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Not Any Book, Not Any Covenant

Abba Cohen

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 pride.

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 façade. 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 benevolence."

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 of "wisdom."

Torah is Torah. Commandments, morals, ethics. Divinely-revealed. Holy. The foundation and keystone of our faith and peoplehood. Timeless and enduring.

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.


Abba Cohen is Washington Director and Counsel for Agudath Israel of America.



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