bamidbar 27:1] The Sifri goes further with a fascinating comment: “Hashem says, ‘[This response to the daughters] is exactly the way I have it written in my book'”  In other words, the more new, more equitable law was the truer, more primordial expression of divine intention! The law which only came about because of a complaint from a group of women and Moshe’s response is in fact the truer expression of Torah.

This comment of Sifri has wide implications. Yet it is not so radical: it is in harmony with many stories and rulings in the Talmud and in ancient Rabbinic responsa. The Rabbis recognized that the Torah as a body of law had certain over-arching principles, and sometimes in order to express those principles more clearly specific legislation had to be qualified or hedged in with new, transformative sub-legislation. As the story above shows the is not an abnegation of the Torah but a fulfillment of it.

The new law is one which is more generous and compassionate towards the daughters of Zelophchad. In other words it fulfills a mitzvah from this week’s parsha: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself, I am YHWH”.  This is not just “a mitzvah”. As Rabbi Akiva said, “zeh klal gedol b’Torah”: This is the fundamental priniciple of the Torah.

So why have modern day Rabbis refused to be more bold in legislating in favour of agunot, in integrating inter-married couples through conversion, in making a place for homosexuals, in making a place for women to more fully express their helek b’ Torah by wearing tefillin and tzitzit, becoming poseks, etc.? Not doing these things has not just failed to express love and compassion to many Jews and non-Jews but also hastened the disintegration of the Jewish people, caused Jews to have legal matters settled in non-Jewish courts, brought gentile scorn on Jewish practices and Jews themselves, and caused Jews to lose faith in the Torah and/or Rabbinic law. In other words, it has violated several overarching Jewish values, like: Jewish unity, being a light to the nations, loving your neighbour as yourself, loving the stranger as yourself, settling legal matters internally, and protecting the sanctity of marriage. None of this is worth it in order to preserve minor laws like divorce law or to preserve customs about what is appropriate for women to do or not to do- customs that are not even legally mandated. (The current conversion crisis is a whole other matter, on which see my post of a few weeks ago.)

It seems like the ancient klalim hagedolim, fundamental principles of Torah, have been replaced with new ones. These new ones seem to be: preserve ancient custom at all costs; preserve absolute control of halachic Judaism by haredim; maintain control over the Rabbinic courts; resist all aspects of modernity. Again and again we see concern for the Torah itself but not for human beings. In other words, we see concern not for living the Torah towards other human beings but a frightening willingness to sacrifice other human beings to an abstract idolization of the Torah.

This reminds me of a joke a Jewish bookseller in Toronto told me: “A very frum Hasid dies and goes to Gan Eden L’Maaleh (the Garden of Eden above). At the entrance he is met by Moshe Rabeinu himself smiling and offering him a plate of food as refreshment. The Hasid is nonplussed. “Can I see the heksher?” he asks.

What would happen if the daughters of Zelophchad approached one of these latter day Rabbinic courts? “The law is the law”, I’m sure they would say. “If we opened the law to allow you to inherit land, the next thing we knew Rabbis would be rewriting the laws wholesale in order to placate feminists and modernizers.”

But as Sifri says, in doing do they would not be defending the word of God but in fact preventing its full revelation in this world.

Author: Matthew Zachary Gindin

Freelance journalist and teacher. I write regularly for the Forward, All That In Interesting, and the Jewish Independent, and have been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Elephant Journal, and elsewhere.

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