Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shemini

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Shemini -Hahodesh 5760/2000

Conservatism vs. Innovation

Prof. Dov Schwarz

Dept. of Philosophy

A tragic motif in literature and religion is the father who buries his son. In Parashat Shemini we read about Aaron's sons offering alien fire before the Lord and dying "at the instance of the Lord" (Lev. 10:2). How did Aaron react?

Rabbinic tradition portrays Aaron as a staunch activist for peace (Avot 1.12 and elsewhere). Aaron is perceived as an indefatigable advocate and man of initiative; he carries out shuttle diplomacy between conflicting parties and makes peace between them, acting in subtle ways. He takes the initiative greeting sinners with kindness, and then out of shame they return to the proper way... His response to the death of his sons, however, is altogether different: "Aaron was silent" (Lev. 10:3). This silence, withdrawing into himself, is received with approbation by the author of Leviticus Rabbah, in his comment on this verse: "He was rewarded for his silence."

Aaron could have argued with the Lord. Scripture emphasizes that his sons were acting "before the Lord." Both the offerings they made and their death were "before the Lord." The plain sense of the text indicates that his sons, apparently moved by religious fervor, added to the usual incense offering some other incense without having been commanded to do so. One might have expected Aaron to respond by justifying their actions to G-d: his sons, after all, acted out of the highest religious sentiments, aspiring to enrich their religious world with additional incense! Moses, Aaron's fellow leader of the Israelites, on several occasions took issue with G-d's actions, and sometimes quite assertively. Aaron, in contrast, was silent. What caused this person, a man of initiative in matters of making peace, to withdraw into himself and maintain utter silence?

Perhaps the answer can be found in Parashat Be-Ha'alotkha, in the beginning of which Aaron is commanded to mount the lamps in the lampstand. Scripture takes pains to note that "Aaron did so" (Num. 8:3). This emphasis is all the more perplexing in the light of Rashi's comments based on Sifre: "This is said in praise of Aaron, that he made no changes." Could it possibly occur to a person who had experienced direct commands through divine revelation to do differently from what he was told? It appears that it could. Human beings by nature seek to change and refresh, to add and streamline; therefore we must be reminded that sometimes adding is counterproductive, and making no changes is not "reactionary" but worthy of praise.

This brings us to one of the most basic characteristics of the religious person: conservatism vs. innovation. Religion demands being faithful to authority and ancient sources, while human nature tends towards breaking with the past and innovating. In his essay, The Lonely Man of Faith (Ish ha-Emunah), Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik saw these tendencies reflected in the two accounts of the creation of Man. In the first, Man was to conquer the world and subordinate it to his needs ("fill the earth and master it"; Gen. 1:28). In the second, Man is placed in the Garden of Eden for the more modest purpose "to till it and tend it" (Gen. 2:15).

These two purposes have a certain tension between them, and the religious person feels this existentially. The purpose of expanding and ruling is undoubtedly very important, but preserving and conserving ("to till and tend it") is also important.

The figure of Aaron reflects this tension best of all: Aaron undoubtedly had arguments that he could have made against Heaven over the death of his sons. Nevertheless, as we have said, he knew that his sons' act justified their severe punishment. For one must not innovate except on a firm basis of conserving. Refreshing and freely creating are important of themselves, but one must not exceed the bounds of a divine command in their name. Offering incense and mounting the lamps in the lampstand are an important part in worshipping the Lord; precisely for this reason one must not break the bounds of the tradition and introduce any changes in these details. And so, "Aaron was silent." Silence, as we know, is a very important moral and religious value in Jewish sources, but here we have another value of no lesser importance: innovating and taking creative initiative, but only within the bounds of tradition.

By way of example in our own times, Israel Independence Day also embodies this fundamental tension between conserving and innovating. The Rabbis saw a challenge in this day: how to express the outburst of religious sentiment in the wake of the clear act of Divine Providence within the bounds of conservatism and tradition? The prayers and rituals for Independence Day that have been established by the Chief Rabbinate are an attempt --actually, an ongoing attempt--at incorporating tradition with innovation. In respect to this holiday we certainly could make us of Aaron's good characteristics: combining tradition, innovation and peacemaking.

Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.