21 Aug 2015

Shofetim 5775: Back to the Future

Shofetim 5775: Back to the Future

“There comes a time in your life when you have to choose to turn the page, write another book or simply close it.” —Shannon L. Alder

“Nostalgia is not what it used to be” — Peter De Vries

When we think of the past, and feel sadness in having lost access to it, we experience that curious feeling we call nostalgia. Nostalgia is more than just a reminiscence of past, it is a wistful longing for the past; a feeling that we would like to leave the present and be there again. When it is benign, it stops at the fondness of what once was and delights in the thought of it. There is, however, a dark side to nostalgia that connects back to the word’s original 18th century meaning. It is constructed from the Greek algos (pain, grief, distress) and nostos  (return) meaning: “severe distress over the inability to return”[1]. The effects of genuine nostalgia can pull back the reins on healthy forward movement.

Perahsat Shofetim speaks of the different aspects of a strong and just society. Among its many laws, one comes to address the problem which arises when nostalgia overcomes rational and relevant thought. We are told that when we seek guidance to questions that we have regarding Torah, we are not to seek the wisdom of the greatest scholar, but the wisdom of the most current scholar.

If a law is beyond you…you are to come to the…judge that will be in those days. (17:8-9)

The judge that will be in those days – Even if if he is not like the judges who preceded him, you must listen to him. You have none other than the judge in your own days. (Rashi)

The implication of Rashi’s commentary which draws from the Talmud[2], suggests that although we might yearn for the rabbis of generations past, and speak of their greatness and stature with awe and reverence, we may not exclusively seek their counsel as the determining approach in order to deal with current questions.

One of the great lessons that I learned as a student of Hakham Ovadia Yosef z”l was that we must ensure that novel ideas and different opinions are given a chance to be heard in every generation. He taught me that it is essential that Torah scholars have the opportunity to share and teach new approaches to ideas as times change. Perhaps this became an important aspect of his philosophy because early in his career he was criticised for disputing great Torah scholars who had lived before him. The hostility that he experienced was particularly strong from the Iraqi community (he was Iraqi) as a result of his rulings against Rabbi Yoseph Hayim z”l, known as the Ben Ish Hai, a major rabbinical authority in Baghdad and the oriental Jewish world in the 19th century. Hakham Ovadia asserted that the greatness of previous scholars should not keep later scholars from developing innovative and alternative opinions.

Although there were many among those who came from Baghdad who rose up against me because I ruled against the Ben Ish Hai…I recalled the words of Rabbi Haim of Volozhin, student of the Vilna Gaon who wrote[3] ‘while I served my master and teacher…and I am obligated in honouring him and revering him as I do [G-d] in Heaven, still…he told me not to show deference to anyone when it comes to proper teachings.’ We also see the words of Rav Yishaya haRishon who said: ‘when something does not seem correct in my eyes, even if the one who said it was Joshua son of Nun I would not listen to it![4]

This mitzvah not only prompts us to seek the judgements and opinions of the judges and leaders who exist in our days, but also prompts the judges and leaders to make the effort necessary to truly live in the days in which they find themselves and minimise the tendency towards nostalgia.

It is enticing to hold fast to the brilliant ideas of previous generations, and it is empowering to use those established ideas as a way to cast doubt on new thinking, but novel thought is the lifeblood of a thriving society.

The lesson of this mitsva does not stop at Torah, law and judges. It stands for us all as we either sit in the judge’s seat or seek guidance. When we seek guidance we best seek it from those who are keenly aware of the nature of the times, and who acknowledge the new discoveries we have learned about the world and the way in which we live. When we sit in the judge’s seat, whether we do so as leaders, teachers, mentors or parents we best respond to the needs of the generation and teach what isrequired rather than simply teach what was once taught to us. It is not enough just to exist in the period — one must be of the period.

The judge in “your days” — the one who speaks the language of the day and lives in the mindset of the day, may not be the judge to whom we are accustomed, or the judge with whom we grew up, but that judge is, as Rashi says, the one who is most relevant. It is the one whoTorah commands us to search for and from whom we should learn.

[1] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=nostalgia

[2] Rosh HaShana, 25b

[3] Hut HaMeshulash, 9

[4] Halikhot Olam, I, Introduction