Re’eh: Do Not Add To The Torah!

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Re’eh

We’re blessed in the Hudson Valley with wonderful
seasonal farmer’s markets, and perhaps that’s why twice this week I’ve
gotten questions about strawberries and Orthodox rabbis. It’s not
actually strawberry season anymore but apparently a group of rabbis in
London banned strawberries altogether due to the possible presence of
tiny insects in the berries, and this has caused a bit of a kerfuffle
in the Jewish world and appeared in various news outlets. (See link
below.)

Now, you might think I’m bringing up the Great Strawberry Controversy
because we have a review of the laws of kashrut [kosher or dietary
laws] in this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh. (Cf. D’varim/ Deuteronomy
14). While it’s certainly true that eating insects (with a few
exceptions) is prohibited as not kosher (cf. Vayikra/Leviticus 11),
it’s also true that for the great majority of Jewish history, we have
eaten common fruits and vegetables without too much worry about things
we can’t see. That is, after washing the fruits or vegetables, there
may in fact be teeny little bugs not dislodged by the water, but if
they’re so small as to be not visible to the eye (of a person with
normal eyesight), then they are consider as not there, in terms of
kosher observance.

I’m actually not bringing this example to teach about kashrut, per se,
but about another mitzvah of the Torah found in this week’s Parsha:

“Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add
to it nor take away from it.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 13:1)

We have a mitzvah, a commandment, not to add nor subtract anything
from the Torah as it is interpreted by the ancient sages. According to
Sefer HaHinnuch [the medieval “Book of Education”] this means we can’t
make up a new mitzvah or do a mitzvah in a completely new way beyond
what is prescribed. For example, waving a lulav at a time other than
Sukkot, or sitting in a Sukkah after the holiday, or adding extra
scrolls to one’s tefillin [phylacteries]- these are all examples of
“adding to the Torah,” and are thus actually forbidden.

However, according to the traditional understanding, developing deeper
or more intense ways of doing a mitzvah is not considered “adding to
the Torah.” So blowing the Shofar extra times on Rosh Hashana (another
example given) might be burdensome, but it’s not a violation of “do
not add.” Our Conservative commentary, Etz Hayim, in a comment on
D’varim 4:2, describes what is prohibited as “quantitative” (doing
something on a different day, for example) rather than “qualitative”
changes (doing something the ordinary way but more intensely, perhaps.)

OK, so far, what I’ve described is the traditional way of
understanding the commandment not to add anything to the Torah. Yet to
me, I think this idea describes a sensibility, a spiritual
orientation, as much as parameters for determining practice. I think
“neither add to it nor take away from it” is also about crafting a
Jewish life within the “golden mean” of rigorous but non-obsessive
religious practice.

In other words- and here’s where the strawberries come in- one of the
great things about Judaism is that almost every mitzvah currently
practiced can actually be fulfilled in a way that is observable and
practical. We do not, in fact, have to obsess over little bugs too
small for the naked eye. We do not have to say “Shma” a hundred or a
thousand times a day- twice is plenty! Our job is not to “add to the
Torah” by thinking of new ways to be stringent, but to live a life
balanced by the three modalities of Jewish spirituality: Torah, avodah
[prayer and ritual], and gemilut hasadim [acts of compassion.] If only
one part of Judaism is emphasized, (a way of “adding to the Torah”),
one might miss out on the other two.

If some Jews don’t want to eat strawberries, it’s OK with me- more for
the rest of us, I say!
According to the traditional understanding of “not adding to the
Torah,” the non-strawberry-eating Jews aren’t adding but merely being
cautious with an existing practice. Yet I think they miss the point of
our verse- which is that religion as a discipline also includes the
discipline of moderation. A Judaism which is defined by how many
things it says “no” to is hardly a Judaism which is all about “choose
life!”

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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