Describing his relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, famed novelist Chaim Potok said in an interview:

“It must have been in the 70’s. I was sitting up front at a farbrengen (chasidic gathering) with a large group of others, and spoke to the Rebbe in front of all the people there. At the time I was the editor of the Jewish Publication Society [the oldest publisher of Jewish books in the United States]. In middle of our conversation the Rebbe smiled and said, “Remember to put the Jewish back into the Jewish Publication Society.”

People of the Fish

In traditional Jewish literature the Children of Israel are likened to fish1. An illuminating Talmudic anecdote2 sheds light on the comparison:

"The wicked [Roman] government once issued a decree forbidding the Jews to study and practice the Torah. Pappus ben Judah came and found R. Akiva making public gatherings and occupying himself with the Torah.

He said to him: “Akiva, are you not afraid of the Government?” He replied: “Let me answer you with a parable.

“A fox was once walking alongside a river and he saw many fish swimming from one place to another. He said to them: ‘From what are you fleeing?’ They replied: ‘From the nets cast for us by men.’ He said to them: ‘Would you like to come up on to the dry land so that you and I can live together in the way that my ancestors lived with your ancestors?’

“They replied: ‘Are you the one they call the cleverest of animals? You aren’t clever but foolish. If we are challenged in the element in which we live, how much more so in the element in which we would die!’”

The hunted fish of this tale is the persecuted Jew of history. The conniving fox represents the persistent and insidious call of assimilation, and the river’s protective and nourishing water symbolizes the study and practice of Torah which sustains and safeguards our nation’s survival.

But what is so unique about the relationship?

You see, essentially the Torah is a bridge that connects human intellect to Divine intellect. To be sure, the Torah did not serve as the first medium for Divine communication with mankind; prophecy and spiritual visions achieved that since time immemorial. But an avenue where G‑d could talk with His people, not to them or at them—where, so to speak, a meeting of the minds between Creator and creation could take place—didn’t exist prior to the giving of the Torah. The Sinaic revelation, and the accompanying possibility for human interpretation based on the “thirteen principles of torah-exegesis3”, gave birth to the first interface or access point between finite and infinite wisdom. And the Torah is the first—and only—system of thought developed inter-Creationally, if you know what I mean.

It is the Divine origin of the Torah that gives it its ability to withstand the test of time and survive a tumultuous history alongside the Jewish people. And it is a unique kind of timelessness that the Torah possesses: not only does it teach eternal ideals and values that transcend time but it also addresses the particular concerns, trends and developments of every era in a specific and timely way. The Torah is as relevant in Manhattan as it was in Canaan, and still guides the lives of billions of people. And while it is only natural for the Creator of time, Who is higher than time, to be able to fuse the ancient with the relevant, some credit is due G‑d’s earthly partners as well.

For by following the system divined and designed by G‑d Himself, man was given the ability to apply the ancient to the contemporary, and to create the singular mental space place where, so to speak, “heaven and earth kiss.4

There is a place for the translator, interpreter, and communicator of His Wisdom and Will. These are the prophets, elders, sages, commentators, codifiers, preachers, rebbes and rabbis of all time who dedicated their lives to finding the relevance and application of Torah (legal, mystical, philosophical, psychological, etc.) to their eras.

As is the case with many privileges, though, the awesome opportunity to take part in developing the Divine train of thought comes with great risk and responsibility.

The challenge of Torah interpretation is this: To find relevance in ancient texts requires creativity and innovative thinking; yet originality and imagination tend to be at odds with adherence to guidelines, defined methods and structured systems. Ingenuity and inventiveness necessarily entail a fresh if not break-away perspective that frequently leads to the renovation of the existing model. To be progressive is often to be transgressive.

Fins and Scales

Here is where kosher fish can inform.

Two characteristics render aquatic creatures fit for consumption: “This may you eat from everything that is in the water: everything that has fins and scales.5

Beyond its meaning as a literal commandment, this verse is laden with symbolism. The Torah here outlines two fundamental guidelines for kosher Torah interpretation and Jewish innovation.

Scales primarily serve to protect fish from the elements,6 to keep their bones and bodies intact. The function of fins, on the other hand, is to facilitate marine travel. They allow fish to lift, thrust, and steer themselves through water, to advance beyond their current station.

The same is true regarding the navigation of Torah’s waters. A kosher Torah scholar and commentator is one with both fins (creativity) and scales (integrity). Without either one his or her work is unfit for consumption. This applies as well to editors of the myriad Jewish-content magazines, websites, and pod-casts. They must think out-of-the-box but within the books, and be careful to lose nothing in translation.

And the same is true of the Jewish community’s innovators, activists, and policy-makers. They must recognize the need for fresh and forward thinking and at the same time be deeply committed to the integrity of Jewish tradition. They must break ground without breaking bounds; be all the rage but not New Age. They must be protective and progressive—and in that order.7 Only then can we benefit from the wisdom and direction that they offer.

For as our turbulent history demonstrates, the key to Jewish survival in the oceans of time has been our ability to be both traditional and modern, classic and current, conservative and liberal; fashioned from the old, but not old-fashioned.

Without a doubt, it is our Jewish “fins” and “scales” that have kept us fresh and kosher to this very day.

Based on the Rebbe’s diary entry of 19th Elul 5701