Make a safety fence around the Torah

Ethics of the Fathers, 1:1


The Torah is a living document, to be applied to all societies and all generations of history. Thus, the Almighty entrusted the sages and Torah authorities of each generation with the responsibility of interpreting the Torah and implementing it in the specific conditions and circumstances of their time and place.

This also includes the task of constructing ``safety fences'' around the Torah. Each generation's leaders are to pinpoint the specific vulnerabilities of their community and enact the appropriate ordinances which will safeguard and strengthen the observance of Torah. For example, the Torah forbids transferring objects from a ``private domain'' to a ``public domain'' (e.g. from one's home out to the street) on Shabbos. As a safety measure, a rabbinic ordinance prohibits any handling of certain types of objects, lest one inadvertently come to violate the Shabbos. Other rabbinic institutions include making a blessing before eating, the mandated waiting period between meat and milk, praying three times a day, washing hands before meals, and the festivals of Chanukah and Purim. In fact, a major part of what we call ``Judaism'' is rabbinic in origin.

Indeed, a safety fence inevitably encloses more area than the thing it comes to safeguard. Thus, the rabbinic ordinances have the effect of broadening and extending Torah to areas where the strict letter of the law does not apply.

As a result, the sages are often perceived as having made Judaism more ``difficult.'' That while their ordinances may be necessary for the preservation of Torah, they unfortunately make it less accessible to the Jew who is not yet fully committed to its observance.

Actually, the very opposite is true. One of the most ``attractive'' things about Torah is its tremendous breadth and scope. Torah deals with virtually every area of life, on virtually every level of human discourse: the mystic, the philosopher and the psychologist will each find that the Torah speaks his language. Whether a person is looking for roots and tradition or transcendence and innovation, whether he seeks a pragmatic guide to life, an authoritative moral code or a spiritual experience, he will find the mitzvah or custom to identify with. Even if he is not yet ready to embrace the entirety of Torah, there will always be an insight or observance which will drew him in, stimulate his soul and whet his desire to learn and experience more.

So the more Torah is ``broadened'' by its application through the generations, the more ground it comes to cover via the fences that are erected to safeguard it, all the more does it become accessible to also the most diverse of its constituents.