The Grand Debate
Let me explore a fantastical and enigmatic story in the Talmud.
Some 1900 years ago, during the first century CE, only a few years after the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE, a great debate took place between the Jews and the Greeks.
The Talmud recounts the fascinating confrontation that occurred between the Wise Men of Athens and the great sage of Israel, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya. Athens was known in the ancient world as the seat of wisdom and philosophy, and its sages saw themselves as the representatives of progressive thinking. Amongst the sages of Israel, Rabbi Yehoshua stood out as the sharpest and most quick-witted, a fearsome debater and a brilliant scholar, though to earn a livelihood he would sell charcoal.
He was a Levite who played music back in the Second Temple (the Levites would perform a daily morning concerto in the Temple), and witnessed its destruction. In the following decades, one of the worst periods in all of our history, Rabbi Yehoshua served as the most prominent spokesman for Judaism.
When the Roman Caesar demanded to test who was wiser—the Jews or the Greek philosophers—Rabbi Yehoshua was the clear choice to represent the Torah of Israel.
A Conflict of Riddles
Sixty sages of Athens challenged the lone Jewish sage and the battle of wits began. The Talmud records the back and forth dialogue between these sages, that took the form of a cryptic exchange of riddles. The Athenian scholars would throw a challenge in front of Rabbi Yehoshua, and the Jewish sage would come back with an answer each time, usually in the form of a counter-question. Part of the exchange went like this.
בכורות ח, ב: ורצוצא דמית מהיכא נפיק רוחיה? מהיכא דעל נפק.
The sages of Athens asked: "If a chick dies while in the egg, before the egg is hatched [and it is sealed from all sides], from where does its soul escape?" Rabbi Yehoshua's response: "The soul escapes through the same place it entered [into the sealed egg]."
Here is another one:
משרא דסכיני במאי קטלי? בקרנא דחמרא! ומי איכא קרנא לחמרא? ומי איכא משרא דסכיני?
They further asked, "How do you harvest a field of knives?” Rabbi Yehoshua answered: "You use a donkey's horn." The elders: "But donkeys do not have horns!" Rabbi Yehoshua: "And knives do not grow in fields!"
Each one of these exchanges—and there were many of them—begs explanation. What do these bizarre questions really mean, and what lies behind the answers?
The various Talmudic commentaries agree that the conversations between the Rabbi and the Greeks were allegorical. They were discussing lofty issues of the spirit, the meaning of life and death, G-d's role in the universe, human destiny, the meaning of existence, the concept of the “chosen people,” the cardinal principles of Judaism. They spoke in symbolic terms.
Today I want to discuss the one of their other seemingly absurd exchanges.
מילחא כי סריא, במאי מלחי לה? אמר להו בסילתא דכודניתא. ומי איכא סילתא לכודנתא? ומילחא מי סרי?
They asked him, "When salt gets spoiled, what do we use to preserve it?" His response: "We use the afterbirth of a mule." (This is the embryonic sac which shelters and preserves the developing fetus.) "Do mules have an afterbirth?" they asked. [A mule cannot give birth.] "Does salt spoil?" he retorted.
Is this an intelligent conversation between the representatives of the house of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, with the representative of Judaism?
In truth, this exchange symbolized a profound debate—one that endured for thousands of years and continues to this very day. It deals with the important question: What is the relevance of Torah and Judaism in the modern world?
Time to Update the Religion
When the Elders of Athens spoke about salt, they were referring to Torah, the preservative of the Jewish People. They considered this preservative to be spoiled; they argued that it had become rancid, obsolete and irrelevant.
Judaism, the Greeks maintained, was old; it needed a tune-up. After all, those were the glorious days of Greek culture, and even many Jews were seeing the Torah as being old-fashioned. Rather than observe Shabbos, they wanted to join the Greek Gymnasiums. Rather than study Torah, they wanted to study Greek philosophy. Rather than sit in a Sukkah, shake a lulav or put on tefilin and daven, they gravitated to Zeus and Olympus, to Homer and Plato.
It was time, said the Elders of Athens, to alter Judaism to ensure its popularity. Judaism was ready for an upgrade, to make it more fresh, exciting and relevant to a new age inspired by Greek esthetics, philosophy, culture, athleticism, art, drama and literature. Mikvah, tefilin, kosher, Torah study, Torah education, Shabbos candles, Mezuzah, a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah, crunchy matzah, the laws of modesty, and the 613 Mitzvos of Torah would not cut it. In one word, the salt needs to be salted.
Rabbi Yehoshua replied that they should use the afterbirth of a mule. It was a brilliant reply. What is a mule? The hybrid offspring of a female horse and a male donkey. At first sight, a mule seems like an awesome animal: it is strong, sure-footed, more resistant to disease, and long-lived. By taking elements of the donkey and of the horse, we seem to have the best of both worlds. It has been claimed that mules are "more patient, sure-footed, hardy and long-lived than horses, and they are considered less obstinate, faster, and more intelligent than donkeys." What a powerful combination. It’s just like a Hellenized, modernized Judaism – hybridizing the two cultures in order to have the best of both worlds.
But mules can’t breed; they are sterile.
Rabbi Yehoshua was conveying this message: If you try to alter Judaism, to “update” it and combine it with the latest fads, it will look great, it will doubtless be popular, the new show in town. But it won’t endure. It’s not authentic and it can’t perpetuate. When the sages of Athens explained to him that mules are sterile, Rabbi Yehousha responded, that salt cannot go rancid. Torah, the preservative of the Jewish People, will continue to preserve them, as long as it is left pure and unadulterated.
Torah is salt and salt does not get rancid. It will endure forever, because it is rooted in the source of all life and history. Torah is always relevant because its truths span and pervade all cultures, milieus, and circumstances. When we attempt to present a new Judaism, less ancient and more modern, it may be appealing for the short term, but it will prove sterile in the long term. It will not last. The grandchildren will be lost.
Who was right?
1900 years later, we know the answer. Samuel Clemens, popularly known as Mark Twain, famously wrote: "The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, and then passed away. The Greek and the Roman followed. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?"
What is more, all movements within Judaism which have advocated (as a philosophy) that we alter the Torah and its mitzvos, in order to make it more appealing to the youth, have proved sterile. Perhaps they had good intentions, they wanted to preserve Judaism, but their preservatives have proven counter-productive: You don’t try to preserve salt with superficial preservatives. Salt itself is its own best preservative!
The secret of Judaism lay not in the fact that it addresses the fad of the day, that it accommodates the political sentiment of the hour; the true power of Judaism lay in the fact that it addresses the transcendent needs, yearnings and passions of the human being, truths that transcend a particular time or location; aspirations that are eternal.
Shabbas refreshed souls and sanctified homes 3,000 years ago, and it still does so today; tefilin synchronized minds and hearts to our mission in life 2000 years ago and it still does so today; mikvah gave intimacy its holiness and freshness 1000 years ago, it still does so today; Torah study gave moral vision and spiritual inspiration 500 years ago, it still does so today.
When I put on tefillin in the morning, I know that these very same tefillin were donned by Jews in Eretz Israel in 1200 BCE; by Jews in Babylonia in 500 BCE; by Jews in Iran in 100 CE; by Jews in Spain in 1000; by Jews in Poland and Austria in 1600; by my great-great-grandparents in Russia in 1850; and by millions of Jews from Sydney to Los Angeles in 2018.
If Moses enters New York today, he will recognize almost nothing. It’s a new world. If he enters our shul today, he will be familiar with so much: the same mezuzah, the same tefillin, the same talis, the same Torah scroll, the same Sukkah, the same shofar, the same lulav and esrog; 3,330 years, and the same Torah that Moses taught his people, we are teaching our children.
The Story of Henryk-Abraham
Henryk was very young in 1945, when the War ended and solitary survivors tried frantically to trace their relatives. He had spent what seemed to be most of his life with his nanny, who had hidden him away from the Nazis at his father's request. There was great personal risk involved, but the woman had readily taken it, as she loved the boy.
Henryk's nanny did not imagine that the father, Joseph Foxman, would survive the destruction of the Vilna Ghetto. He would surely have been transferred to Auschwitz — and everyone knew that nobody ever came back from Auschwitz. She therefore had no scruples about adopting the boy, having him baptized into the Catholic Church and taught catechism by the local priest.
The nanny saved his life—but also taught him to spit on the ground when a Jew walked by.
It was Simchat Torah when his father came to take him. The heartbroken nanny had packed all his clothing and his small catechism book, stressing to the father that the boy had become a good Catholic. Joseph Foxman took his son by the hand and led him directly to the Great Synagogue of Vilna. On the way, he told his son that he was a Jew and that his name was Avraham.
Not far from the house, they passed the church and the boy reverently crossed himself, causing his father great anguish. Just then, a priest emerged who knew the boy, and when Henryk rushed over to kiss his hand, the priest spoke to him, reminding him of his Catholic faith.
Everything inside of Joseph wanted to drag his son away from the priest and from the church. But he knew that this was not the way to do things. He nodded to the priest, holding his son more closely. After all, these people had harbored his child and saved the child's life. He had to show his son a living Judaism.
They entered the Great Synagogue of Vilna, now a remnant of a past era. There they found some Jewish survivors from Auschwitz who had made their way back to Vilna and were now rebuilding their lives. Amid the stark reality of their suffering, in much diminished numbers, they were singing and dancing on Simchat Torah.
Only 3,000 of Vilna's 100,000 Jews remained.
Avraham stared wide-eyed around him and picked up a tattered prayer book with a touch of affection. Something deep inside of him responded to the atmosphere, and he was happy to be there with the father he barely knew. He held back, though, from joining the dancing.
A Jewish man wearing a Soviet Army uniform could not take his eyes off the boy, and he came over to Joseph. "Is this child Jewish?" he asked, a touch of awe in his voice.
The father answered that the boy was Jewish and introduced his son. As the soldier stared at Henryk-Avraham, he fought to hold back tears. "Over these four terrible years, I have traveled thousands of miles, and this is the first live Jewish child I have come across in all this time. They were all murdered. This is the first live Jewish child I have come across in all these years... Would you like to dance with me on my shoulders?" he asked the boy, who was staring back at him, fascinated.
The father nodded permission, and the soldier hoisted the boy high onto his shoulders. With tears now coursing down his cheeks and a heart full of real joy, the soldier joined in the dancing.
"This is my Torah scroll," he cried, as he danced with the five year old Jewish boy.
The Abraham in our story came to be known as Abe Foxman (who is 78 today), the former national director of the Anti-Defamation League and presently serves as the head of the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.
But this is not the end of the story.
For 65 years, the boy and the soldier carried that moment in their hearts. Unknown to each other, they told the story to family and friends.
But then something happened. The Jewish composer Abie Rotenberg put together a song, "The Man from Vilna," about the story. Foxman heard the song and he learned that the Jewish Soviet soldier was a man named Goldman, still alive and living in the United States.
In 2010, they met and embraced for the first time since 1945. As it turns out, the Soviet soldier was Rabbi Dr. Leo Goldman from Oak Park, Detroit, an Orthodox rabbi and an educator, who died in December of 2013 at the age of 94.
The two men hugged and recited the blessing of “Shecheyanu vekeymanu veheganu lizman hazeh.”
Dance With Your Children
On Simchas Torah, we hold the Torah and dance. In a world where every fad turns into a mule, we celebrate the “salt” which never grows old, sour or rancid.
We are not in Vilna in 1945. We are, thank G-d, living in freedom. Abe Foxman’s life was changed because of that single dance. We ought not to deprive our children of that dance.
This Simchas Torah, lift up your children—or your friend’s children—or your grandchildren on your shoulders and dance with them. Dance with millions of Jews the world over, who will celebrate the Divine gift of Torah which becomes more fresh, relevant, and exciting each year.
Don’t let the ultimate preservative of history slip through your fingers.
 Bechoros 8b
 Talmud Berachos 28a
 Talmud Erkin 11
 See Talmud Chagigah 5b
 The following explanation is based on Maharsha to Bechoros 8b and Sefer Dorash Moshe derush 32. Cf. Chidushei Agados Maharal, Perus HaGra, and Likkutei Mahran for alternative explanations to this exhchange.