Fences Around the Torah

When we first got our dog, we put up a small fenced-in area in our backyard where she could run and play. It kept her from running away, kept her safe and kept other furry friends out. She was happy but I could see she wanted more. After all, there was a whole world outside of her fence that she could never explore.

Now that she's grown a bit and we've moved to Florida, Sadie doesn't have the fenced-in area in which to play. We decided to trust her a little and allow her to run free in the backyard as long as we were watching. So far, so good. She runs around and every once in awhile we have to call her name but for the most part she stays nearby and loves her newfound freedom.

Fences are wonderful things. They keep what's inside protected and they keep what's unwanted at a safe distance. Throughout Jewish history our rabbis and leaders have erected fences to protect Jewish tradition, Jewish custom, and our Jewish communities and to keep out the influences that threatened us. In rabbinic tradition these fences are called siyagot laTorah (fences around the Torah.) Here's an example: On Shabbat we are not supposed to spend money. To keep us far from transgressing this prohibition the rabbis erected a fence teaching us that we should not even touch money. If you can't touch money then you certainly can't spend it.

I'll never forget one late evening as I was driving home from work on a dark road with very few lights. As I was driving around a curve if there was a huge bump and I felt my car go into a very large and deep pothole. I stopped the car and got out and saw in the middle of the pothole one of those orange cones that are supposed to tell us when we're approaching a dangerous situation. Unfortunately the placement of the cone didn't help me much because I only saw it after I was halfway into the hole. Had the Department of Public Works chosen to surround the pothole with cones, even if I hadn't seen them I would have hit one of them first and avoided the pothole itself doing much less damage to my car.

That's why we have erected so many fences around the Torah - to prevent us from getting too close to the big “potholes” that we Jews are commanded to avoid. Our fences protect our laws and customs.

But fences are not perfect. They don't only protect what's inside they also keep out whatever's outside. They create a divided. Not only that, fences often lead us to the misunderstanding that the fence is what we must avoid rather than what it is protecting within its borders.

I've always felt that a great example of this was the restrictions on Passover of eating kitniyot or legumes. Despite no real Jewish legal reasoning to warrant this custom it has become a staple of Jewish practice for centuries. Just this past December the Conservative movement issued a responsa saying that Ashkenazic Jews were permitted to eat legumes on Passover. One of the arguments against the prohibition had always been that the focus on avoiding legumes distracted us from the primary prohibition against chametz - leavened foods. In addition the responsa noted how Passover had become so restrictive and kosher for Passover foods had become so expensive that this “fence” kept many Jews from finding joy in the celebration of the holiday.

Jewish communities are holding on to too many of these fences and protecting the Torah and Judaism from too many Jews. Not only have we continued to erect these ancient fences but we have also built fences of our own to protect other interests. We've built membership fences in synagogues protecting those who choose to or have the capacity to pay from those who don't. We've erected formality fences to ensure decorum in our services.

It's time for Jewish leaders to get back to the essence of why they are building Jewish communities in the first place. Membership, dues and decorum may help us build safe and secure synagogues but they don't contribute to building sacred communities. We need to swing open the gates and tear down the fences, opening our arms to welcome all those who have been kept out for so long.

The insular communities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have faded into history. Today our communities are more porous, more open and must be more accessible. We can no longer protect the Torah and Judaism from Jews. We must allow and empower every person, who wishes, to fulfill that 613 Commandment of Moses Maimonides - to write their own Torah, their own spiritual journey.

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© 2016 by Rabbi David Paskin

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