The Authentic Word of Torah

03 Feb 2010
OU Press

In a well-known passage, the Mekhilta relates that the Holy One offered the Torah to the various nations of antiquity, but that all of them rejected it because of specific objections they raised to certain of its precepts. When He offered the Torah to Israel, and Israel accepted it with alacrity. This is more than an interesting legend, spiced with a dash of Jewish pride. It is the Rabbis’ way of emphasizing the revolutionary character of the Torah, and especially the Decalogue. The Torah, they meant to say, was given not to confirm standard ideas and prevailing prejudices, but to challenge and change them. The Ten Commandments were meant to teach a religion with a difference, to offer the world an alternative to the colorful but lifeless paganism in which it was immersed, and that that alternative was seized by Israel.

To us, in our age, the Decalogue often seems to be commonplace. Yet consider how radically new it was in its own day. To a society that practiced paganism and fetishism, the Torah declared, “You shall not make a graven image” (Exodus 20:4). To a world that accepted slavery as normal and in which even the free man was doomed to a life of drudgery, the Bible proclaimed the law of the Sabbath, and commanded rest even for the man-servant and woman-servant. And to a civilization which entertained the conception of a human being as a thing, to be used and exploited, and in which, therefore, old parents who could no longer be gainfully employed were abandoned and discarded as excess baggage, the Decalogue declared, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12) — even if you can no longer obtain any benefit from them.

During the last many years, traditional Judaism in the Western world has expended much effort to prove that we are not really that different from others; that we can and do acculturate and adjust and speak the language and the cultural idiom of Western civilization. That is as it should be; had we not done so, we would have lost much more than we did. Yet we must not neglect our original and main function: to offer an alternative to the world; to speak the word of God and Torah in the great spiritual abyss; to remain critical of the local idolatries that desecrate every generation. Now that Judaism has, to an extent, become naturalized, we must turn our energies to offering Jewish alternatives to the great world problems. We must speak the authentic word of Torah on the great issues of our day — fearlessly, courageously, and honestly.


We are often told, as parents and teachers and rabbis, to be “accepting,” and “affirming,” and “non-judgmental.” And of course, the advice is correct. We must do just that — but not always! If we are always to be accepting and encouraging and non-judgmental; if there is never to be any criticism or rebuke; if, as parents, we never scold our children; if, as teachers, we always accept sloppy work without comment; if, as rabbis, we cater to the whims of our congregation and never call them to account — then we are guilty for leading them astray, because then even a Solomon can deteriorate!

Genuine criticism always issues out of love. True love is manifested in helping the beloved to grow beyond his or her limitations or weaknesses or foibles or failures. This can be attained only through reproach — but it must be done lovingly and encouragingly. Remember that the Wicked Son of the Haggadah is still a “son”! We do not throw him out of the house. We must not isolate him from the community. It is he himself who has opted out, not we who have rejected him: He has taken himself out of the community, but we do not want to keep him out. That is why our answer is not one of violence and aggressiveness, but one, strictly speaking, of education. We are not told to knock out his teeth, but to blunt the edge of his teeth, to teach him that his argument is fallacious, to try to draw him back.

Both sides of the argument, the need for rebuke and the need for doing it gently, are evident in a statement of the Rabbis and in an interpretation of that statement by one of the great Musarites. The Rabbis said: You must rebuke your friend, even a thousand times. In other words, rebuke must always be given, even if it is necessary to repeat it a thousand times. But the Musar interpretation is: You must break the one into a thousand little pieces and administer each painlessly until you have added them all up into one item of rebuke!

This too was taught by Bathsheba. She scolded and upbraided her son Solomon. But it was not a sharp, hostile rebuke. It was, instead, “the crown wherewith his mother had crowned him,” a mother’s reproach — direct and unadorned, but with love and sympathy and caring. Solomon wore many great crowns — the crowns of royalty and of wisdom and of power. But his greatest crown was the one his mother gave him! It was the refusal to accept his own weaknesses, his own ambivalences and inconsistencies and incoherencies, his own penchant for self-indulgence even with the excuse that he was building the Temple! It was a crown of rebuke by a mother to her own beloved child — angry but not hostile; harsh but not mean; hurting, perhaps — but never hating.

Excerpted from newly published haggadah with extensive commentary, The Royal Table: A Passover Haggadah by Rabbi Norman Lamm.

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