Dan Jutan: Educated Choice (Parashat Re’eh)

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It’s no secret that I am a halakhic Jew. I was educated in a Modern Orthodox high school as well as in a traditional, Orthodox Yeshiva. But I also embrace pluralism (Jewish and otherwise), and in my efforts to understand Jews of all denominations, I sometimes discover concepts foreign to the Orthodox Judaism I grew up with.

One such concept is known as educated (or informed) choice, espoused mainly by Reform Judaism. It suggests simply that one should be able to choose for themselves what Jewish rituals to practice, and one should strive to educate oneself to make that choice effectively. I think this is best illustrated in Reform Judaism’s own words, in a quote from the “Authentic Reform Judaism” page of the official website (bolding is my own)

:Some Jewish families light Shabbat candles every Friday night. That is authentic Reform Judaism. Some families rarely or never light Shabbat candles. That, too, is authentic Reform Judaism.Reform Judaism is both a living religion and a vibrant culture. As Reform Jews, we are charged with using the Torah as a guide to living meaningful lives and making the world a better place. We carry out rituals and maintain traditions that add meaning to our lives. It’s up to us to make informed, educated decisions about which rituals and traditions we will follow, both in our homes and in our synagogues.”

In Orthodox Judaism, each commandment in the Torah is considered binding, along with the thousands of details and new statues meticulously and intricately developed by the Rabbis of the Talmud and throughout the generations. The language here is completely different. “Authentic Reform Judaism” is not about feeling the weight of the Yoke of the Sovereignty of Heaven (ol malchut shamaim) on one’s back; it is not about being a slave to God (an eved Hashem). Rather, it is about connection, personal meaning, and ultimately, choice.

Over time, we have seen rituals come and go, traditions reinvented and reinterpreted. Constant change—the foundation of Reform Judaism—is here to stay. With it, we are free to re-evaluate of what works, what is meaningful, and what speaks to our collective minds, souls and spirits.

This rhetoric may be inspiring and empowering to a 21st century Jew; it resonates in a postmodern era where the individual has been recognized as its own starting place. It also serves in stark contrast to much of the language of the traditional Judaism that I grew up with, as well as that of Judaism’s foundational texts.

There are two elements to this concept that seem to clash with my traditional understanding. The first is that one has a choice in what commandments and rituals to follow. The second is that one must be educated; observance of commandments and rituals must be motivated by one’s understanding of them.

Compare, for example, the concept of educated choice to the full, uneducated commitment of the ancient Israelites, as the fledgling nation accepted God’s Will in its entirety. They wanted to be a “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation”. And so, the entire nation as one answered, naaseh v’nishma–traditionally translated as “we will do, and then we will understand.” There was no “informed, educated decisions about which rituals and traditions we will follow.” The only information was that the God that took them out of Egypt was commanding them, and the only decision was to completely follow His word.

But Reform Judaism is not the first to criticize this. An ancient non-traditional denomination, the Saducees, had their own critique to naaseh v’nishma, as brought down in the Talmud: (Ketubot 112a, Sefaria’s translation, incorporating Rashi’s commentary)

§ When Rabbi Zeira ascended to Eretz Yisrael he could not find a ferry to cross the Jordan River. He took hold of a rope that was strung across as a makeshift bridge and crossed the Jordan.

A certain Sadducee said to him: Hasty people who put your mouths before your ears, when you said at the time of the giving of the Torah: “We will do” before “we will hear” (Exodus 24:7), you remain hasty to this day. Why couldn’t you wait a little longer to cross the river on a ferry?

In this story, the Sadducee views naaseh v’nishma as hasty. Impulsive and irresponsible, we are a nation that blindly put our mouths before our ears.When I read this week’s parasha, I began to think of the compatibilities, rather than the contrasts, of the concept of “educated choice” and traditional Jewish thought. I think that an idea of educated choice is rooted deep into the Book of Deuteronomy, albeit with crucial caveats. In fact, Parashat Re’eh famously begins with a choice of sorts:

Look! I set before you, today, a blessing and a curse. The blessing, if you observe the commandments of Hashem, your God, which I command you today; and the curse, if you don’t observe the commandments of Hashem, your God, and you turn from the path that I command you today, to go after other Gods which you have not known.

The element of choice is salient. Moses understands the fact of free will, and he acknowledges that one may spurn the commandments just as one may observe them. However, another element is clear, that is missing from the reform concept of “educated choice”: the blessing and the curse, the consequence of one’s choice.

This element is missing from the official Reform literature.
Some in our congregations keep strictly kosher houses, never eating non-kosher food outside the home. That’s authentic Reform Judaism. Others cook and enjoy bacon cheeseburgers and other non-kosher fare. That’s authentic Reform Judaism too.

To the Reform movement, there’s no blessing, no curse. Individual choice reigns supreme. Moses may readily acknowledge that the choice to eat bacon cheeseburgers over Kosher beef is an “authentic” choice, as is any personal decision by agents of free will. But in no way is it authentic Judaism. Choice is present in the Torah, but one must accept the consequences of one’s choice.

Then, there’s the “educated” component of “educated choice.” I’ve already pointed out that naaseh v’nishma seems to disagree with the necessity of education. But Parashat Re’eh begs to differ. I’d like to bring “educated choice” in dialogue with a verse in this Parasha, along with Rashi’s traditional commentary. Deuteronomy 12:28:

Observe and listen to all of these matters that I’ve commanded you, so that it will be good with you and your children after you, forever; as you will do what is good and what is right in the eyes of Hashem, your God.

On the word observe, Rashi comments:
Observe: this is study, which you must “guard in your stomach,” so that it should not be forgotten, like the matter which is spoken of in the verse: “For it is a delight when you guard them in your stomach. (Proverbs 22:18)” And if you have studied, it is possible that you will listen and fulfill (she’tishmah u’tkayem). But whoever is not included in study, is not included in action.

What a striking departure from naaseh v’nishma! Rashi essentially reverses the phrase: “listen and fulfill,” he says, the opposite order of “do and listen.” To Rashi here, education is not only necessary to remember the commands, but one who does not study simply cannot act. The value of education is certainly pertinent in traditional Judaism: this is not the first place where the Torah commands us to learn or to teach, as last week’s Parasha made clear. In the words of Rashi: one who does not teach his son is like one who buries him.

So what about the blind, uneducated acceptance exemplified by naaseh v’nishma? Rabbi Zeira’s response to the Sadducee may help us put that in dialogue.

Rabbi Zeira said to him: This is a place where Moses and Aaron did not merit entering; who is to say that I will merit seeing this land? I hurried across before anything might occur to prevent my entrance into Eretz Yisrael.

Rabbi Zeira understands that sometimes, haste and impulsivity is laudable. Sometimes, one must quickly and fully seize the opportunity presented. This, I think, is the nature of the original acceptance of the Torah. The Israelites were given the once-in-a-light-year chance to accept the Divine Law; to fully embrace the encounter of the Creator. Presented with an opportunity like that, one doesn’t ask questions. The yoke of the mitzvot must be readily accepted, even if one’s understanding of it isn’t currently perfect. But one should strive to observe each mitzva with knowledge and understanding.

As for the element of choice, I’ll conclude with Rashi’s later comments on the same verse. He reads: What is good: in the eyes of Heaven. What is right: in the eyes of man. The Torah understands that as human beings, we incorporate some of our own needs and wants into our religious practices. But in no way must this be the totality of our observance.

You shall not do like all that we do here today, every man what is proper in his eyes. (Deuteronomy 12:8) Moses tells us that the world is not a free-for-all. actions do have consequences. One must be educated, but that education serves to help one safeguard and observe the commandments, not to spurn them. But he also tells us that What is right is in the eyes of man; our individualism does have a place. May we strive to understand the Divine Will such that what is right in the eyes of man is in fact what is good in the eyes of heaven.

Shabbat Shalom! See you at our CBMA launch next Wednesday, September 4th!

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