Rabbi Lea Muehlstein, August 12 2020
We read in Deuteronomy 13:1: “Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it.” Yet, despite what our parashah says, there is no doubt that Judaism has both “added to” and “taken away from” what it says in the Torah. This is why we have such a rich and detailed heritage. I strongly doubt that Judaism would still be a living religion today if our ancestors had not done so. Could Judaism have survived the destruction of the Temple, had it not been for the creativity of the early Rabbis and the establishment of synagogues? Could it have recovered from millennia of persecution over and over again?
It was only with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century that continuous change slowed down. Books became widely available and it thus became easier to distribute normative readings and interpretations. While Maimonides attempt to codify Jewish law in the Mishneh Torah in the 12th century only enjoyed limited popularity in his days, it became widely read in the 15th century and the codification of Jewish law reached its new heights with the publication of the Shulchan Aruch in 1565. Until today, orthodox Jews turn to the Shulchan Aruch, not the Torah or the Mishnah or the Talmud, when they have a question of Jewish law – despite the fact that a careful study of the Shulchan Aruch quickly reveals that the author, Joseph Caro, took the liberty to also “add to” and “take away from” the material that he had inherited.
Nonetheless Judaism continued to change and develop and with the advent of Liberal Judaism from the 19th century onwards proudly embraced religious Reforms. As it is stated in the Affirmations of Liberal Judaism, “[w]e affirm the dynamic, developing character of our Jewish religious tradition.”
A major component of parashat R’eh concerns kashrut—the set of dietary laws based in the Torah and developed by the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud. As Rabbi Janet Burden observes in her Ethical Eating – Liberal Judaism in Practice: “Early Progressive Jews were keen to drop kashrut observance partly as an assertion of their rational approach to religion and partly to rid themselves of an unfortunate barrier to the increased social integration that came with the granting of civil rights to the Jews. It was also an expression of their rejection of monolithic rabbinic authority.”
My grandparents didn’t just forget the observe the dietary laws – they made a conscious decision to reject them. But as Rabbi Burden observes: “Increasingly in our own time, however, there are those who feel that while the ethical dimension must take precedence, the ritual element also has great value. Thus, a Progressive Jew who rejects the divine origin of kashrut may still wish to observe the Jewish dietary laws, wholly or in part, for one or more of the following reasons:
• To enhance a sense of holiness in everyday life
• To identify with the Jewish past and with contemporary Jews who observe kashrut
• To have a home where Orthodox Jews might eat
• To demonstrate an acceptance that we should not simply consume whatever we want, whenever we want, and however we want”
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