The Giving of the Torah and the Beginning of Eternity: Reflections on Revelation, Innovation, and the Meaning of History

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Eli Rubin

“each day they shall be in your eyes like new”[1]

“literally new”[2]

The passage of time seems to be a perennial problem for anyone who seeks to cling to unchanging truths, for time is nothing more than the demarcation of change.

It is this problem that brings many people to the conclusion that to be religious one must also be a conservative. To be religious, it is thought, is to militate against the intractable march of history, not only to conserve what one has in the present but also to seek the restoration of pieties lost to the past.

In the Jewish tradition this line of thinking has even been enshrined in the notion of yeridat hadorot, “the decline of the generations,” in support of which a well known Talmudic passage is often cited:

Rabbi Zeira said that Rava bar Zimuna said: If the early generations are characterized as sons of angels, we are the sons of men. And if the early generations are characterized as the sons of men, we are akin to donkeys … (Shabbat, 112b)  

This is more than a self-deprecating witticism. It undoubtedly implies that we should look to the achievements and stature of earlier sages and pietists with admiration, even veneration. Yet the assumption that this should transmute into a paradigmatic dogma, into an axiom that lends a fundamentally conservative bent to the religious worldview in toto, should not pass without question.

To let the synonymy of religiosity and conservatism stand unchallenged is to rob time and history of their significance. If the eternity of truth means that truth is unchanging then we are left to conclude that all change is untrue. It follows that the demarcation of change, i.e. time itself, has no true meaning.

Such a conclusion seems untenable. The passage of time is even more fundamental to our reality than the air we breath. Are we simply to ignore it? Can the march of history really be so inconsequential?

Enter the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whose 25th yahrtzeit will be marked this summer, on the 3rd of Tammuz.

In a New York Times profile dating from 1972, Israel Shenker records the Rebbe’s response when it was suggested that his orthodoxy marked him as a conservative:

I don’t believe that Reform Judaism is liberal and Orthodox is conservative. My explanation of conservative is someone who is so petrified he cannot accept something new. For me, Judaism, or halacha [Jewish religious law], or Torah encompasses all the universe, and it encompasses every new invention, every new theory, every new piece of knowledge or thought or action. Everything that happens in 1972 has a place in the Torah, and it must be interpreted, it must be explained, it must be evaluated from the point of view of Torah even if it happened for the first time in March of 1972.[3]

The Rebbe’s rejection of the conservative label is stark, and his elaboration of its connotation is scathing: “My explanation of conservative is someone who is so petrified he cannot accept something new.

In the same breath he articulates an alternative conception of Torah’s eternity, a conception of such capacious breadth that it also encompases a new theorization of the meaning of history: “Torah encompasses all the universe.

Torah does not merely endure for all time. Torah actually ecompasses all time. Every temporal moment, every new contribution to human knowledge and activity is essentially enfolded within the eternal Torah, and it is only through the medium of historical time that the unarticulated essence of the Torah can be fully unfolded and revealed. On one occasion the Rebbe commented that “the decline of the generations” is only operative within the bounds of nature. Torah, by contrast, is the portal via which we transcend the bounds of nature.[4]

The conflation of religiosity with conservatism, from this perspective, rests on a metaphysical misconception: The conservative believes that the eternal is unchanging. The Rebbe believes that every change is already encompassed in eternity. To move through time is not to lose touch with eternity but rather to participate in the unfolding of eternity. From this perspective, the quest for eternal truth does not devalue history, but rather vests it with ultimate meaning. Historic change is not a threat to the Torah, it is the ultimate vehicle for the revelation of Torah. Without history, without time, the full plentitude of the eternal Torah can never be discovered.

The Rebbe had elaborated this point far more explicitly in 1962, on the last day of Passover. On that occasion he invoked the two modes of messianic redemption adduced in a Talmudic gloss to the prophetic utterance “I, the Lord, in its time I will hasten it” (be-itah ahishenah, Isaiah 60:22):

It is written: “In its time,” [indicating that there is a designated time for the redemption], and it is written: “I will hasten it,” [indicating that there is no set time for the redemption.] If they merit redemption, I will hasten the coming of the messiah (ahishenah). If they do not merit it, the messiah will come in its designated time (be-itah). (Sanhedrin, 98a.)

On the conventional reading, the hastened coming of the redemption (ahishenah) is seen to be more desirable. Yet on this occasion, the Rebbe pointed out that, in addition to signifying extraordinary merit, the coming of the redemption before its designated time would also entail a momentous disadvantage. To arrive at the appointed time of the messianic advent (be-itah) would require the traversal of a far greater length of time, and this duration actually contains an extraordinary advantage over the swift arrival of a hastened messiah.

In his own words:

When the redemption comes in a mode of achishenah this is not simply a hastening of time; many aspects of Torah are also hastened and skipped over. It is specifically when the redemption is be-itah—after the long stretch of exile—that many elements of Torah are supplemented. As the sages said, “if the Jewish people would not have sinned they would not have been given anything more than the five books of the Torah and the book Joshuah alone” (Nedarim, 22b).

… Each and every Jew has a portion in the Torah that can only be revealed by that individual alone, and specifically as an embodied soul (as it is known that the Torah is revealed specifically to embodied souls), and even as an embodied soul one’s portion in Torah cannot be revealed without first reaching the station of intelligence, for the Torah is given specifically via understanding and comprehension.

It is accordingly understood that if the redemption would be in a mode of achishenah, with temporal haste, then through skipping over many, many historic generations, many, many elements of Torah would also be skipped over, too, for they cannot be revealed except over the span of many many generations.[5] 

This is a rich and challenging passage. To grasp the Rebbe’s concept of exile and redemption demands the realization that these categories cannot be thought of in simple binary terms. Exile and redemption do not stand in diametrical opposition to one another. Neither do decline and growth, sin and Torah revelation, temporality and eternity.

On the contrary, without decline there can be no growth, without sin we would be left with a truncated Torah, and without temporality eternity remains foreclosed. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi wrote: “The ultimate fulfillment of the messianic era … depends on our actions and worship throughout the duration of the exile.” (Tanya, Part 1, Chapter 37.) This doesn’t simply mean that the messianic redemption is a reward for our actions and worship during exile, but rather that the exilic duration itself is the fabric from which the messianic era is constructed.

This is a dynamic that plays out not only in the grand sweep of history, but also in the intimate ups and downs of each and every Jew’s personal life. Torah is not merely something that we must preserve from the past. Torah is something that we must unfold in the future, and we must unfold it for ourselves through the passage of our own embodied lives.  

The Rebbe is unafraid of change because the eternal Torah already anticipates, requires, and calls forth change. In Kohelet (1:9) King Solomon proclaims that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Ostensibly this might be taken as a statement of pessimism, even nihilism, emptying the novelty marked by time of all significance. But read through the Rebbe’s eyes it communicates a sense of security, of expectancy, of progressive openness and hope.

Progress is not a threat to the Torah but rather the imperative realization of the full potential that the Torah already encompasses. To cite R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi again, “a human being is called a progressive (mehalech) … and must advance from one station to the next, and must not remain immobile at one station for ever.” (Tanya, Part 2, Introduction.)

One of the Rebbe’s clearest articulations of the paradoxical dynamic of Torah revelation, and of the meaning of religious progress, is found in an edited talk first published in 1984:

The service of God in its totality is founded upon the principle that both of these attitudes must be maintained, 1) “upstanding,” standing strong, without change, and 2) “walking,” progressing “from strength to strength” to the point that “they have no rest” (cf. Talmud bavli, Brakhot, 64a), constant change …

In the unchanging nature of Torah and the commandments it is underscored that the nature of the giver of the Torah and the commandments, the Almighty, is unchanging, “I, God, am unchanged.” (Malakhi, 3:6.) But on account of Torah and the commandments being the service of the Jewish people … [and considering that] the definition of a creation entails being subject to change and being a progressive (a mehalekh) …, the work of Torah and the commandments is set up in such a manner that there is progress “from strength to strength” in the service of God; change (and ascent) constantly …[6]

“The service of God in its totality,” the Rebbe continued, “demands both elements.” More importantly, it demands that both elements constantly be held together: “In every change, the foundation must be in the aspect of Torah and the commandments that is ‘upstanding’ (nitsavim), in the aspect of … ‘I, God, am unchanged.’”

In a word, the Torah demands unchanging change. The greatest mistake is to imagine that the Torah and its commandments need to react defensively—or worse, retreat—in order to contend with the fresh circumstances that each new moment brings. The contrary is true. Each new moment carries within it a unique opportunity for the Torah and its commandments to be advanced. 

To put it another way, Torah’s fundamental orientation is not conservative, but rather progressive. Yet the Rebbe’s progressivism was not defined—or borrowed—from without; it was not a derivative or apologetic response to general social trends. It was rather an inherent expression of the eternal tradition of Torah Yiddishkeit, of its messianic impulse not only to repair the world, but to re-enchant the world. In my view, the application of the term “progressive” as a characterization of the Rebbe’s Torah orientation should not be seen as a misappropriation from without, but rather as a direct translation of the term “mehalekh,” which is native to the Chabad lexicon and which was invoked by the Rebbe literally hundreds of times:

“The ultimate purpose of the creation of a person and the descent of one’s soul below is that through one’s worship below one becomes a mehalech.”[7] “Of a Jew it is demanded that one be a mehalech.”[8] “The definitive purpose of a person is to be a mehalech … One must never make do with the station that one has attained.”[9]

It is only “below,” the Rebbe repeatedly emphasized, “within the dimensions of space and time” (see Tanya, Part 2, Chapter 7), that progress can be made, and this is the definitive purpose for which our souls came down to earth.

In a forthcoming book, Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm for the World—co-authored by Philip Wexler, Michael Wexler, and myself—we make a broader argument about the ways that the Rebbe upended conventional polarizations between tradition and progress, religion and science, mysticism and society. Among other things, we also take a closer look at his engagement with the American counterculture of the 1960s, his advocacy for criminal justice reform, and how his notion of reciprocity might bear on questions of economic and ecological policy. These can all be seen as manifestations of his progressive orientation, but for now I will leave those topics aside and return to the more essential question of the relationship between Torah and time.

What does it mean to learn Torah in the present? What does it mean to receive the eternal Torah each day anew?  

For the Rebbe, this tension—between the unchanging foundation of the God given Torah, and its constantly changing application in the transient lives of its recipients—is negotiated through the very serious business of Torah study within the rigorous framework of the rabbinic legal tradition. This calls, on the one hand, for extreme faithfulness to the received texts and the rules that govern their interpretation. On the other hand, it calls for extreme intellectual innovation in the discovery of new lines of reasoning and new rulings that apply to new situations. Lest anyone make a mistake, this certainly does not mean that any area of Halacha should be in anyway compromised. On the contrary, Torah progress strengthens Halacha and unapologetically advances its all-encompassing relevance. 

Our sages state that “everything that a veteran student will innovate in the future was already given to Moses at Sinai” (Talmud Bavli, Megillah, 19b; Talmud Yerushalmi, Pe’ah, 2:4; Shemot R’abbah, 47:1). The novel interpretation of Torah adduced by “a veteran scholar” (talmid vatik) is a true novelty, a truly original product of a particular mind negotiating a particular nexus of textual and circumstantial problems. Accordingly, the innovative progress made is historically and temporally situated. Even such an innovation, however, is understood to be a disclosure of the very Torah that was “given to Moses at Sinai” thousands of years before history would give rise to its origination.

As the Rebbe explained:

These innovations come from the Jewish people, but are nevertheless encompassed in God’s thought even before they are innovated by the Jewish people, because on the part of God the past and future are one.[10] 

This is the true meaning of eternity. Eternity is not endless duration. Eternity encompasses the entire duration of time as a single entity.

On this score, the giving of the Torah is the entry of the eternal into the temporal dimension. It is the beginning of the process by which eternity is unfolded. Each subsequent moment of Torah revelation enacts a further intrusion of eternity upon the temporal scene. 

From the Rebbe’s perspective, moreover, the giving of the Torah and its subsequent revelation cannot be construed as unilateral. Enfolded within the God given Torah are the manifold innovations originated by the Jewish people throughout the duration of history. We do not merely receive the Torah from God, but also carry the tremendous merit and responsibility to give God the gift of Torah. Elliot Wolfson, whose appraisal of the Rebbe’s mystical thought remains unrivalled, has described this as “a temporal configuration that is circular in its linearity and linear in its circularity.”[11] As the Rebbe wrote in a different context, “even regarding the Creator and manager of the world our Torah tells us that it is as if He is sometimes a recipient and not only a provider.”[12]

To study Torah is not merely to be receptive to eternity, but rather to participate in a temporal dialogue with eternity. The very fact of being situated in a particular nexus of historical circumstances, and of being engaged in a particular Torah topic, calls the “veteran scholar” to craft the particular Torah innovation that can only be discovered by that person and at that time. It is the march of historic change that grants each of us the wherewithal to make our own original contribution to God’s eternal wisdom. 

[1] Rashi’s commentary to Deuteronomy 6:6, paraphrasing the comment of the Sifre ad loc..

[2] Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Likutei Torah, Devarim, 1b.

[3] Israel Shenker, “Lubavitch Rabbi Marks His 70th Year With Call for ‘Kindness’,” The New York Times, March 27, 1972, Page 39.

[4] Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Torat Menachem—Hitvaduyot, Vol. 29 (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 2004), 207-8.

[5] Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Torat Menachem—Hitvaduyot, Vol. 33 (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 2006), 331.

[6] Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Likutei sichot, Vol. 29 (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 2000), 175-178.

[7]Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Torat Menachem—Hitvaduyot, Vol. 2 (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society,1994), 58.

[8]Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Torat Menachem—Hitvaduyot, Vol. 5 (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1997), 56.

[9] Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Torat Menachem—Hitvaduyot, Vol. 14 (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1999), 228.

[10] Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Torat menachem—hitvaduyot 5752, Vol. 2 (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1994), 242.

[11] Elliot R. Wolfson, Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menaem Mendel Schneerson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 23.

[12] Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Igrot kodesh, Vol. 13 (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1989), 234.