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06/21/2019 10:49:16 AM


A person once wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and used the term ‘Orthodox Judaism’.

In his response, the Rebbe wrote: “I must point out to you that splitting Judaism into ‘orthodox, conservative and reform’ is purely artificial division, for all Jews share one and the same Torah given by the One and same G-d. While there are more observant Jews and less observant ones, to tack on a label does not change the reality that we are all one.”

It’s no secret, and the Rebbe was well aware, that over time Judaism split into many denominations of different faith systems. In ancient history there were the Pharisees, the Sadduccees, the Essenes and the Karaites. More recently, there are the ‘Orthodox’ and the various ‘Non-Orthodox’ denominations.

The Orthodox maintain a traditionalist view, which accepts the Divine authority of the entire Torah, and subscribes to the 13 principles of faith as outlined by Maimonides. Some of these include: the belief in the immutability of the Torah, the belief in the arrival of the King Mashiach, and the belief in the eventual resurrection of the dead.

The Non-Orthodox subscribe to a more fluid view of Jewish faith principles, and to varying degrees believe in changing the Tradition to meet the needs and conditions of the times.

So, does the Torah unite us or divide us?

We have always been taught, as Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882-942 CE, Babylonia) famously wrote, that our identity as a nation is only with the Torah. But how are we to understand that the Torah forges the bond between us all when there seems to be so much division?

The Torah records a very special moment in Jewish history. After leaving Egypt and traveling in the desert, the Jews finally arrived at Mount Sinai. “On that day,” recounts the Torah, “the Jews camped together with one heart, completely unified.” Interestingly, this episode was still a few days before G-d gave us the Torah. How did we achieve this unity if we still hadn’t received the Torah? And why is there no record of this level of unity on the actual day that the Torah was given?

The Torah contains two dimensions: exterior and interior; body and soul; law and spirit. The external dimension of the Torah indeed seems to create differences among us. The Torah establishes divisions between the Kohen, Levite and Israelite; men and women; adults and minors; scholars and laypeople; leaders and followers (the importance of this final category lies at the heart of Korach’s mistake and dispute against Moses, as recounted in this week’s Torah portion).

Yet the Torah contains another dimension, its inner soul and spirit. Kabbalah teaches that the Torah is the Divine wisdom and creative energy through which Hashem created our world and us all. Kabbalah also teaches that every soul is a letter in the cosmic Torah, and that just as a Torah scroll would be considered invalid if even one letter was missing, so too the Jewish nation would be incomplete if even one person can’t find their equal place in the community. As Korach correctly argued, “every person is holy, and a child of G-d.” (Korach’s mistake was not acknowledging other dimensions of Torah, as mentioned earlier.)

So yes, the Torah both divides us and unites us. (The divisions generated by the Torah are healthy and necessary ones, but ultimately – when misunderstood – can lead to erroneous ones as well.) When G-d gave us the ‘external’ Torah, we received a legal tradition that instructed different laws for different people. But when we arrived at the foot of Mount Sinai, we began to experience the inner spirit of the Torah. ‘Sinai’ represents humility. The ‘Sinai experience’ helped us to peel away the external layers of our persona, in which we are each different, and allowed us to discover the true essence of our soul, in which we are all one.

The Rebbe was fully aware of the ‘body’ of the Torah, and the many divisions that result from it. The Rebbe was steadfast in affirming the ‘Orthodox’ faith system of the Torah. But the Rebbe was equally passionate about promoting the ‘soul’ of the Torah, and championing the necessity for each of us to dig deep and discover what we all share in common with each other.

This Shabbat marks the 25th yahrtzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In our community @B we are hosting a special Shabbaton weekend titled ‘The Un-Orthodox Approach’. When we first advertised the event, I received an email that asked, “What was unorthodox about the Rebbe?” Here’s how I see it. Typically the label ‘Orthodox’ - as is the same for other denominational labels – is used to define how one group is different from another group. Recognizing our differences is both important and healthy. But it’s not the entire story. We are also very much the same. If we are willing to work hard on ourselves, and to learn how to value ourselves and each other through a deeper lens - with the assistance of the inner-soul of the Torah – we will be able to achieve true unity among us all. Unlike many other leaders, the Rebbe dedicated his life and teachings to this endeavor, and that’s what made him Un-Orthodox.

With the blessings of the yahrteit of this great Tzaddik of our times, may we all merit to learn from his teachings, apply them in our lives, and be able to ‘reach across the aisle’ and truly love each other unconditionally. After all, G-d loves us all unconditionally as well!

Fri, April 19 2024 11 Nisan 5784