Here in Washington, not far from the White House, stands a Jewish landmark:
B'nai B'rith International headquarters. It has been here for decades, and
Jewish visitors to the nation's capital rightfully regard the building with
For me, the building holds warm memories. My mother began working for B'nai
B'rith in the early 1940s. For over a period of 30 years - between
children - she was employed by the fraternal group in various departments
and in various capacities. As a child, on days off from school, I would
accompany her to the office. I was given my own "special desk," complete
with pen and paper with which to entertain myself. I was drafted, during
those frequent mass mailings, to help with the never-ending stapling,
folding and stuffing. I knew everyone - from the top executives to the
custodial staff - and relished being given the mission of taking the
elevator downstairs to fill the daily vending machine order. I loved
exploring the stairwells and never failed to visit the museum.
But now, as I walk past the building each day, this warm feeling is tinged
with sadness, even pain. Not because I harbor any negative feelings toward
B'nai B'rith - the unique organization does important work and is deeply
committed to the welfare of our brothers and sisters around the world. No,
it is not the organization; it is, quite literally, the building.
You see, as the pedestrian nears the edifice, something catches the eye - a
quote from Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers) prominently inscribed on
its fašade. In Hebrew: "Al shelosha devarim haolam omed: al haTorah, v'al
ha'avodah, v'al gemilut chasadim." And, beneath it, a translation: "The
World Stands Upon Three Foundations: on study, on service and on
And it is the translation of this noble Jewish credo - one that would
normally bring such profound pride - that I find so disheartening. For
Torah, of course, does not mean "study." It refers not to some general
appreciation of "knowledge." It is not a euphemism for some generic form
Torah is Torah. Commandments, morals, ethics. Divinely-revealed. Holy.
The foundation and keystone of our faith and peoplehood. Timeless and
The inscription recalls to mind an incident related to me by my father, of
blessed memory. Over twenty years ago, he had attended university
commencement exercises that began with a "benediction" by the campus rabbi.
She opened with the traditional Birchat haTorah: "Baruch attah ... la'asok
bedivrei Torah (Blessed are You... Who has commanded us to be engaged in the
words of Torah)." Which the rabbi translated: "...Who has commanded us to
study in institutions of higher learning." Everyone listened politely,
earnestly answered "amen," and the program proceeded.
I have always been amused by the account. I cannot help but imagine how
impressed the University president must have been discovering that Judaism
commands the pursuit of a college education, that "Torah study" is
apparently fulfilled by English 101. But, alas, the story also hurts to the
core. For however important one views the arts and sciences, whatever value
they might have, they are decidedly not Torah.
Can it be that the People of the Book have become the People of any Book?
That we, the People of the Covenant have become the People of any Covenant?
I suppose that these sentiments, expressed more than a generation ago by
those who lived in a very different Jewish world, might still today reflect
the desire of some of us to make Torah something "universal," possessive of
values that transcend its parochialism. To declare, in such a public
manner, Jewish religious tradition's essential belief that the creation, the
continuing existence and the very purpose of the world as revolving around
the study and observance of Torah, might simply be too "chauvinistic", too
embarrassing to broadcast to our non-Jewish neighbors.
Affirming that Torah is more catholic, if you will, perhaps makes us more
comfortable, and feel more accepted, in Western civilization.
But there is an ultimate tragedy in this "defining down" of what Torah is,
namely what happens to Torah itself. When Torah becomes any and all things,
when it is tossed about in the changing winds of modern day culture and the
turbulent seas of contemporary society, it becomes ripe for distortion and
abuse. It can then be used to promote ideas and actions that are inimical
to its values. It can be twisted and turned to reject and deny its
millennia-old teachings. At that point, "Torah" becomes an amorphous
concept, a mere sham - no longer the " blueprint of creation."
When we forget that Torah is separate and distinct from all else - indeed,
that it is above all else - then we have seriously lost our moorings. And
it is that reality that is most painful of all.
But as we approach Chanukah 5761, there are hopeful signs. Today's Jewish
leadership has zeroed in on the "continuity" imperative. It rests, to be
sure, at the top of every community's list of priorities. Most importantly,
while there is inevitable dissension over particulars, there seems to be
universal agreement that "Jewish education is the key to Jewish survival."
This is, after all, Chanukah's unique lesson. Our history teaches that it
was not physical annihilation that threatened our people during
pre-Hasmonean times. Rather, it was the insistence by our Syrian-Greek
adversaries that Jews incorporate into their lives practices and ideas
foreign to our Torah. Indeed, the great menace facing our ancestors was the
dilution of the Torah and its way of life.
This Chanukah, as we gaze upon the flickering flames - holy and pure - let
us rededicate ourselves to maintaining our Torah - holy and pure.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Abba Cohen is Washington Director and Counsel for Agudath Israel of