Torah Study Replaces Commandments?
| Published: September 13, 2022
Our friend Bob asked:
I have a question.
Have you ever heard of the idea that, while certain commandments cannot really be kept because the holy temple isn’t built…
That by the Jewish people studying those commandments, even if they are not being physically implemented, the Jewish people are still “keeping them”, by preserving them and keeping them alive in the Jewish consciousness?
Ever heard of this idea that studying a commandments fulfills the commandment in situations where the commandment can’t be physically kept?
This is a very well known concept.
It is most famously applied in negative commandments, specifically the misbehaving son (ben sorer umoreh) and in positive commandments, basically anything having to do with the Temple while it is temporarily out of service. This is based on the verse in Hosea 14:3 at the end: “And we will fulfill the requirement of bulls (sacrifices) with our lips (prayer).”
Sadly, the Wikipedia page about the rebellious son is only in Hebrew and French. Here is a bad translation into English: https://bit.ly/3RTQvRg
I want to revisit your question, because it is possibly the most important concept in modern (ie, for the past 2000 years:-) Judaism.
The Bible seems to be pretty straightforward: the People of Israel are meant to follow all of God’s commandments, live in the Land, and focus their service of God in the Temple (when it finally gets built). Unfortunately, the People screwed up royally and end up being exiled from the Land and the Temple being destroyed. This would be a pretty lost story except that the Bible prophesizes that the People will return to the Land. AND the end of the Bible describes the first steps of that return AND the first steps of the rebuilding of the Temple! AND that People do a pretty good job of surviving and thriving after that return and rebuilding, which is probably unprecedented.
BUT the People screw up AGAIN and are exiled AGAIN and their Temple is destroyed AGAIN! Then, for TWO THOUSAND YEARS, they neither return nor (or course) rebuild their Temple! But people are still keeping an eye on them, because they are not disappearing (like most peoples who get exiled) so there still is a chance that lightning will strike again.
But from the People of Israel’s perspective (by this time, they are called Jews), what can they do? On an individual level, with no Land connecting them (or centralized government, or central religious shrine, or language) and natural forces at work, why not simply assimilate?
Here is where a tremendous plan is dreamt up and is implemented, in an incredibly successful manner.
Rabbi Yohanan Zakai, when faced with what he saw as the fait accompli of the Temple’s imminent destruction and probably complete exile, proposed that Torah Study would replace ALL components of Jewish National Life. The term “Portable Homeland,” attributed to Heinrich Heine, is what enabled the Jewish People to survive throughout their long second exile.
So, while the concepts of faith and keeping commandments are part of Judaism, without the primacy given to studying and developing Torah and respect for its studiers, the Jewish People would probably have evaporated.
HOWEVER, the Jewish People have returned to their actual Homeland AGAIN! Lightning struck twice!
So now what do we do? abandon that Torah that kept us going (on life support if you will) for two thousand years and return to normal national symbols and components? Or keep on with the Torah study that has kept us going longer than any “normal” national system (two stints of some 450 years each) and reject normative nationhood? Or figure out some way to do both?
That is the issue that most excites Jews today.
Bob’s follow-up question:
Exactly what were you referring to when you wrote “two stints of some 450 years each”
Israel had two stretches of existence as an independent nation, during the first Temple and second Temple periods. Each lasted under 450 years. Before that, they were a loosely affiliated group of tribes; between and after, they were dispersed.