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Beginning the spiritual conversation
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Beginning the spiritual conversation

Yitro — Exodus 18:1-20:23

When the Torah scroll is raised after it has been read during the synagogue service, the congregation chants “‘v’zot haTorah asher sam Moshe lifnei b’nei Yisrael al pi Adonai b’yad Moshe” (“This is the Torah that Moses set before the Israelites by the command of Adonai through Moses). Is that statement truly believed?”

Before you assume that this is the provocative probing of an agnostic, a skeptic, or an apikoros, this quotation and question can be found in the back of the Conservative Etz Hayyim Humash, posed by Jacob Milgrom.

Whether one is a secular, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Modern Orthodox Jew, it is impossible not to be engaged with the complex and often confusing problem modernity has handed us: Knowing what we know from contemporary study of the Bible, in particular the Torah, in what sense, if any, can we believe that “v’zot haTorah asher sam Moshe lifnei b’nei Yisrael al pi Adonai, b’yad Moshe”?

From the traditional affirmation that the Torah itself contains God’s direct communication comes the classically compelling case for complying with the commandments that derive from both the Written Torah and what the rabbis later identified as the Oral Torah.

But if there is anything that differentiates contemporary Judaism from its pre-modern incarnations, surely it is the awareness that the tradition and the foundational texts of the tradition, such as the Torah, are not the product of a literal and timeless revelation from God that have been preserved and transmitted without change from Sinai.

We know the Torah is the result of centuries of literary and spiritual development, embodied in various voices that have been brought together by anonymous spiritual giants whose editorial acumen continues to dazzle us.

But given this, can we still affirm a connection between the idea of revelation and the acceptance of the Torah as a humanly constructed and historically developed document?

In his essay in Etz Hayyim Humash, Rabbi Elliot Dorff suggests ways contemporary Jewish thinkers have tried to retain the concept of revelation, while accepting the conclusions of modern biblical scholarship:

  • “Some,” Dorff writes, “conceive of revelation as God communicating with us in actual words.” The Torah is a record of what God said to us.
  • “Others believe that God, over time, inspires specific individuals, who then translate that inspiration into human language. Revelation thus consists of both a divine and a human component.” The Torah is a record of what God said to us and what we said back to God.
  • “Still others conceive of revelation as the human response to encounters with God.” The Torah is the record of how (they) (we) reacted or responded to the real presence of God — it is God’s self that is revelation, not the content of God’s communication.
  • Finally, there are “the rationalists,” who “conceive of revelation as the ongoing human attempts to discover truths about God and the world.” The Torah is what our ancestors said about God.

But if the entire Torah is not the word of God, those who assert that the word of God is (still) in the Torah, the decision about which words are God’s and which are the words of our ancestors is a subjective decision, one that each Jew must make on her or his own. And once we take on the burden, right, obligation, or opportunity — through whatever combination of faith and reason — to decide which words are God’s (and which are human), we have moved a significant distance from what revelation once was assumed to mean.

“God said it, I believe it, that settles it” may be fine for a bumper sticker, but it hardly substitutes for a mature and wise encounter with the subtleties and majesties of our inherited religious traditions. In a world increasingly threatened on so many fronts by religious fundamentalism, from the perverted piety of terrorists to the smarmy smugness of the warriors of cultural conservatism, we might do well to inject some humility and tentativeness into our religious conversations about what God allegedly did, said, or wants.

For generations, our sacred texts have been understood as the definitive statements of what God said, of what God wants of us, and of what we are expected to do in response to God. For better or worse, with embrace or anxiety, with enthusiasm or grudgingly, we have landed in the time in Jewish history when the old assumptions are now inverted: Our sacred texts, most notably the Torah, turn out to be not the end of the matter, but rather the place from which sustained, passionate, and productive spiritual conversation now begins.

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