Out With the Old and In With the New

The beginning of Parshat Shoftim introduces a new restriction: We may not set up a one-stone monument to God for ritual use.  Rashi addresses an obviously basic issue: How could a practice that was historically part of our forefathers’ regular practice, as recorded in Bereishis, now be frowned upon to the point of becoming a formal prohibition?

Rashi explains that this law reflects a change in the ancient text Canaanite Idolatry for Dummies.  The new edition of this idolatry handbook, published circa the same time that the Torah was given, contained a chapter that did not exist in the earlier editions of the handbook that were on sale during the time of Avraham and the forefathers.  This chapter recorded the new practice of using one-stone monuments for idolatrous rituals.  This change in the Canaanite practices and customs necessitated that when the Torah was given, it would need to include a law that would forbid the use of these monuments even for legitimate ritual purposes.  “Even though it was a beloved practice in the time of the forefathers, now, it is despised.”

Many societies have hosted the Jewish People throughout its long history and, for significant periods of time, some of those societies did not change much.  Change has always eventually come, however, either because we have had to find a different place and society in which to pitch our tents or because the place and society itself did not remain static.  Each one of these changes throughout the course of history pushed us out onto a tight-rope; to adapt to the changes, we would have to find a balance between two opposing needs.  On the one hand, we strove to uphold our old ways even though circumstances were now different.  Although any new situation could potentially tweak old practices in a minor way, most of the Torah’s ideals and directives are universally applicable and are relevant to life in any society.  On the other hand, we strove to adapt to our new circumstances by jettisoning our old ways that were no longer applicable because they now did not make sense in our new societal surroundings.  The way this balance played out in each community is unique, but the common theme is that a change in society calls for a re-examination of how we relate to a changed world.

One example of a change that actually permitted a restriction is the Talmudic prohibition of consuming beverages that were left unattended out of concern that a snake drinking from them left some poisonous venom behind.  Apparently, during Talmudic times there was a valid concern that a snake surreptitiously sneaked a sip of your soda and slipped in some of his snake venom.  By the time this law became codified hundreds of years later in the Shulchan Aruch, however, this was no longer concern apparently due to changed snake habits.  The Shulchan Aruch, noting this change, ruled that these beverages are permitted.

Another example is the striemel.  The streimel had become a hallowed style of dress in Eastern European Chasidic communities.  Upon arrival in the United States, many Chasidic groups held fast to this furry hat even though it looked more than slightly bizarre in this society.  Other groups, however, did decide to adapt to the local norm and opted to replace the streimel with the then common fedora.

The Torah’s law of one-stoned monuments does not dictate how we must relate to change in any particular circumstance.  What is perfectly clear, is that when society and the world that we live in do experience change, we can not and must not ignore that change; rather, we must carefully determine how, what, and if we should change and how we should apply the Torah’s ideals.  That is the message of the one-stoned monument.


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One response to “Out With the Old and In With the New

  1. Pingback: Improving, Maimonidies, and Animal Sacrafices | rabbiisaacs

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