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The Importance of Tradition – The Danger of Innovation

March 15, 2011 – 7:47 pm6 Comments

The "770" replica in St Kilda East, Melbourne.

By Geoff Bloch

We have recently completed reading the Book of Exodus. The Book begins with the dramatic narrative of our enslavement in Egypt, our redemption, the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the 10 commandments. But the last 5 sidrot primarily concern the Mishkan, the tabernacle constructed in the wilderness as an abode for the Divine Presence. Almost half the Book of Exodus records its construction in precise and painstaking detail, including all the required materials, quantities, weights and measures. These details are given not once, but twice, as the Torah first records God’s plans and specifications and then records the actual construction process itself. Why? Is the answer relevant in our day?

Before attempting to answer this question, it is informative to focus on one of the most inexplicable events in Jewish history, namely the sin of the golden calf, which is recorded in the third last sidra of the Book of Exodus. How could it be that so soon after the revelation at Sinai, the Children of Israel lapsed into idolatry? After all, our sages tell us that every man and woman heard the first two commandments directly from God and that they attained a sublime level of spirituality never since equalled. Having seen what they saw in Egypt, having witnessed, on a daily basis, miracles which brought about their salvation and having seen, heard and participated at Sinai, it beggars belief that the Children of Israel could descend so rapidly and so completely. Yet the traditional interpretation is that the Children of Israel worshipped the golden calf and thus engaged in idolatry. Was the sin of the golden calf idolatry or was the golden calf the physical manifestation of another and, if so, what sin?

Chapters 1 and 10 of Ezekiel describe the prophet’s visions of the “ofanim” (angelic or heavenly creatures). In chapter 1, the ofanim are described as having four faces – the face of a man, the face of a lion, the face of an ox and the face of an eagle. However, in chapter 10, the four faces are described as the face of a cherub, the face of a man, the face of a lion and the face of an eagle. Note the two differences. The word “cherub” is substituted for “ox” and the order is changed as if to highlight the substitution. Could it therefore be that a cherub had the appearance of an ox? Were the two cherubs, which God commanded be cast in gold and placed on the cover of the Holy Ark, in fact two golden calves?!

Perhaps the Children of Israel, far from descending to idolatry, indeed retained their sublime level of spirituality and fashioned a cherub – a golden calf – intending it to be a physical and refined expression of their spirituality, believing it to be consonant with God’s commandment to fashion cherubs. The sin of the golden calf may have less to do with idolatry and more to do with expressing or manifesting a love of God in a way not sanctioned by God. This, indeed, is the view of the Kuzari (1:97:5-9).

Like father, like son. Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, repeated their father’s transgression. They, too, sought to serve God in a manner asher lo tziva otam – which He had not sanctioned – and they received the ultimate punishment.

This perhaps gives some insight as to why the details for the construction of the Mishkan occupy such a significant part of Scripture. It is the example, par excellence, of the principle that the manner of serving God must only be as He has decreed, namely by performing the mitzvot. Nothing more, nothing less.

Returning, then, to the question posed at the outset: Is this lesson relevant in our day?

As justification for all manner of modern behaviour, we constantly hear that we are living in a progressive and enlightened age. This is undoubtedly true in certain respects but it is an inevitable and regrettable consequence of this mantra, that many of us develop the hubris to believe that we logically must have the ability to do things better than previous generations. We often do not start from the position of respecting tradition but assume it is our duty to change things and leave our own mark.

While this applies to virtually every field of human endeavour, it applies no less to how we express our spirituality. Here, in Melbourne’s Orthodox Jewish community, one does not have to look far to see examples of how our generation, no doubt with the best of intentions, has either modified traditional rituals and customs or created a physical expression of its spirituality. I hasten to add that I am completely unqualified and hence express no opinion as to whether either of the two examples I will give, as food for thought, crosses the line from what is acceptable to “asher lo tziva otam”.

A building has been constructed in Inkerman Road, which reputedly reproduces, brick for brick (or at least closely resembles), 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, as if there is a kedusha in the architecture of that edifice. While the intentions of those who congregate there are no doubt genuine and wholesome, I wonder whether some of the younger members of that community may draw some inspiration from the outside rather than solely from the Presence listening to them on the inside.

Shira Hadasha is deserving of comment though not necessarily of criticism. Although the paradigm which the founders have sought to emulate may be based on accepted Orthodox or traditional religious principles, I sometimes wonder whether some congregants are actually proud of their obvious diversity and celebrate the unique expression of their spirituality without first having understood that innovation should only ever be undertaken with humility and with the utmost respect and sensitivity for the rituals, customs, traditions and conventions they have decided to modify.

We are approaching the festive season when we re-enact the Exodus at our seder table and, soon afterwards, celebrate the revelation at Sinai. We should rejoice in the miracle that, thousands of years later, the civilised world is founded on the ethics prescribed by our Torah precisely because we have endured as a light unto the nations over the millennia. Jewish continuity, the greatest endeavour this world has seen, has been due to the undeniable fact that our strength lies in protecting, rather than modifying, our traditions and conventions.

Geoffrey Bloch is a Melbourne based barrister.

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  • If congregants are inspired by the local version of “770” because of what it evokes for them, then good for them. In Kiryat Belz in Jerusalem, they built a magnificent Beis Midrash that is almost a replica of the Heichal of the Temple.

    Should people *only* be inspired by the inside of the shul? Surely not!

  • Ari says:


    Of course people can be inspired by architecture, nature, or any other manner of things. The question is whether this crosses the line of what’s accepted. Owning a tree and appreciating its beauty and through it coming to contemplate the glory of G-d’s creation is fine, however viewing the tree as some divine being capable of miracles and etzot and everlasting spiritual life, almost as if it were a god, is, to my mind, highly problematic.
    I’ve heard many Chabadnikim explain away the meshichist tendencies of (some) chabadnikim and rationalise it. However, the fact that something can be explained away does not necessarily exempt the movement that may be seen to encourage the other side of things. In a sense, Geoff’s piece higlighted that idea in connection to the faces of the Ofanim – According to that understanding the people wanted to get closer to G-d and built the image they saw. It can be rationalised but at the end of the day it was the people worshipping a calf of gold.

  • geoff bloch says:

    Hi David. Firstly, you have assumed that Belz’s reproduction of the heichal is unobjectionable and therefore you conclude that the 770 reproduction must therefore also be legitimate. I could say that you have given yet another example of how our generation has created a physical expression of its spirituality which, in essence, is what the golden calf may have been, according to the Kuzari. Secondly, even if one accepts, for the sake of argument, that a reproduction of the heichal of the bet hamikdash is legitimate, that was God’s abode. Are you comfortable with the equation of that place with 770 which, after all, was the abode of mortal man (albeit a gadol hador)? This goes to the root of the question I raised for consideration. I wish to reemphasise that I express no opinion about any of these reproductions but surely we must be extremely careful about fashioning anything physical as a means of drawing inspiration or as an expression of our spirituality, both for the reasons set out in my dvar torah and, because of the injunctions contained in the first 3 of the 10 commandments.

  • David,

    Just a small point: the gigantic synagogue in Kiryat Belz is not a model of the Temple, but of the small synagogue built by the first Belzer Rebbe, the Sar Shalom. That doesn’t change your point at all, I’m sure, but it’s worth mentioning.


    One man’s tradition was another’s innovation. You have closed your article with reference to the seder, not one detail of which has not evolved (in every sense of the word) since the closing of the Talmud. Is innovation so objectionable to you that it can be compared to the sin of the golden calf? What about all of the innovative practises that have entered tradition?

  • Geoff Bloch says:

    Hi Simon.

    Of course there have been innovative practices which have entered the tradition over the centuries. My argument is not that there can never be innovation. I have tried to explain two things. First, why we naturally have an inclination to express our spirituality to reflect our uniqueness. Secondly, why there is an inherent danger in doing so, whether by establishing a new practice, modifying an existing tradition or constructing a physical expression of our spirituality. I have sought to illustrate this danger with reference to the two biblical examples of the golden calf and the eish zara. The simple point to be made is that we had better be certain about the acceptability of any innovation before it is implemented.

  • Anony mous says:

    I was going to point out something in a similar vein to Simon, but I will stress it a bit differently:

    It is very common, if not unavoidable, that in attempting to conserve tradition, one innovates. Perhaps this is due to losing the precise motivation, justification and interpretation of that tradition. In any case it seems that attempted conservation is almost universally an act of change.

    There are obvious examples, like the “traditional” century clothing practices of chasidim (and how these are transposed onto biblical predecessors in children’s books); or the “traditional” white wedding dress; and some things are a little subtler, like the recent halakhic obsession of trying to work out what Moshe Feinstein would have said about something, instead of thinking creatively like Feinstein would have done (I ask: which is more innovative, Feinstein, or his interpretors? Which is more dangerous?).

    There are certainly instances in tradition where big intentional innovations have stuck. A lot of Rabbinic Judaism might indeed fall under that banner.

    But this all begs the question: is it better to innovate by pretending you’re keeping the faith of your forefathers, or to keep the faith by outrightly innovating?

    In any case, history has selected from both.

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