RABBI SCHOENBERG'S EREV SHABBAT MESSAGE PARASHAT YITRO
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In Vain Yitro 21
This week's portion is Yitro in which we read 10 Commandments. The third commandment is usually translated
לֹ֥א תִשָּׂ֛א אֶת־שֵֽׁם־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לַשָּׁ֑וְא כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יְנַקֶּה֙ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־יִשָּׂ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ לַשָּֽׁוְא׃ פ
Don't take G's name in vain. That last phrase, in vain, is the English translation of le-shav, meaning weightless, slight: do not use God's name lightly.
Traditionally, our rabbis have understood this commandment to refer to taking oaths, especially in court: even today in America, we swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, so help me God. When we speak the truth after swearing on God's name, we are taking God's name seriously and properly observing the commandment. A system of laws and courts must be built on truth if it is to be just.
A second understanding of the text is that once a person takes an oath to do something, they are committing to fulfill that promise. For example, a farmer might tell another, I swear I will help you with your harvest if you help me with mine. A society built on trust and hand-shake agreements can only be built when people follow through on actions they promise to undertake.
But a 19th century Orthodox rabbi gives yet a third interpretation to this commandment. To understand his slant, we must go back to beginning of the 19th century in Berlin, Germany. Jews are just being permitted to become citizens, to have some civil rights and join the larger society. In response, all over Europe, Jews are struggling with making their Judaism more modern, in casting off some of the strictures of Orthodoxy. 200 years later, it is hard for us today to imagine how courageous those early reformers were, to try to shape a Judaism that spoke to modern people, to find principles that would allow them to maintain their Judaism while living in an open, enlightened world. There were many experiments and
philosophies led by different groups of reformers. One of the most radical groups was in Berlin.
Begun in 1845, the Association for Reform in Judaism established a radical reform agenda. The group articulated their principles in a document declaring that the essence of Judaism was rationality, universalism, God and ethics. They saw all mitzvot as merely vehicles to teach this essence, and that these vehicles could all be thrown out now that Jews as a whole were more enlightened. They denigrated the Talmud, and claimed that most traditional customs were superstitious nonsense. For example, They held their main worship service on Sunday, not Saturday, and it was all in German, except the 2 lines of the Shema.
The chief Rabbi of Berlin, Rabbi Tizvi Hirsch Levin, fought against this group of reformers. A story of told of a Jewish reformer who met with the rabbi. The maskil, the reformer explained how there was no need for the mitzvot, because it is irrational to suggest that God, the Creator of the entire Universe, could care about such trivial matters as wearing a tallit in services, and such matters. The essence of Judaism is rationality, the pure contemplation of the Divine.
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch replied, "Ach, now I see the true plain meaning of the commandment: לֹ֥א תִשָּׂ֛א אֶת־שֵֽׁם־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לַשָּׁ֑וְא
" Don't take G's name lightly."
The plain meaning is: " Don't lift God's name to such a great height that it becomes lightness, it floats away, and you come to apostasy."
This Orthodox rabbi is quoting this commandment in order to claim that the radical reformers are breaking a foundational truth of Judaism. The reformers are breaking one of the Ten Commandments. This story reveals the bitterness and ferocity with which traditional rabbis fought their fellow Jews seeking to accommodate Judaism to modernity.
The notion that belief in God cannot stand alone, but needs the support and actualization of mitzvot was first articulated by Maimonides. Writing in his Guide for the Perplexed, he says :
You know from what I have said that opinions do not last unless they are accompanied by actions that strengthen them, make them generally known, and perpetuate them among the multitude. (Guide 2:31) Again, he repeats towards the end of the Guide: Ideas that are not rooted in actions will not last. (Guide 3:31.)
Today, Maimonides principle is the one on which we live our lives: with a belief in God and ethics, a need for intellectual, emotional, spiritual sustenance. Today liberal Judaism holds that these beliefs are actualized in the mitzvot we chose to observe. In the 21st century there is a new battle ground for the Jewish religion, we are fighting to shape a Judaism that will continue give meaning to our lives today.