You shall live by Them- Ancient Dynamics

Yon Shall Live by Them~
Ancient Dynamics and
Modern Judaism 1
Bradley S. Artson
The history and wisdom of Jewish traditions and viewpoints can complement
and challenge contemporary Western values. The perspectives of the Torah,
the Mishnah, the Talmuds and other Jewish writings embody the views of a
very disparate group of people, linked by their shared identification as
Jews, a common and growing body of sacred literature, and a desire to
incorporate God's will into their daily and societal actions.
Seeking God's will is a notoriously ambiguous exercise; it is difficult to
understand how to employ a Heritage to address contemporary needs. This
essay cannot provide a comprehensive or final consideration of how to use
Judaism to live meaningful contemporary lives; that effort requires more
extensive attention. However, it can outline a general approach. Before we
can establish precisely what Judaism says about issues of social justice,
personal morality, and holiness, we must first determine how a 4,000
year old collection of traditions can speak at all. How may we use
the past to understand the present more fully? Does Judaism speak with
one voice or with many? Does it say now what it has always said? And how
does the perspective of the viewer affect the material being viewed? This
essay is intended to suggest a fruitful approach to the issue of how modern
Jews can utilize Jewish traditions to challenge and elevate their religious,
societal, and ethical needs.
The view presented here builds on the investigations of many predecessors,
most notably Zacharias Frankel, Solomon Schechter, and Mordecai
Kaplan. To summarize their positions, these three men understood Judaism
as developing within a historical process, rather than as. the result of a
single Divine verbal revelation. They viewed the community of Jews
("catholic Israel" was Schechter's phrase) as the ultimate mediator of
Jewish law and custom and believed that God communicated (and continues
BRADLEY SHA VIT ARTSON is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and was the
OMETZ Coordinator from 1984-1986,
46 Conservative Judaism, Vol. 38(4), Summer 1986 © 1986 The Rabbinical Assembly
to communicate) through the voice of the community and through historical
developments. As Frankel expressed the idea, Judaism today
affirms both the divine value and historical basis of Judaism, and, therefore,
believes that by introducing some changes It may achieve some agreement
with the concepts and conditions of the time ... , Moderate changes . . . must
come from the people and ... the will of the entire community must decide.'
Kaplan's addition to Frankel's concept of community was that Judaism was
never merely a religion or a set of beliefs, but a religious civilization, with
all the richness that such a term implies.
The understanding of Judaism which follows proceeds from the accomplishments
of these three giants.
What we have inherited from the past is a body of literature and a set of
memories which form an integrated unit only in retrospect. Looking from
the present into the past, we can select those parts of the larger Heritage
we wish to retain, those aspects of the past which still speak to us, and
which command through their moral vision or their spiritual force. Contemporary
communities have made these decisions to guide their understanding
of what in the past has lasting significance.
Looking backwards and creating a subjective relationship to the Jewish
past is how we construct a "tradition." Each community chooses, either
implicitly or explicitly, which aspects of the past to emphasize, retain, and
develop. Traditions involve choices of lifestyle, community, and also
ideology. Looking back at the multiplicity of Jewish views, writings, and
opinions, we can today assert a thematic unity by selecting those parts of
the past which we as a community wish to emphasize. But from the point
of view of history, looking forward from the earliest times, the unity of
Jewish perceptions and writings is so loose as to have little meaning. To
denote that inclusive unity I use the term "Heritage." The Jewish Heritage
includes the total array of Jewish writings, thinkers, movements and
experiences-whether or not they were incorporated within later Jewish
communities. All strands of Jewish living, whether rejected or accepted,
find their place within the Heritage-both Moses and Koral;!, Philo and
Qumran, Pharisees and Sadducees, Karaites and Geonim, Maimonideans
and mystics, Zionists and anti-Zionists as well as all modern communal
Jewish expressions.
It should be quite apparent that this "Heritage," while containing a lot,
signifies only a little. It provides the cultural gene pool from which traits
and characteristics of contemporary understandings of Judaism may be
built, but in itself it retains absolutely everything, and therefore highlights
nothing_ At the very most, one could claim that certain streams within the
Heritage, because of the historical experiences of diverse Jewish communities,
encompass a larger consensus than other streams_ While Philo was
indeed a prominent voice in the Alexandrian community, he was virtually
unknown to other Jewish groups_ At the other extreme, the Babylonian
Talmud has been accorded a prominent place in the literature of almost
Bradley S_ Arlson 47
every subsequent Jewish community. Having played a larger role in a
greater number of Jewish communities, the Babylonian Talmud may be
called more prominent within the Jewish Heritage than the works of Philo.
But in no way could one objectively deny a figure such as Philo a place,
whether large or small, in the total Heritage of Jewish thought.
Of course, even developments as amorphous as a Heritage have some
borders, some limits beyond which their purview does not extend. It is a
relatively simple assertion that Isaiah is a part of the Heritage, but that
Tom Paine or Lao Tze are not. Accordingly, then, the most fundamental
characteristic of a work within the Jewish Heritage is that the author or
authors must be Jewish. But this standard itself is insufficient. Alone, this
criterion would make Samuelson's textbook on economics a part of the
Heritage no less than the Talmud. A fuller understanding must recognize
the role played by intention. Samuelson did not intend to speak specifically
to Jews, nor did he intend to reflect on Jewish themes or concerns. Therefore,
a second, more refined, characteristic of the Heritage is. that the work
must be intended to address a Jewish community and Jewish concerns. In
this regard, it is possible to argue that Marx's writings are not contained
within the Jewish Heritage, since he did not intend to speak either as a Jew
or to Jews. On the other hand, since Spinoza was often motivated to write
on issues which perplexed him as a Jew he was often in dialogue with that
Jewish Heritage, if also often in dissent.
So we can assert two interdependent standards which define the extent
of the Jewish Heritage: the first criterion is that the author be a Jew. The
second equally essential standard is that the issue must be one which
speaks specifically to a Jewish community-addressing its existential,
religious, or social concerns.
It is possible, therefore, to speak of the Jewish Heritage. The Heritage
does have limits beyond which it does not extend; it does form a conglomerate.
But it is a unit with no a priori consistency of content. The
Heritage is extremely broad, and it is important to remember just how
inclusive that Heritage is. Indeed, it is essential that all elements of the
Heritage be retained for study, research, and possible future revitalization.
If "traditions" are subjective relationships between communities and aspects
of the Heritage, then "the Heritage," as an entity, can be understood as the
objective body of literature and thought which together comprise the richness
of the entire range of Jewish expression and stand behind its numerous
Accordingly, the Heritage does not take a uniform stand on many issues.
The variety of opinions found implicitly in the library we call the Hebrew
Bible and explicitly throughout rabbinic literature present a multiplicity of
opinions all of which claim equal legitimacy , although they do not all share
equal prominence. That amorphous and beautiful Heritage contains many
Jewish traditions. Each reveals not "the" Jewish opinion, but "a" Jewish
opinion which was, in its time, one of many that was striving for acceptance
as normative. Such a tradition may embody the writings of a single individual
48 Conservative Judaism
(such as Maimonides) or a specific text (such as the Mishnah). Even that
one individual or one text will often exhibit conflicting views. Nonetheless,
it is possible to speak of, say, the tradition of the deuteronomic school,3 a
corpus which exhibits a more-or-less consistent interpretation of Jewish
history and presents a more-or-less consistent vision of Jewish theology.
Each Jewish tradition emphasized and ignored different aspects of the
Jewish Heritage, thereby making a statement of what the Heritage would
mean for a particular Jewish community.
Using traditional language, we can see a similar distinction in the use of
the term "Torah" as opposed to "the Torah." "Torah" refers to the grand
sweep of Jewish literature and thought, comprising Jewish sources of
knowledge. "The Torah," on the other hand, refers specifically to the first
five books of the Hebrew Bible. I t includes different traditions and itself
became a tradition for later generations. "Torah" is not a book, or even a
set of books, but an attitude, a recognition that there are many sources of
learning and that all of those sources are, in some way, aspects of divine
revelation similar to the Five Books. Torah is the Heritage-inclusive,
unsystemic, unassimilable. The Torah is a, a product of
selection from within the Heritage.4
Throughout Jewish history, the Judaism which was practiced reflected
this selective process. Different communities of Jews responded to different
parts of the Jewish Heritage (and to pressures and currents in the surrounding
cultures as well), practicing some of its rituals and dropping
others, sanctifying some texts while excluding others. The Babylonian
Talmud provides at least three explicit examples of this process of converting
Heritage into traditions. In the tractate Sanhedrin,s certain rabbis discuss
the "rebellious son" whose rebellion against his parents is to be punished
by death. The biblical mandate for this penalty is explicit,6 yet the sages are
clearly opposed to this requirement. So a good deal of the Talmud's discussion
is devoted to limiting the effect of the law-women, adult men, and
young boys are held to be excluded from this law by the use of the term
"son." Then they limit the age even further until the entire period in
which a boy could fit this category is no longer than three months. Finally
they require that both parents act and look identical, that the son have
rebelled against both of them and that both parents insist on bringing the
boy to trial. This extensive discussion fills several pages of rabbinic discussion
and argument. Finally, still not satisfied, the Talmud relates that
"there has never been a rebellious and contemptuous son, and there never
will be. Why was it written [in the Torah]? For study, so you may receive
reward."7 According to this final understanding, the law was never intended
for practice. Its sole purpose was to provide opportunity for study and
discussion. The talmudic Sages go on to apply this same reasoning to two
other biblical cases: the condemned city (an entire city of Jewish idolators)8
and a leprous house (which must be destroyed).9 Despite all three explicit
biblical requirements, the rabbis choose to ignore their legal implications,
and treated all three as pure subjects for study. What was commanded
Bradley S. Artson 49
action in the Torah was transformed by rabbinic tradition into meritorious
Thus one form of Jewish practice gave way to others. So, for instance,
the varieties of Judaism practiced in biblical times gave way to the different
groups of the Second Temple period (the Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadducees,
to name a few). These groups in turn gave way to different forms of
rabbinic Judaism. In discussing the phenomenon by which the Mishnah
recast the basic lines of the religion of the Jewish people, Jacob Neusner
observes that
the philosophers of the Mishnah conceded to Scripture the highest authority.
At the same time what they chose to hear, within the authoritative statement
of Scripture, would in the end form a statement of its own. To state matters
simply: all of Scripture was authoritative. But only some of Scripture was
found to be relevant. 10
This ability to read selectively and subjectively within a. Heritage is, I
presume, a universal cultural reality. It is certainly a constant within
Jewish practice. Not only the framers of the Mishnah, but the compilers of
the Talmud and later thinkers also selected from within' the Heritage those
aspects which spoke to them. The "authoritative" Heritage provided the
background and range from which the "relevant" traditions would be
chosen and constructed. This process of selection does not deny the larger
range of valid Jewish options, nor does it permit apologetic reconstructions
which project current liberal (or not-so-liberal) values onto an ancient
past. On the contrary, the distinction between the objective Heritage and
subjective traditions is intended to force an honest confrontation with the
full range of Jewish writings. Contemporary communities are all engaged
in mining the Heritage for aspects of the past which can challenge or
instruct them. But as people coalesce into communities around shared
aspects of the Heritage (in other words, as they form a tradition), the
Heritage still remains undiminished in its fullness, its variety, and its
authority. So long as no community pretends that their tradition exhausts
the entire range presented by the Heritage, then the errors of either false
apologetics or arrogant intolerance can be avoided.
The issue of inheritance for women provides a fine illustration of the
view that whereas the Heritage is authoritative, only a community's tradition
is relevant. The Torah states that "if a man dies without leaving a son, you
shall transfer his property to his daughter,"l1 implying that if there is a
surviving son, the daughter may not inherit at all. No other biblical text
deals explicitly with this issue. Faced with a situation that appeared unjust,
the rabbis reached elsewhere within the Heritage for "relevance." They
established a ketubbah banin dikhrin, a contract which permitted a father to
. will property through a daughter. This bold move required some justification:
the Talmud asks: "Since God said that a son shall inherit and a
daughter not, would the rabbis rule that a daughter shall inherit?"12 Rather
than permit the retention of this rule, the rabbis selected a verse which
50 Conservative Judaism
appears to have nothing to do with the topic at hand: "Take wives and
beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your
daughters to husbands."13 They held that a father was obligated to see that
his daughter could marry and that a man would not want to marry a
penniless woman. So in order to fulfill his obligation toward his daughter,
a father was permitted to include her in the inheritance along with his
sons. Here the mechanism is clear: the Heritage includes the entire body of
Jewish literature, both the texts which clearly address the issue of inheritance
and those which do not. It is up to the current generation, the
readers of the texts, to select those passages which they view as relevant.
Out of the formless Heritage, they shape their own traditions.
Were our ancestors unaware of their own crucial role in the development
of Jewish traditions? I think not, but it is possible that they felt they were
merely following a pre-established path. In any case, that option is no
longer available to us. The great revolution of modern thought is our
awareness that we, ourselves, are part of a historic moment 'and subject to
its trends of thought and emotion. Our critical self·awareness cannot be
wished away or denied. We know that we are the pro,ducts of a specific
time and that the assumptions of our age will be reflected in our viewpoints,
in the questions we bring to our Heritage and in the traditions we maintain
and develop. We know that we are not a monolithic community, that in
fact there are many differing Jewish communities, both in' America
and around the world. Each community struggles to determine which parts
of our common Heritage will speak, and with what degree of force, within
their own emerging traditions. What an Orthodox Jew from Israel sees
when examining the Jewish past will be different from the perception
of a Reform Jew in Ohio or a Conservative Jew in California. Each will
approach the same undefined body of books and memories with different
assumptions, priorities, questions-and answers. Each will observe and
enlarge their own specific Jewish tradition out of the building blocks of the
Jewish Heritage.
From all of this it will be apparent that Judaism does not, nor has it ever
spoken with only a single voice. Additionally, the view of Judaism presented
here, of many traditions with a single Heritage, implies that the perspective
of the viewer is an essential element in the position which ultimately
emerges. Judaism cannot be separated from Jews; there is no objective
tradition outside of the opinions of individuals and communities.
With an understanding that the Heritage is authoritative but that traditions
are the locus of relevance, it is inevitable that Jewish diversity becomes
the norm. The diversity of opinions will naturally reflect the.diverse nature
of Jewish communities, both now and in the past. It also allows us to take
our rightful place in that rich panoply of Jewish diversity as a legitimate
and as a desirable Jewish viewpoint. We no longer need to continue to
deny the legitimacy, the authenticity, or the existence of differing Jewish
responses. We may-indeed must-continue to question their foresight,
their morality, and their ability to provide meaning through a relationship
Bradley S. Artson 51
to Judaism. It is no longer sufficient to claim Jewish authenticity-one
must embody the finest of Jewish morality and empathy as well.
The role of the community becomes apparent in yet another way. In
determining which texts should be studied religiously, which are to be
included in a living tradition, the community asserts its part in an ongoing
Jewish quest for God. Jewish texts serve a dual function: they convey
information and they form an opportunity for revelation. Other literary
sources convey information or evoke emotion, yet Jews for millennia have
asserted an additional role for their sacred writings. In the words of the
Mishnah, "When ten people sit together and occupy themselves with the
Torah, the Shekhinah abides among them. "14 Or, as Louis Finkelstein used
to say, "When I pray, I speak to God; when I study, God speaks to me."
For religious Jews, Jewish texts are channels for conversation with God.
They provide the structure for a metaphysical relationship between God
and the Jews.
Using this approach to the Jewish past, the construction of a dynamic
Jewish tradition on a particular issue serves as a challenge to our unexamined
assumptions, as a guidepost for our future decision-making, and as an
attempt to "converse" with God on the subject. To do so, it would be
necessary first to review the wealth of material embedded within the Jewish
Heritage and then to extract those perspectives and insights which represent
the ethical and spiritual high points of previous Jewish sages as it speaks to
us. This selection from the Heritage would in no way deny that Judaism is
broad and multifaceted. On the contrary, it would recognize that the Jewish
Heritage is too large, to all-inclusive to permit a relationship with its
entirety. Constructing a tradition within the Heritage is the only possible
way a group can live out values-we cannot act as both Karaites and
Rabbanites, as both Sadducees and Lubavitchers. Different communities
will-and should-construct different responses to the Jewish Heritage.
Only in this way can we develop Jewish positions that we are intellectually
honest and ethically meaningful, admitting that there are aspects of the
Jewish past (and present) which are frankly distasteful or repugnant while
still insisting that much that is contained within the Heritage is profound
and sublime. Not every thought ever conceived by every Jewish thinker
needs to be synthesized into some later whole. Instead, if we build on what,
by community consensus, appears to us to be the best of Jewish insights and
the best of Jewish morality, insisting at the same time on utilizing the full
range of tools and approaches of modern thought, we can hope to do for
Judaism today what our ancestors did in their day-present to the world
visions developed by communities seeking to embody and enact God's will
for a human society which is morally sensitive and spiritually rich.
52 Conservative Judaism
l. I would like to express my deep gratitude and affection to Professors Neil Gilman and
Gordon Tucker, and to Rabbi Leonard Gordon, all of whom were kind enough to read this
essay several times, to criticize and offer suggestions for its final form. Their wisdom and
generosity have greatly added to whatever insight this article contains. Errors are exclusively
my own.
2. Quoted in The Jew in the Modern World, eds. Paul R. Mendes·Flohr and lehuda
Reinharz, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 175.
3. See "Deuteronomist History," in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible: Supplementary
Volume (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1973), pp. 226-228.
4. The Torah is unique in that it forms the core of all later Jewish traditions, even those
modern forms which rejected religion. It is such a pervasive tradition as to appear as a
necessary element of any subsequent tradition. It is, thus far, at least, impossible to address
issues of Jewish identity, values, or purpose without in some way referring to the Torah. As
such, it has an amorphous and unique position in the scheme of Heritage and traditions. It
is the tradition to which all subsequent traditions must somehow respond. Perhaps this is a
third standard (see p. 48) for inclusion in the Jewish Heritage: any tradition must relate in
some way to the Torah.
5. B. Sanhedrin 7la.
6. Deuteronomy 21:18-2l.
7. B. Sanhedrin 7la.
B. Deuteronomy 8: 17.
9. Leviticus 14:34ff.
10. Jacob Neusner, Midrash in Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), p. 27.
ll. Numbers 27:8.
12. B. Ketubot S2b.
13. Jeremiah 29:6.
14. M. Avot 3:7.
Bradley S. Artson 53
Volume XXXIX, Number 1, Fall 1986
Ju ais
" is iii Ph
A Word from the Editor David Woif Silverman 3
The Value of Ephemera
Towards a Halakhic Guide for the Conservative Jew
"As·If" Theology and Liberal Judaism
You Shall Live by Them: Ancient Dynamics
and Modern Judaism
Maimonides and Aquinas: The Interplay
of Two Masters in Medieval Jewish Philosophy
Interpreting Biblical History through
the Eyes of Sociology and Politics:
The Work of George Mendenhall
Ismar Schorsch 5
Mayer E .. Rabinowitz 7
Gilbert S. Rosenthal 34
Bradley S. A rtson 46
H ava Tirosh·Rothschild 54
and Norman Gottwald Werner E. Lemke 67
The Definition of Evil in Post·Holocaust Theology Lawrence Troster 81
Why Jerry Falwell is Bad for the Jews Samuel Fraint 99
In the World of Books Theodore Friedman 105
Philosophy and the Holocaust:
A Review Essay Leon J. Goldstein 110
The Image of the Non·Jew in Judaism
by David Novak Arnold Jacob Woif 117
Meditations of a Maverick Rabbi
by Albert S. Axelrad Amy Eilberg 121