I had a fascinating chat with a Catholic woman whom I was working with this week.
Not the normal beginning to my weekly message, but then nor was the conversation and the ramifications to the world we live in.
We were discussing the rise in anti semitism globally and how it seems to come from the left and the right of the political spectrum.
We then moved on to discuss religion. It was then she informed me that she used to be an Anglican but is now a Catholic. The reason for her conversion, is that she felt that the Anglican church was no longer focussing on God centred traditional Christian Orthodox worship. She said ‘I want to go to Church to pray to God, not to be lectured on various popular modern policies’.
Her driving argument for her conversion was that she wanted a religion that is faithful to its values and traditions, not changing constantly to fit in with the latest ‘cause’. She told me many people are leaving the Anglican church, fed up, as she is, with a whittling away of tradition.
‘Is Judaism having similar issues?’ she asked.
I then decided to give her one of my favourite divrei Torah – which I may have quoted before.
The Gemara in Shabbat 31a, famously talks about the various questions we will be asked when we pass. One of these is Koveah Itim La Torah – did you fix times to learn Torah? The idea is that Torah study should be a constant presence in our life. Today whether it is Daf Yomi, Nach Yomi or Halacha Yomi, the concept is clear, devote daily time to Torah study, ‘Koveah Itim.’
This is the pshat, the basic understanding of the question. However, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch saw a deeper level, based on the era in which he was living.
Rav Hirsch was a fierce proponent of Torah im Derech Eretz and believed passionately in combining the study of Torah with wider pursuits whether that was secular education, professional qualifications, or positive aspects of the wider culture. However, at the same time he was fiercely critical of those who were suggesting an abandonment of tradition to fit in with the modern world at the time.
Now what is it that we want? Are the only alternatives either to abandon religion or to renounce all progress? We declare before heaven and earth that if our religion demanded that we should renounce what is called civilization and progress we would obey unquestioningly, because our religion is for us the word of God before which every other consideration has to give way. There is, however, no such dilemma. Judaism never remained aloof from true civilization and progress. In almost every area its adherents were fully abreast of contemporary learning and very often excelled their contemporaries. An excellent thing is the study of Torah combined with the ways of the world.
Rav Hirsch then explains, based on his life experiences, how he views the question of Koveah Itim.
Did you ‘Koveah Itim la Torah’ fix the times you lived in to the Torah, or did you, God forbid ‘Koveah Torah l’itim’ fix the Torah to fit in with the times that you lived. Hirsch believed that the Gemara was exhorting us to always make sure that our Torah was unchanging, yet relevant to each era and generation that it is being lived.
My catholic friend loved the dvar Torah and enthused that this was exactly the problem that she was facing.
This week in Parshat Yitro we receive the Torah, the word of God, which has guided us for millennia. It is so crucial, just like with Rav Hirsch in the 19th century, that we proudly show Torah as a way of life that engages with the world around it, yet never compromising the Torah to ‘fit in’ but realising the eternal value of our mesorah.
In today’s day and age, we must be so careful with our language and understand the radical changes happening all around us and still find ways to communicate acceptance without weakening our beliefs and our values.
Koveah Itim la Torah is a true challenge in the 21st century, but as my Catholic friend would agree, it is the only way to preserve, grow and strengthen Judaism and most religions in the 21st century.