This week’s Torah portion is Emor, Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23,
In this time of year between Pesach and Shavuot, we count the omer. The omer, a period of 49 days between these two pilgrimage festivals, was once related to the barley harvest, and the grain offering that Israelites brought as a sacrifice to God.
In this week’s parsha, we are instructed not to eat any of the new grain until the first fruits are offered to God on the altar of the tabernacle. On this basis, the rabbis of the Talmud proclaimed “Chadash assur min ha-Torah — New grain is forbidden by the Torah.”
However, one of the leading rabbis of the early 19th century, the Chatam Sofer, expanded the meaning of this talmudic prohibition, and instead read it as “new is forbidden by Torah,” meaning that new ways of practicing Judaism and making the religion more modern were practices prohibited by our scripture. He took a talmudic ruling that spoke about a narrow prohibition, and expanded it in order to fight against innovation and change.
There is a fascinating story about Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, who had an office, a secretary, and other modern innovations. As the story goes, a man came to Rav Kook and complained that he was doing the wrong thing by having these innovations in his office. Using the Chatam Sofer’s interpretation, this man argued that Rav Kook was violating Torah law with these new things.
Rav Kook’s responded, “It so happens that I have a different interpretation of that statement. It means that by Torah law, one is not permitted to eat new grain until the omer was brought.”
With this statement, Rav Kook rejected religious fundamentalism, but did so in a way that was intimately connected to the text. This is not the way textual interpretation usually works in Judaism. We look at a seemingly straightforward text and dissect it to make meaning far beyond the author’s original intent.
But this story shows Rav Kook doing the opposite. He subversively narrowed the meaning of a text from the Torah when others had broadly interpreted it in a way that made Jewish life unlivable. In so doing, Rav Kook proclaimed that this type of fundamentalist textual interpretation had gone too far.
Rav Kook went back to the Talmud, went back to the original meaning of the Torah text, and rejected the Chatam Sofer’s stringency. He did this from an authentic place, and allowed for certain innovations to occur within Judaism. He based his decision not on his own values, but on the original intent of the text. Rav Kook thus made a radical statement about the need to live an authentic Jewish life while accepting innovations of modernity.
Our tradition teaches us that the Torah “is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it.” Our tradition can be our life source. It is rich, connecting us to generations past, and teaching us how to live a life of purpose. However, without “chadash”, without innovation and creativity, our tree may wither. Gone will be the melodies, the textual insights, and the affirming rituals. However, if we cast tradition aside, deeming it to be outdated and irrelevant, we will have nothing on which to base our renewal.
Torah grounds us. Without this tree of Jewish tradition, innovations are superficial and have little chance of giving our lives and communities the significant meaning that we seek.
Rabbi Jake Singer-Beilin is a Washington-area rabbi.