Torah is the iconic representation of the Jewish people. It is the foundation upon which we construct our sense of peoplehood and purposefulness. It defines our direction in life, our very raison d’etre.
If you were to ask a rabbi from Chabad, from the Aleph renewal movement, from a Reconstructionist synagogue, from a modern Orthodox synagogue, from a Reform synagogue – and a few other rabbis thrown in because, why not… — you would get a plethora of definitions for Torah. Some would claim Torah was given by God to Moses on Mt Sinai and that the mitzvot within it are divinely mandated. Some would say that the Torah is a human document, a collection of myth and law and custom that began as oral tradition and was completed in written form after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. Still, others would say that it’s a divinely inspired human document and that the mitzvot within it evolve over time.
Perhaps, in the end, this stark combination of fundamentally disparate definitions of the Torah has to do with its authority in our lives. For some, the interpretation of the Torah through Jewish law determines virtually everything they do. For Reform Jews, the jurisdiction of the Torah is not about God’s command, but our understanding of our moral obligations to each other to ourselves, into the rest of the world.
Today is Shavuot, the holiday that we traditionally observe to celebrate having received the Torah. There aren’t many traditions around this holiday, except for two: staying up all night studying and eating dairy products. Staying up all night and studying is part of a more profound mystical tradition. The dairy products are about envisioning the words of Torah as mother’s milk.
I’m okay with the first custom. But the second one is more problematic, not because I have any problems with digesting lactose. My hard time has to do with looking at words of Torah as being so nurturing. I have been doing Torah studies with adults every week, give or take a summer, for 40 years. And while we have come upon some very nurturing texts, the text overwhelmingly tends to be laconic, obscure, harsh, and occasionally cruel.
The text itself does not provide much in the way of comfort. There’s nothing really warm and yummy about Torah. The part that really makes the difference is the reader in the process of interpreting. The longevity of the Torah is only assured when we accept the challenge of struggling with its contents. We are the ones that have to wrest meaning from it.
The process of meaning-making is an essential component of postmodern Judaism. It challenges us to acknowledge when the tradition strays far from our sense of dignity and compassion. It pushes us to extract the essence of Jewish ethics from the deep thicket of an ancient text.
Over years of Torah study, we have often discussed what the intent of the author might have been, and how we are to respond to that. Sometimes our postmodern sensibilities are deeply offended by what seems to be an utterly insensitive God in a harsh and unforgiving literary context. We always reach this point where we have to jettison how people understood and sometimes continue to follow the text in favor of a new interpretation. We don’t do this lightly. But we do it because we believe that Torah is not a stagnant vestige of long ago. It is as if we resuscitate it every time we open it, every time we embrace it, every time we have to stop and shake our heads, saddened by its omissions and inconsistencies.
Today is Shavuot, a day of gladness. And even as Jews vehemently disagree about what the Torah demands from us, it’s worth noting that when we trace the deepest roots of our understandings, they all lead to the same source. In a world that feels so out of whack, it’s reassuring that we share this foundation of Torah, in all its forms and interpretations.