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The Flexible Torah
Mon, 04/04/2011 - 20:00

The Talmud teaches that one should be “soft like a reed, and not hard like a cedar (Ta’anith 20a.). Medieval philosopher Bahya Ibn Pekuda comments on that passage, “Therefore the reed is privileged to be fashioned into a pen used for writing Torah scrolls.” It is surprising for those who think the Torah rigid and inflexible that even the implement used to shape its letters is chosen for flexibility.

Since the beginning of Jewish history some people have tried to nail down the corners of Torah, make it rigid and certain, a mechanical series of behaviors rather than a living, changing organism. Yet law, custom and legend all grow and change; the Torah is called an Etz Haim, a tree of life. Like all living things, the Torah today is not precisely what it will prove to be tomorrow.

Two disciples of a famous Rabbi once met later in life. One had followed all the dictates of his teacher; the other had developed his own practices and interpretations. The first expressed anger at his former friend: “Why did you not follow our teacher’s path?” he asked. The second answered, “But I did. He grew up and left his teacher. I grew up and left mine.”

Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow his teachings at

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