This week’s parashah, Va’etchanan, continues Moses’ first address to the people of Israel as they are encamped on the east side of the Jordan River, preparing to enter the Promised Land. This portion contains the repetition of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-18) and the first paragraph of the Sh’ma (6:4-9), but it also includes many other significant teachings that deserve our attention. One verse that has always challenged me is Deuteronomy 4:2: “You shall not add anything to that which I command you; nor shall you take away from it, to observe God’s mitzvot which I command you.”
It seems, though, that we have taken away from and added to the mitzvot. Many of the traditional mitzvot, for example, are no longer observed because of the lack of political sovereignty and the destruction of the Temple. Furthermore, the sages added to the commandments, most notably the mitzvot of reading the megillah on Purim and the lighting of the chanukiah on Chanukah. Nachmanides points out that the rabbis recognized the challenge of instituting the reading of the megillah as a rabbinic mitzvah in light of this passage. The Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 1:7 reports that 85 elders, including many prophets were bothered by the decision to make the reading of the megillah a mitzvah. “They did not move from there while they discussed the issue until the Holy One who is blessed enlightened their eyes.” This passage implies that God enabled them to see that there was some basis in the Torah for adding this mitzvah.
The medieval rabbinic commentators offered different interpretations of this verse. Rashi (based on Sifrei Re’eh 82) explained that the verse means that we should not add a fifth paragraph to the four in the tefillin or a fifth species to the four which we wave on Sukkot or a fifth fringe to the tallit. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 28b) prohibits a priest from adding his own blessing to the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24-26. On the other hand, Nachmanides argues that the prohibition of adding anything includes adding new mitzvot to the 613 in the Torah.
How do we as liberal Jews who no longer observe many traditional mitzvot and also add certain customs and practices interpret this verse? In the Conservative movement’s Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001), it explains, “A modern Conservative perspective would see the Torah as a living organism, constantly shedding dead cells and growing new ones, changing and adapting to new and unprecedented circumstances. Extending the implications of a law to meet today’s needs is not a case of ‘adding or subtracting.’” Certainly, all liberal Jews would agree with that statement. We have not added anything to the Torah; nor have we taken away anything from it. We accept it as the record of our people’s encounter with the Divine as they developed from a family – Abraham and his descendants—to a people at Mount Sinai and during their journey in the wilderness. As our name –Israel—indicates, we wrestle with the text, reading, studying, debating and applying its words to the many challenging issues we face in this century.
Though we may not add or take away anything from the text, we have been willing to reinterpret it and apply its eternal teachings to our ever-changing circumstances. We have, for example, rejected the traditional understanding of biblical passages which condemn homosexuality among adult men (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13) and have embraced full acceptance for gay, lesbian, transgender Jews. We reject the traditional understanding of these passages, in part, because modern loving same-sex relationships are totally different from the type of homosexual relationship in the biblical world, which was coercive and part of cultic practice. Others reject these passages because they contradict the core biblical teachings that every human being is created in God’s image and that we are to love our neighbor as ourself.
Another example, is how liberal Jewish thinking with regard to kashrut has evolved from the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 which dismissed “all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet” as more likely “to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation” to a much broader perspective on eating. In 1973, the Central Conference of American Rabbis called for the boycott of table grapes and head lettuce in support of the United Farm Workers in their efforts to assure that farm workers were treated justly. More recently, the CCAR Press published The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic (Mary L. Zamore, ed., New York: CCAR Press, 2011), which argues that our understanding of kashrut should encompass all of the many ethical aspects that inform how and what we eat in the 21st century.
In addition, we have added new life cycle rituals to celebrate adoption, learning one is pregnant, affirming one’s gender identity and many other occasions, as well as rituals to appropriately mourn pregnancy loss and other difficult life experiences (see for example ritualwell.org).
Wherever one travels in the Jewish world, whenever one hears the reading of the Torah in any synagogue, including the approximately 1200 Progressive congregations in more than 50 countries, we know that the words will be the same; we have not added anything, nor taken away anything from the text itself. But because we bring our liberal understanding of scripture to our wrestling with the text, we are able to find fresh insights and teachings which assure that this ancient document that is so precious to us remains relevant to the many challenges of the 21st century.
About the author:
Bruce Kadden is rabbi of Temple Beth El in Tacoma, Washington and Lecturer in Religion and Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Pacific Lutheran University. He and his wife, Barbara Binder Kadden, are co-authors of Teaching Mitzvot: Concepts, Values and Activities, Teaching Tefilah: Insights and Activities on Prayer, and Teaching Jewish Life Cycle: Traditions and Activities. They served Beit Warsawa in Warsaw, Poland January-April 2014.