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Welcome to Kodesh Press

A Fine Blend of Scholarly & Popular Jewish Books

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Hazal’s Principles of the Torah

Reviewed by Seth (Avi) Kadish (biu.ac.il)

Shavuot is an excellent time not just to learn Torah, but also to think about the Torah. It is the right time, first of all, to get a “bird’s-eye” view of the entire Torah, as we see in the venerable customs to chant piyyutim called azharot that list and summarize all 613 mitzvot, and in the kabbalistic custom to read the book the that is actually called Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which contains selections that are meant to be a sort of “essence” or “concentrate” of the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The latter is the original form of the practice to stay up all night and study.

But Shavuot is not just a time to summarize the Torah, it is also a good time to think about what the Torah is and what makes it important. This is reflected in the Torah reading for the day, namely the Ten Commandments. In the story that surrounds the Ten Commandments we have a recounting of the historical covenant between God and Israel, which is the very basis of the Torah. And in the Ten Commandments themselves we have certain motifs that seem to be central, in some special way, to the Torah as a whole. However we may define the relationship between the Ten Commandments and rest of the Torah (admittedly a knotty problem), it is nevertheless clear that there is something special here, and perhaps even something fundamental.

Despite Rabbi Moshe Besdin’s famous exhortation to his students in Yeshiva University’s JSS program to “study it and not about it”, he would likely have agreed that when one studies “it”, i.e. the Torah, he should at the very least know what it is that he is studying. However, to define what the Torah is may not be such a simple thing. In fact, if you want to know what the Torah is, then the very best way to find out may be to encounter the Torah directly and personally, rather than having it defined for you academically (this may have been Rabbi Besdin’s point). A handshake and a face-to-face meeting are far better ways to get to know someone than listening to a description.

The main attempts to define what the Torah is, i.e. to talk about it in conceptual terms, are from the Middle Ages. First and foremost among them, and by far the most famous, is Maimonides’ formulation of the thirteen “foundations of the Torah” as the conclusion to his essay on the World to Come (introduction to Perek Helek). In a very recent article I argue that Maimonides’ 13 “foundations” define the Torah in a one very specific way to the exclusion of others, and should therefore not be understood as obvious pedagogical “linchpins” that would or should appear in any list of principles of the Torah. To the contrary, the critics of Maimonides’ dogma among the rishonim formulated alternative dogmatic structures precisely in order to show that the very nature of the Torah itself is not what Maimonides said it was.

Often overlooked when it comes to this basic question is what Hazal had to say about it. All of us are familiar with Rabbi Akiva’s kelal gadol ba-Torah (love your neighbor as yourself), and with Hillel’s use of the Golden Rule in order respond to a convert’s request that he convey the entire Torah while standing on one foot. But there are other rabbinic formulations of this sort, and they are not all the same. In fact, some of them seem to contradict each other. Furthermore, these kinds of statements are never conceptually clear same way as Maimonides’ principles or those of his critics. What exactly is a “great principle of the Torah” or a summary of the Torah on one foot? Is it an underlying axiom? A general, perhaps fundamental, value? A key to understanding the rest of the Torah? And how does it relate to alternative “great principles” or summaries?

Rarely (if ever) have these kinds of rabbinic statements been gathered and carefully explored as a genre. Rabbi Jack Bieler sets out to do exactly that in his new book, The Great Principle of the Torah: Examining Seven Talmudic Claims to the Defining Principles of Judaism (NY: Kodesh Press, 2016). In it he organizes seven of the most important rabbinic statements related to the question of what the Torah is, and devotes a chapter to each one. Each chapter begins with the text in Hebrew and in English, followed by interpretation and discussion that is at once thoughtful, careful, meaningful and clear. The book is meant for laymen, not scholars, but to my mind it is so well done that there is much that scholars too can and should learn from it.

The first chapter compares and especially contrasts Hillel “Entire Torah on One Foot” and Rabbi Akiva’s “Great Principle”. The following chapters deal with Ben Azzai’s alternative to Rabbi Akiva’s principle (Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4); the extended talmudic discussion that gradually reduces the 613 mitzvot to a single principle (Makkot 23b-24a); Bar Kappara’s “short Torah portion upon which everything essential in the Torah depends”, namely to “know Him in all your ways (Berakhot 63a); “the ways of pleasantness and peace” (Gittin 59a-b); the denial of lovingkindness as denying the essence of the Torah (Kohelet Rabba 7:4); justice as the basis of the entire Torah (Shemot Rabba 30:19, Mishpatim).

What marks all of these chapters is the author’s balanced sense of judgment. Although they emphasize different things in different ways, each of the saged cited was honestly trying to get at the Torah’s ultimate value. But people contain many different and often contradictory values within themselves, all of them true, and the Torah necessarily addresses those same true values as well. Thus, any one attempt by the sages to express the Torah’s underlying values can only capture part of the picture. The fullest view is best attained by studying these rabbinic expressions together, and this is exactly what Rabbi Bieler’s book achieves.

The only detail that surprised me in the book is that in the first two chapters it deals prominently with the approaches of Hillel and Ben Azzai, as opposed to that of Rabbi Akiva, but doesn’t seem to take into account Hillel’s own views on man as the Image of God (Vayikra Rabba 34:3). More broadly, I think that the book’s message could be made even more powerful than it is already by bringing its conceptual terms back to the worldview of the Bible and the Sages. By this I mean avoiding the use of the word “religion” (is traditional Judaism really a “religion” in the western, Christian sense?) and other related things. For instance, the book often mentions the distinction between mitzvot towards God versus mitzvot towards other people as “ritual” on the one hand, versus “social” or “ethical” on the other hand. But that explanation of the distinction is rooted in the the idea of God as a concept rather than as a personality. If He is a personality, then the obligations towards Him are “social” or “ethical” too. And in the biblical and rabbinic way of thinking, there may be little or no place for the idea of “ritual”. The messages in this book are powerfully human and interpersonal, and because of that they literally beg for a clear expression of exactly that kind of relationship towards God as well.

In a more practical vein, the material in this book might also be better conveyed to some people through audio lectures, and thus made available to an even wider audience. Seven recorded lectures by the author (accompanied by source sheets) could be an invaluable contribution to the Jewish public.

In short, this wonderful book gets to the guts of the Torah’s “foundations” in a way that no other text does. As such, there may be no better way to get ready for kabbalat ha-Torah on Shavuot than by reading and studying it, individually or in groups. The author deserves our gratitude.

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