Justice, Torah

Thoughts on the Religious Language of Jewish Social Justice: R. Kalonymos Kalman Shapira’s Derekh ha-Melekh on Expanding Torah to the Walls of the City

by Shaul Magid

Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies at Indiana University, Kogod Senior Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue in Seaview, NY. In 2018-2019 he will be the Brownstone Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College.

There has been much talk recently about issues of Social Justice and Judaism, the misrepresentation or misappropriation of Rabbinic terms, and the theological foundations or religious language of Jewish Social Justice. The latest iteration revolved around a critique of Jewish social justice in Jonathan Neumann’s To Heal the World? How the Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel. I published a critical essay on Neumann’s book, “Social Justice and the Future of Judaism,” in Tablet. Rabbi Ysoscher Katz then published two essays, the first, “Why the Orthodox Hate ‘Tikkun Olam’”, in The Forward and the second, “What Does Tikkun Olam Mean? Debating Interpretation; Authority; Misappropriation (and Chazon Ish)”, in The Times of Israel. The second essay in part reproduces a debate I had with Rabbi Katz on his Facebook page about these issues. These constructive debates ultimately boil down to questions of authenticity with regard to the potential scope of Torah: How far can we extend Rabbinic teaching beyond its borders? How deeply can we de-contextualize Rabbinic or Kabbalistic motifs to serve our contemporary needs? The claim among some of the detractors of progressive Social Justice Jews is that their program lacks a “religious language,” that it is based largely on secular as opposed to Torah principles. The elasticity of Torah is a question Jews have dealt with for millennia. Below I want to offer one example of how sensitive traditional Jewish thinkers were to the question of sacred acts and sacred space, the study house and the street, the insularity of the Jewish community and the cities in which they reside.

Our understanding of these challenging questions of Torah’s reach can be sharpened by a provocative passage by the Hasidic Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, R. Kolonymos Kalman Shapira of Piasczeno (1869-1943), in his book Derekh Ha-Melekh. Commenting on Moses’s request in Numbers 27:17 that God appoint a leader “who shall go out before them and go in before them,” R. Shapira homes in on the verse’s spacial imagery and relates it to the following midrash in the Tanhuma (Be-Hukotai 3:1) on another verse which locates Torah in the public domain, “Wisdom cries out in the street, raises her voice in the public square” (Prov. 1:20). The midrash reads as follows:

Yishma‘el bar Nahmani asked R Yohanan ben R. Eli‘ezer when he was standing in the market: He said to him, “Teach me something!”

He replied back, “Go to the study house and I will teach you there.”

He said, “Rabbenu, didn’t you [already] teach me, ‘Wisdom cries out in the street’?”

He said, “You know how to read [Scripture], but you don’t know how to recite [oral traditions]: What is ‘Wisdom cries out in the street’? In the ‘street/external domain’ of Torah….What is ‘the public square [rehovot]? In the place where Torah is expanded [markhivin].”

Shapira reflects on this midrash suggestively, as follows. (I have truncated some of his comments for clarity).

The sanctity of Torah spreads throughout the body of the one who studies it even if h/she is not able comprehend it with h/her intellect. This is true not only of a person but also the house and the walls in which h/she studies…Even if the Torah, its words and wisdom, can be revealed while “on the way,” (i.e. not in the study house), nevertheless the reasoning of the Torah that is revealed above speech and intellection is capable of being disclosed only in places where Torah is expanded (be-makom markhivin), in a place that is holy, and [thus] even its walls will become sanctified. Specifically in this place [the study house] the Torah is expanded and this is where its reasons can be revealed…because it transcends the body.

We are not speaking of lofty matters here. Rather in matters of understanding each according to his/her ability. One can understand something from one’s learning and yet his/her understanding will be limited (lit. narrow, kazarah) such that he/she doesn’t even really know, or is not really sure of, his/her understanding. Afterward the matter begins to expand in his mind and speech as he/she reviews it and then begins to truly understand it. And this [process of] understanding is not solely in intellectual matters. Rather all good thoughts and the desire for teshuva/repentance [initially] comes to a person in a very limited and narrow way in the beginning and one must work to expand it. This is like a Sefer Torah that is rolled in a very narrow way even though inside it contains the entire Torah. Nevertheless, it is closed and it is only when we unroll it and expand it that its contents are revealed to all of Israel. This embodies the two categories of breadth and depth. Just like with a Sefer Torah, we need a table upon which it is opened. And the more it is opened, the bigger table we need to hold it. This is true of expanding holiness in an individual, which also needs a place to hold it until [it expands and] the mind is not sufficient but requires the entire body, one’s house and the walls of the city and there, too, the holiness can reside…

The context here is the difference between private and public Torah space. Where is Torah best studied and understood? Space is also compared the human body: How is Torah best absorbed into the fullness of the human body such that it can be understood in its most integrated sense? But I suggest that there is something else going on here as well: thinking about the contracted and expansive states of Torah more generally. Contracted Torah limits one’s understanding of it, while expansive Torah is more fully absorbed into the body, as well as into the public square. It may be that the study house is the best place to acquire this Torah (though the Rabbinic advocacy of the study house here is certainly self-serving in that the study house is their domain). Contracted Torah (like the closed Sefer Torah) contains everything but its contracted state makes it impossible for that wisdom to expand and thus be fully understood. What exactly is the contracted vs. the expansive Torah? R. Shapira never tells us. Perhaps, though, this binary may help us frame our understanding of the de-contextualization of Jewish canonical thinking in ways that may be foreign to the Rabbis but can be used to engage with contemporary issues in the public sphere, where wisdom is required. This may necessitate, at times, a certain amount of misrepresentation, as all expansion to some degree distorts and moves away from something in its contracted state. There are certainly rules of such acts of expansion, but the Midrashic mind is quite creative in interpretive landscape. There are those who are devoted to protecting the contracted nature of Torah, venerating its insularity. And there are those who prefer to open the Torah to the world, to celebrate its wisdom by expanding it beyond its borders. It is noteworthy that R. Shapira stresses that it is only in this expansive state that Torah can be fully understood. In its contracted — one might say, parochial — manifestation, there is a limited understanding of its wisdom even as such a contracted state may protect it from external contamination.

When we read Biblical and Rabbinic literature outside the contracted state of its own making, metaphorically unrolling the Sefer Torah to examine what is inside, what occurs is not only an expansion of that wisdom beyond the body, and the house, to the entire city, but we also become privy to aspects of its wisdom that were heretofore unrevealed. It is telling that Shapira adds at the end “the walls of the city.” When the wisdom of the Torah speaks to the ills of the polis, of the public square, it reaches not only a state of fulfillment but also a state of fullness. The study house may be the place where Torah gestates, but it is the public square where it reaches its telos.

Shapira adds that it is only in Eretz Yisrael, where Israel lives in full responsibility of its destiny, where Torah can be totally manifest. But even outside of Eretz Yisrael, in the public square in which we reside in the Diaspora, the process of expanding Torah beyond the study house, and beyond the boundaries of its own state of contraction, to address the needs of society, to be heard in and beyond the walls of the city, is for R. Shapira the fulfillment of Proverbs, Wisdom cries out in the street, Raises her voice in the public square. This is one aspect of the theological foundation and religious language of Jewish Social Justice. And it is performed every day by those who have learned in the study house and are have taken Torah to its expansive state in the streets of the city.

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