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Va'ethanan 5782 - Transparency in Knowledge is Power

August 13, 2022 - 16 Av, 5782

Did you know - in a kosher kitchen, you may use glass dishes for either meat or dairy and simply wash them in between uses? Also, if you happen to eat cold dairy on a meat dish or cold meat on a dairy dish, the dish and food are still considered kosher. If a piece of cold meat accidentally touches a piece of cold cheese in your fridge, you can just cut a bit off of the meat and cheese for both to be considered kosher again. Each time the esteemed Rabbi Joel Roth would teach his rabbinical students one of these leniencies, he would follow his words with the statement: “But don’t tell anyone!” The otherwise brilliant Rabbi Joel Roth was afraid that if we told our congregants, our statements would trigger a slippery slope. If the Jewish people only knew these leniencies, Rabbi Roth reasoned, they would take every possible leniency, abandoning halakhah (Jewish law) altogether! Even worse, these leniencies may be too complicated for the average Jew to understand, and therefore, make halakhah even less accessible! According to Rabbi Roth, some modicum of ignorance is bliss.

With all due respect to one of the most dedicated, prolific halakhists of our time, I disagree with Rabbi Roth. Especially as outlined in Parashat Vaethanan, our Jewish tradition demands not only knowledge, but transparency and communication of that knowledge. The more people learn about the reasons behind our Jewish law, the more people have reasons to practice. The more people learn about the leniencies in Jewish practice, the more aware our people are that making little mistakes doesn’t ruin everything. The more Jews know, the more accessible and grounded in real, every-day life their Judaism can become.

Throughout Parashat Vaethanan, the parashah in which we experience both the Ten Commandments and the Sh’ma, the verbal roots for knowing (י–ד–ע) and learning (ל–מ–ד) proliferate. Again and again, we are told to teach our children about God’s words (Deut. 4:10, 6:7). We are told to listen to God’s words so that we may learn (4:10), perform God’s commandments (5:1), keep our Holy Land (6:1), and live a long life (6:3). That limud and da’at, learning and knowledge, has implications for our Jewish future, our every-day actions, the place we inhabit, and our overall well-being. Perhaps the most memorable use of one of these verbs in our parashah is in Deuteronomy 4:39:

וידעת היום והשבת אל לבבך כי ה׳ הוא האלהים בשמים ממעל ועל הארץ מתחת אין עוד

And you shall know today and you shall return to your heart, as Adonai is the God in the heavens above and on the earth below - there is no other [or…there is no more…nothing else…]

Ultimately, the more we know about our Jewish tradition, the more we develop our awareness of the unity of everything and everyone that is; all are created by the same God, no exceptions.

Knowledge is certainly power, but not if we keep it to ourselves. The more people know, the greater and more informed our choices and their greater and more diverse our access to resources. The more we know, the more we are aware how much we do not and cannot know; therefore, the greater our humility.

Of course, the power of transparency in knowledge extends far beyond Jewish law and practice. As we have gone through the hiring process for Office Manager, Kitchen Manager, and a cleaner for our synagogue space, we have encountered the challenges and benefits of transparency when deciding on numbers of hours, rates of pay, and policy behind holidays. Because we know we cannot morally keep such details secret if employees choose to share or find out because of the nature of their jobs, we have had to shape our policies with special attention to fairness and equity. 

Similarly, the more we make sure our wider community knows about wage standards and public policy, the more access they have to the opportunities they need. Hearkening back to v’shinantam l’vanekha v’dibarta bam, “and sharpen them to your children and speak of them,” when we make the choice to invest in education, whether our own or that of our wider community, we enhance access to even more of those opportunities. And when we make sure our education system exposes our children to multiple viewpoints and lifestyles, we give them a wealth of experiences to influence their future journeys and relationships. We cannot use arguments of “slippery slope” or “don’t upset or confuse the kids” as excuses to hold back knowledge. Whether personally or professionally, whenever we feel the impulse to hold back important information, we must think twice about the opportunities we potentially withhold.

Very soon after I joined Agudath Achim, I learned that I would perpetually have a pile of articles and books on my desk that had been handed to me by the wonderful people in this room. Half of my inbox would be blog posts about the present and future of Judaism, from a variety of perspectives. Whenever you find an author who enhances your viewpoint or a resource you know will be helpful to our community, you share it with me, and I assume, with everyone else you know. You are already doing the work of sharing your knowledge with clarity and transparency. Your next step, then, is to find someone - an individual or a population - with whom you are not yet sharing your wisdom. Even with all of the humility that knowledge gives us, each person in this room has a wealth of resources, opinions, and information that can benefit more lives than we may imagine. And of course, when we reach out, when we research ways we can spread our knowledge, we can gain all the more knowledge to bring back to our own lives, as well. Shabbat Shalom. 

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784