Sign In Forgot Password


04/06/2015 07:11:00 AM


Leviticus 6 - 8
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

Where does the Torah begin?

It's not as easy a question as it seems. In the curriculum of the cheder of the Old Country, as for two thousand years of Jewish elementary education, a child began Bible study by learning Leviticus. Why Leviticus? Why begin a child's schooling with a text so dry and distant -- laws of sacrificial worship, laws of priestly demeanor, rules of purity and impurity? Why not begin with the stories of Genesis -- moving tales of ancestral heroes -- or the bracing narratives of Exodus -- of liberation and triumph? The Rabbis appreciated the question, and so they offer an explanation, "Children are pure and the sacrifices are pure. It is proper for the pure to study that which is pure."

What's impure about Genesis? Why shouldn't a child begin there?

My child arrived home from school some years ago with a question: "Abba, you know the story of Cain and Abel? Well, if God saw Cain coming to kill his brother, why didn't He stop him? Isn't it against the Torah to stand around and watch someone get killed?"

"What did your teacher say?" I asked. "She said that God must know what He's doing, but she never answered my question." Suddenly, I begin to appreciate the ancient wisdom. Genesis is dangerous. It is dangerous because Genesis raises questions -- questions about God, about human being, about evil and good, about life. And if the teacher is unprepared for those questions, unprepared to help that child begin the lifelong search for wisdom that we call Torah, then that teacher steals something precious from that child. Hippocrates taught doctors "above all else, do no harm". I conclude that the rabbinic preference for Leviticus comes from this same inclination.

How many Jewish souls have we seen evaporate in the last generation because of stifled questions, suppressed imagination, squelched wondering? How many Jews today will seek wisdom, spirituality, answers, anywhere -- in 12-step groups, in cults, in the shallow works of pop-piety that fill the best seller lists -- anywhere except in Torah, because the Torah they were taught was so narrow, so small, so petty, so insignificant? They asked questions, but their teachers were afraid of questions. And instead of Torah's challenge to heart and mind, what was offered? Bible stories. Entertaining, even charming, but void of all depth and insight.

Should we again begin with Leviticus? Wherever we begin, we must first re-acquire an ancient Jewish value -- we must learn to love questions. Good questions do not destroy faith. No one ever left Judaism because of a good question. On the contrary, among the first things we teach any Jewish child is to ask four questions at the Passover Seder...with the hope that they'll never stop asking questions.

The question kids (and adults for that matter) most often ask about Torah is the most basic of all: Is it true? Any teacher who cannot answer that question -- any teacher who is afraid of that question -- has no business teaching Jewish children. The single most important qualification for a teacher of Torah is a commitment to its truth. Not literal, fundamentalist truth -- that, too is an evasion of questions. Jewish children deserve teachers who believe in the deepest wisdom and truth expressed in Torah. Jewish children deserve teachers who themselves have struggled with the questions raised by Genesis, and are ready to share that struggle with their students. Anything less is sacrilege. Where does Torah begin? The first letter of the Torah is a Bet, and the last letter is a Lamed, together they spell Lev, heart. Torah, real Torah, begins and ends in the heart.

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.


Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780