Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Middle Road

Parshat Shoftim

by Rabbi Avi Billet

In describing the formula for how we turn to our teachers for guidance and for psak (rabbinic decisions in Jewish law), the Torah enjoins us to follow the rulings that are handed to us. As many a rabbi will tell you in conversation, "Are we just having a discussion? Or are you asking me what to do? Because if you are asking a 'shaylah,' you have to follow what I tell you. Whereas if we are just having a conversation, you will go home and decide for yourself what is the best avenue to pursue in this matter."

The Torah says "Based on the Torah which they show you and the ruling they will tell you to follow, do not veer from what they tell you right or left." (Devarim 17:11)

This enigmatic passage is the base for some discussion in the Midrash, and much more amongst commentators.

Rashi, based on Shir HaShirim Raba and the Pesikta, explains quite literally that you must listen when they tell you right is left and left is right, and certainly when they tell you right is right and left is left. Ramban elaborates, saying that you might think they are totally wrong, but if they have the halakhic insight you do not possess, they must be listened to [presumably in matters of halakha – rather than for every question under the sun].

The Riva (Yitzchak ben Avraham, a Tosafist) asks an obvious question. What if they are totally out to lunch? What if they are saying that something that is forbidden is permitted, that something which is tameh is really tahor? He answers his own question, saying that in such a case it would be wrong to listen to them. The examples he brings are more along the lines of when there are two legitimate opinions and the scholar sides with an approach which might be objectionable, but is valid. Obviously declaring a horse to be a tahor animal would not fit into such a rubric (my example). But saying that we should not blow shofar on Rosh Hashanah that falls on shabbos is a decree which is valid (Riva's example).

I would like to offer a different approach, equally literal, yet considerably more homiletical, based on the well-known suggestion of Rambam (Maimonides) at the beginning of Hilkhot De'ot – the laws of Worldliness.

When the verse says "Do not veer from what they tell you right or left," perhaps they mean "do not veer too much, neither to the right nor to the left." In other words: don't be an extremist, be a moderate. Take a stand, but don't go crazy.

The Rambam famously wrote, "The proper path is the middle road from every choice a person has in front of him. It is equidistant from the two extremes, and is not 'almost' one or the other. The early scholars commanded us to follow this road of moderation in order to live a more fulfilling existence. For example, don't be easy to anger, but also don't be a stiff with no emotions. Find a middle road. Save anger for a really big deal, so it will [hopefully] not come up again. Otherwise be easygoing…"

The key is moderation, and avoidance of extremism.

In our times, this is very easily understood, because the image the Torah uses to describe the directions in which a person can turn (right or left) are the actual terms used to describe the place on the religious or philosophical (and even political) scale on which a person's approach to life might lie.

The Torah's instruction, therefore, is not to lean too far to the right, or too far to the left, but to find a more centrist viewpoint that is far more moderate and far less extreme.

This is a highly significant message for all of us to take home. Too often, people rush to a rabbi for guidance on every matter under the sun. Too often, people on one extreme try to "outfrum" themselves (separate yichud rooms at a wedding comes to mind). At the same time, people on the other extreme tend to push the envelope as far as they can, to see how far they can take certain practices before being called on them and being subsequently persuaded that "this far is OK, but this far is crossing the line."

We should not be looking to churn out clones and carbon copies. Every person is created in the image of God, is a unique individual, and should therefore make a unique mark in the world.

But the underlying philosophy that should work for everyone, is that of Maimonides. While we will not agree on everything, we work hard to change our approach to life and Judaism. There need not be a negative attitude towards others, trying to either get others' goat or make their lives difficult. Nor should we push the envelope to such a degree that will spark namecalling, lashon hara, animosity, or worst of all, hatred.

Taking the road less traveled may make all the difference to Robert Frost. But taking the middle road – not too much to the right and not too much to the left – is what makes all the difference in creating a wholesome Jewish experience.

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