When biblical heroine Ruth pleaded with Naomi not to send her back to Moav and its pagan existence, Naomi shared with her some of the commandments she will have to embrace as a Jew, like we do with converts today. As the Talmud (Yevamot 47b) relates, Naomi said: “You should know that Jews are not allowed to walk beyond a certain point on Shabbat, 2000 cubits from our domicile.  And Ruth responded: “Where you go, I will go.”

It is fascinating. Of all the mitzvot that Naomi could have shared with Ruth, that’s what she chose – Tchum Shabbat?! Why would she think that would make an impression on Ruth? The question itself is strengthened when we realize that there was another occasion – essential to our celebration of Shavuot – in which great emphasis was also placed on boundaries that could not be breached: at Sinai before the Revelation: “And you shall set boundaries around that mountain, warning the people not to encroach on the territory” (Shemot 19:12). They must keep their distance on pain of death. Later, G-d again told Moshe: “go down and warn them not to break through” (ibid 19:21), and Moshe answered that they won’t, they already heard “the boundaries of the mountain are delineated and sanctified.” But why does the Torah highlight this point – to keep our distance from the mountain, to always know our place?

In the past year, a new phenomenon arose in Jewish life that has already seemed to have exhausted the initial enthusiasm it engendered: the Ruth Calderon experience. Born and raised a secular Jew, MK Calderon remains a self-defined secular Jew but on her own admission filled a void in her life by studying Talmud, eventually getting a doctorate in Talmud and founding a secular Bet Midrash. She became renowned across the Jewish world because hundreds of thousands of people have viewed on You Tube her maiden speech in the Knesset, in which she taught a story from the Talmud (something unprecedented in the Knesset, and which, if done by a religious MK would have been castigated as inappropriate religious coercion…). It was very moving and very impressive, and her words were poignant.

And yet, at a conference I attended last year at which she spoke – and she is very earnest and affecting in her speech – she was largely booed by the audience. I didn’t heckle (it’s not polite) but what she said was disturbing. She spoke about same-sex marriage, and how she knows the audience won’t agree with her, but she hopes in a few years, maybe ten, Jewish law will recognize such a relationship. And people booed, and she said, I know you can’t accept it now, but maybe in a few years. And what was clear was that she doesn’t believe the Torah is divine. To her, the Torah is sublime and inspirational, but it is nothing more (and nothing less) than the cultural heritage of the Jewish people. And I wondered – and it has become a continuous discussion in Israel, as elsewhere – is there a value to such Talmud Torah, to Torah study divorced from its divine roots, to Torah study that does not lead to the observance of mitzvot because mitzvot – commandments – come from G-d, and G-d is not really part of that world view? This notion of Jews doing Jewish stuff not because they are serving G-d but for a variety of other reasons is not unknown to our world. But how should we relate to that?

It is not a simple matter. For sure we say that “a person should always learn Torah even for ulterior reasons, for by doing it not for its own sake one will come to do it for its own sake” (Masechet Pesachim 50b). And we say that when a person who learns Torah, “the light of Torah will bring them back” (Midrash Eicha Raba) if he has strayed. But does it always? Is there a value in Torah study not in order “to preserve and to do?”

Conversely, King David said (Tehillim 50:16) “G-d says to the wicked one, who are you to speak of My statutes and you keep My covenant (the Torah) just on your lips?” And our Sages implied that we maintain that studying Torah “not for its own sake”is a step in the right direction only when it is perceived as a mitzva. But if it is not perceived at all as a mitzva, it is better not to have been born (Masechet Brachot 17a). As the Talmud (Masehcet Yoma 72b) notes: whether the Torah is the elixir of life or a deadly poison depends on one’s attitude. Perhaps this new wonder – the secular Bet Midrash – could be part of a new wave of teshuva – or perhaps it could be part of a new type of rebellion. The attitude is key, and the book is still open.

And that attitude is shaped by one concept: limits. Sinai was partitioned off; man has to stay off the mountain, otherwise he would claim a partnership in writing the Torah. He would commingle his ideas and claim they too are G-d’s word. The whole Torah is about limits – where we can and can’t go, what we can and can’t do, what we can and cannot say, eat, think or be.

Ruth – the ancestress of Jewish royalty – was taught like all of us that Jews can’t go everywhere, do everything, or ay everything. And she answered correctly: “where you go, I will go. Your G-d is my G-d.” It all comes from Him.

On Shavuot we celebrate not just our cultural heritage, our intellectual gifts, or the treasure that remains ours, but the divine origin of Torah. “And G-d spoke all these words, saying, I am the Lord your G-d…” Without that, there is nothing special about us. But with that – G-d as the Giver of the Torah to the Jewish people and the Guarantor of our existence – we can exult, as the prophet Habakkuk did, that “G-d is my strength…I will exult in Him, and rejoice in the G-d of my salvation,” as we pray and hope for the day when all Jews come back to their G-d, their faith, and their nation.

Chag Sameach!

8 responses to “Limits

  1. David Kaplan

    Excellent. Thank you.

  2. Babylonian Talmud, tractate Chullin, page 133A:
    Rabbi Yehudah taught in the name of Rab:
    Whoever teaches an unworthy student will fall into Gehinom [Hell].

    Babylonian Talmud, tractate Chullin, page 133A:
    Rab taught: Whoever teaches an unworthy student is considered as if he threw a stone at Mercury [a kind of idol worship].

    Rashi comment on Shemot, chapter 32, verse 19:
    [Moses said:] The entire Torah is here, but all Israel have become apostates, so how can I give it to them?

    Machzor Vitry comment on Avot, chapter 4, Mishnah “Rabbi Yosi Says”:
    A person who honors the Torah is one who teaches it to the correct kind of student…
    CHRONOLOGY: Machzor Vitry was written in the 11th and 12th centuries of the Common Era, by students of Rashi (born 1040 CE, died 1105 CE).

    Rambam, Hilchot Talmud Torah, chapter 4, paragraph 1:
    We may not teach Torah, except to an appropriate student, whose deeds are pleasant…

    Sefer Chasidim, chapter 287:
    Do not teach wisdom to a person who is not worthy of her, lest he do violence to her…

    Sefer Chasidim, end of chapter 297:
    [Do not teach Agadah] to the ignorant who will not believe or to anyone who will ridicule it.

  3. QUOTE 1:

    “If one or more of the parties knows that peace implies the end of its existence, it has no motive to return to peace. That is how the radical Islamists of Hamas view the future of Muslim society. A wealthy and successful Jewish state next to a poor and dysfunctional Palestinian state may imply the end of the moral authority of Islam, and some Palestinians would rather fight to the death than embrace such an outcome. Rather than consign their children to the Western milieu of personal freedom and sexual license, radical Muslims will fight to the death.”
    SOURCE: How Civilizations Die (chapter Introduction, page xiv) by David P. Goldman, 2011, Regnery Publishing

    QUOTE 2:

    “Europe tends toward pacifism because it knows it has nothing to gain from aggression.
    Iran tends towards belligerence because it knows it has nothing to lose.”
    SOURCE: How Civilizations Die (chapter 1, page 7) by David P. Goldman, 2011, Regnery Publishing

    QUOTE 3:

    “[Swiss Muslim Tariq] Ramadan is the grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, whom he praised without mention of al-Banna’s allegiance to the Nazis during the 1930s and 1940s.”
    SOURCE: How Civilizations Die (chapter 3, page 35) by David P. Goldman, 2011, Regnery Publishing

    QUOTE 4:

    As Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian Nobel Peace Prize winner, said after the January uprising, his country “is on the list of failed states,” and the Arab world is “a collection of failed states who add nothing to humanity or science”…
    SOURCE 1: Thomas Friedman, “Up with Egypt”, New York Times, 2011 February 10
    SOURCE 2: How Civilizations Die (chapter 3, page 35) by David P. Goldman, 2011, Regnery Publishing

  4. Does the United Nations (U.N.) discriminate against Israel?

    “Israel is the only U.N. state not permitted to be a full member of any of the U.N.’s five regional groups.

    Throughout the Human Rights Council sessions, these groups hold key planning meetings in which countries negotiate and share important information behind closed doors.

    Even the Palestinian Authority, though not a state, is permitted into the Asian regional group.”

    article by Anne Bayefsky 2010/9/24 in The Jewish Voice.
    Anne Bayefsky is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and Director of the Touro Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust.

  5. Brilliant translation of Psalms 50:16. You read the second half as a comparative, i.e., you speak of my commandments YET you keep them ONLY on your lips. Your readers should know that this is not the standard JPS translation. Is this translation yours?

    • It’s the commentary of Metzudat David.

      • Will check into this. How interesting though – neither Artscroll nor Soncino translates that way, nor does any of the approximately 18 translatation cited on BibleHub.

  6. I was told that the JPS Bible translation was based on Christian sources,
    not Jewish sources, and therefore should not be referred to as a “standard.”

    My favorite Jewish Bible translation:
    The Living Torah by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, of blessed memory.