A Window on the Good Book
It may seem odd but one of the nicest compliments to give a rabbi is that of comparing him to a clean window. You are acknowledging that he is faithfully transmitting that which his rabbis taught him and nothing more. His function is to be a link in the chain of transmission and to restrain himself from either adding or subtracting information. Unlike the university academic, the rabbi earns no prize for originality, only penalty. In other words, he is to be a transparent window into the wisdom of the past. A rabbi who inserts enough of himself to become visible is no longer doing his job.
Ethics of the Fathers, one of about 60 tractates of the Mishna compiled almost two millennia back, emphasizes this fidelity of transmission in its opening paragraphs: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and passed it on to Joshua. In turn, Joshua passed it on to the Elders who passed it to the Prophets who, in due course passed it….” In this way, quality control was applied to the transmission process. In her novel Daniel Deronda, George Eliot accurately captured this keystone of Jewish culture by referring to rabbis as “great transmitters.” Moses originated the term “rabbi” by being known as “Moses, our rabbi,” meaning Moses, our teacher. Moses then ordained Joshua as the rabbi of the next generation by bestowing upon him the “smicha.” This literally means “the laying of the hands,” and while no laying of hands now takes place among Jews, a rabbinic ordination is still called a smicha. The most valuable question by means of which anybody can appraise a rabbi is this: Who is your rabbi? In other words, who granted you smicha and who vouches for the authenticity of your transmission?
This religious commitment not to create law de novo, contrasts strikingly with the approach that our “cutting edge” law schools are now promoting. Some of the more bizarre legal theories that are born in these universities are as disorienting as a ride on a particularly violent roller coaster. They rip one away from the familiar framework of right and wrong, normal and aberrant, and fling one into a frightening abyss where nothing is sacred and anything is possible. Neither people nor societies thrive when each dawn can bring new laws that suddenly prohibit the permitted or permit the forbidden. Humans find this particularly unsettling when these de novo laws come alive with no visible ancestry other than the mind of a professor who just thought it ought to be so. This academic anarchy is one of the terrifying legacies of secularized education.
The advantage of stability is seen in Jewish history when we contrast the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Judah remained more loyal to God’s law than did Israel. In the period during which just a few kings ruled Judah, Israel was ruled by many. After long reigns, Judah’s kings followed one another in orderly succession, while Israel experienced short governments, assassinations, intrigue, conspiracies, and calamities. Predictability and its result, tranquility, are among the bequests of religion. History repeatedly demonstrates that throwing off the yoke of a legal system brings chaos and human misery. Often overlooked in the over-romanticized story of the Bounty and her mutiny is the fact that very few mutineers survived after the initial period of leaderless euphoria. Those sailors who remained loyal to Captain Bligh were cast off in a tiny boat with limited supplies, yet all returned safely home to England.
One can hardly exaggerate the importance of a stable and traditional legal system for human happiness. Naturally, if the source of the legal system is not Divine, there is little reason not to change it regularly. To some extent, America’s remarkable accomplishments over the past few centuries must be attributed to our stability of government. That enduring stability has been a legacy of the country’s Judeo-Christian roots and a result of the fidelity with which each generation has transmitted those transcendent ideas to the next generation.
So much of what we take for granted in Western life has been absorbed from centuries of faithful Scriptural transmission. Consider, for example, how illogical is a seven-day week. Since seven does not divide exactly into 365, each year ends with a remainder of a day or so. This causes the inconvenience of having to purchase a new calendar each year. Now if weeks contained shall we say, five days, why, all it would take is a quick wipe down with an eraser and last year’s calendar would be good for next year. Rather than “rationalize” our date-keeping, however, we of the Judeo-Christian world continue a way of life that sprang from the pages of the Bible. The opening chapter of that Bible dictated a division of time called a week and set its length at seven days. It may be inconvenient, but it is a lasting reminder that we know we are children of God. Not surprisingly, it was atheist Russia, working through the old League of Nations, that once made a concerted effort to switch the world to a five-day week.
Similarly, kings and queens also wear crowns to emphasize God’s approval of their status. A crown is simply an artificial halo, which is why it is traditionally made of gold and jewels that sparkle and convey the impression that the wearer’s head is radiating light. The origin of this Western custom is the biblical description of Moses, also referred to as Israel’s first king. As he descended from Mount Sinai clutching the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy records how “rays of light shone from his head.” The Hebrew word for light rays is keren, the phonetic origin of crown. The same Hebrew word can also mean horn, which explains why those three consonants k, r, and n not only yield the English word crown but also “horn” words like unicorn or cornucopia. A mistranslating of the biblical “horns” in place of the correct “light rays” also explains why Michelangelo adorned his statue of Moses with two little horns on its head, as well as the hoary old myth that all Jews have horns.
Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and most of the other founding fathers tried to act according to God’s imperatives. Their writings are replete with Scriptural references. As a boy, I was encouraged to study Latin as a window into the English language and its culture. As a religious American, I encourage the study of the Bible as the book that, more than any other, provides a window into the origins, development, and culture of our land.