By Whose Authority?

by George F Spall

Our very helpful typiste has revealed another facet of her multiple abilities. She can tell a good story. Here is one: a certain husband was watching his wife preparing to fry some bacon and was perplexed to see her carefully cutting off the ends of each rasher before putting it in the pan.

"Why do you do that?" he asked. "I don't really know, but my mother taught me to di it."

Shortly afterwards, her mother came to visit, so, still curious, he asked her about it. "I have no idea why, but it was my mother who showed me, and so my daughter does it of course."

A little time later, Great-grandma came for a family celebration and hubby, still curious and interested, said to the matriarch that had taught those generations of dutiful daughters to cook, "You must have had good reasons for trimming the ends of your bacon rashers, and your daughters do it. Whatever is it?"

"Oh yes, I had. My frying pan was so small I had to do it to get the rashers in."

Pardon the non- kosher story, but it serves to introduce another and different puzzle. Why, in this enlightened age, after we have debunked the past so thoroughly, do we still trim our rashers of theology to fit our religious frypan? And continue to do it without question, even feeling a little unhappy if we are asked to question it?

Having spoken to numbers of people about it, I am staggered at this "Grandma taught me" syndrome, especially in the area of religious belief, because though trimming bacon rashers might slow down breakfast preparation somewhat, that is all it would do.

However, there is a big difference between a table in the breakfast-room and that table in the house of the Lord of which King David sang and at which he now sits with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Elijah, Moses and Daniel and all the other saints of ancient days -- those men who gave us the Tenach , the Old Testament. The beloved patriarchs and prophets had utter and complete confidence in the Word of the Lord, or as much of it as was then available to them on clay tablets, papyrus and vellum scrolls, or those special visions that were etched indelibly on the retina of the mind to be inscribed later on those prepared skins and parchment.

The Jewish writer, Shimon ben Jona, Peter, reminds us in the New Testament that we have not followed "cunningly devised fables ... but were eyewitnesses of His majesty ... and heard His voice" (2 Peter 1:16). He was claiming that the Scriptures were absolute and authoritative.

If we follow the philosophies and conclusions of men, however sincere and pious and well-intentioned, we must be sure they have the authority that gave Moses his "Thus says the Lord". Would it not be devastating to discover at long last when the secrets of men come up for judgment by the Messiah that our traditions have not been kosher after all, and we ourselves are regarded as terfe , unfit, in consequence?

Israel 's King Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes: "God requires that which is past." He has a right to require it, and Jewish people especially recognize it. Do they not name the Almighty as King and Judge during the Days of Awe following Rosh HaShana ? From what books of the Law will He pronounce judgment? Will they be those He wrote Himself or told His prophets to write, or will He ignore those and use our amended versions, in which are substituted Prayer, Charity, Fasting, Bible Knowledge, instead of Forgiveness by those means that the Law of Moses laid down? In Leviticus chapter 16 there are precise ways of observing Yom Kippur.

Since the Romans destroyed the Temple the religious frypan could not be used to handle the spiritual meat, and that cannot be helped today, but this realization does not solve the problem. The fact remains that over the centuries the Jewish sages have written the rules or made their own commentaries upon the original, to accommodate it to the contemporary conditions, and we still trim the rashers to fit the cultural frypan.

Then we assume that the King and Judge will inevitably abide by it, that He will shrink to our size, ignore His laws and penalties, and use ours.

A snippet of ancient history that is generally accepted tells us of the brave and ingenious Rabbi Zacchai who escaped from Jerusalem near the conclusion of the siege, right through the Roman lines as a corpse carried on a bier by devout disciples of his. The Romans allowed the funeral party through and they went to Yavneh where they set about establishing a Judaism without the Temple facilities. Their heroism, idealism, dedication and piety have been successful in that Judaism continues. That funeral group of 70 A.D. has inspired millions of wonderful Jewish men and women since, and they preserved their racial identity and their system of worship and culture in spite of the most frightful suffering; they have been faithful to the faith of their fathers.

The Almighty, may He ever be blessed, made covenants with the patriarchs which will undoubtedly be kept. Indeed, Israel's return to the land is an evidence of that. But those covenants were sealed in blood. If we appeal to the fathers, we appeal to men who accepted that fact.

It is in the spirit and heart attitude of Yom Kippur that we see that our religious frypan has become small because of the things that the prophets whom we revere, railed against. We therefore cannot but ask, "Which fathers do we follow?" Do we do well to go back to Ben Zacchai in 70 A.D. or further back to Moses and the patriarchs? Do we go back to Yavneh and S'fat or to Bethel and Moriah and Mamre and Sinai where Moses received his instructions about the Tent of the Congregation and the sacrifices?

Great-grandma had her small frypan and so had to accommodate the rashers. Her reason was natural and simple. And so did Zacchai and Akiva and Moses Maimonides and the other righteous men who followed. However, THEY are not the Bookkeepers. There is Another who is King and Judge.

That fine Jewish writer, Herman Wouk asks in his book THIS IS MY GOD: "There are many serious Jews of good heart and good conscience who disregard the laws of Moses, mainly in the ceremonial part. Some have not been trained in the tradition; some have discarded it. The question arises, Whose laws are they breaking? What authority are they challenging? Who says that in this day a man born Jewish should perform certain acts and refrain from others, and by what right does anyone say so?

"Our body of law has one name, Torah or Teaching. The word extends to cover religious laws laid down, to last week's decisions and the newest commentary. But the Pentateuch of Moses remains our very Torah , our true law, our constitution and our governing code. So we start where the record of Jewish identity begins: in the books of Moses."

If only we did! Instead, we rest on Moses ben Maimon, not Moses ben Amram. And we trim our religious rashers to fit, not because we have thought much about it as a rule, but because we have a tradition to follow and we hope that somehow the God who thundered from Sinai will sing to our tune in the soft tones of a fond and indulgent father murmuring a lullaby.

But what if the Eternal is not like that, but remains always the same as the patriarchs knew Him?