February 14, 2023

Nedarim 25

Today’s daf (Nedarim 25a) mentions a foundational principle of Jewish thought and Jewish practice which is referenced in passing during a discussion about the intent of a person when making an oath.
In terms of the source of this foundational principle, it is Devarim 29:13 where we read how Moshe – just days before his death – told the people: וְלֹא אִתְּכֶם לְבַדְּכֶם אָנֹכִי כֹּרֵת אֶת הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת וְאֶת הָאָלָה הַזֹּאת – “And it is not with you alone am I making this covenant and oath”, which the Beraita as quoted in today’s daf explains to mean: ‘know that I am having you swear not according to your own understanding [of the words of the Torah] (שלא על דעתכם אני משביע אתכם), but rather, according to my understanding and the God’s understanding of the words (אלא על דעתי ועל דעת המקום)’.
Expressed simply, while it is possible for each of us to understand the words of the Torah in many different ways, God made a covenant with the Jewish people through the gift of both the written Torah (Torah Shebichtav) and the accompanying oral tradition (Torah Sheb’al Peh). It was this gift which God communicated to Moshe, and which Moshe subsequently transmitted to the people. As such, to be faithful to Torah, we must pay heed to the Torah Shebichtav as explained by the Torah Sheb’al Peh, whereas to ignore this tradition and to interpret Torah as you wish is a negation of that covenant and it falls under the category of מגלה פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה – meaning ‘someone who presents a Torah interpretation which directly conflicts with the halacha’ (see Avot 3:11 & Gemara Sanhedrin 99a).
Admittedly, given the complex process of transmission of the Torah Sheb’al Peh, there are some points of disagreement about the meaning and application of some Torah laws. Still, what renders an interpretation acceptable or not is its faithfulness to, and consistency with, the laws and ethics of the Torah.
Throughout the centuries and up to today there have been those who have taken the view that Torah is just what they make of it. And in response, there have been those who have raised their voices in opposition and made it clear that such individuals are being מגלה פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה (nb. just last week I was forwarded a booklet criticizing a publication whose commentary, it is claimed, falls into this category).
However, מגלה פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה comes in all shapes and sizes, and those who know me know that one of the things that upsets me the most is when people misrepresent Torah to reach conclusions that are entirely foreign to, and in conflict with, Torah laws and Torah values. This is why, amongst other things, I am disgusted when certain individuals and communities misrepresent Torah laws and Torah values in a way that enables abuse and protects abusers in order to protect their own version of what they think Judaism is and should be.
Ultimately, our task is to remember that while each of us have our own relationship with Torah, the Torah – as a covenant – is based on what God gave to us. It is to be cognizant of the fact that there are many ways to be מגלה פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה. And it is to be wary of the fact that sometimes the people who, on looks alone, may seem to be the most faithful to the covenant, can be exactly those who are not.
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