As I’ve mentioned on this blog, my husband and I both come from a Reform Jewish background, though we’ve taken other spiritual paths since then. This weekend we attended Shabbat and Bar Mitzvah services for one of his relatives at a temple in New York City. The service leaders’ joyful reverence for the Torah, coupled with their apparent comfort at reinterpreting it to emphasize modern progressive values, made me think that Christians who wrestle with the question of Biblical authority could learn something from our Jewish heritage.
In synagogues, the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures), handwritten in Hebrew on a scroll of parchment, is kept in a sanctuary behind closed doors or curtains at the front of the worship space. The scroll is covered with a fancy cloth casing and sometimes also adorned with ornaments. At a certain point in the liturgy, the clergy open up the sanctuary, and everyone bows and sings songs of reverence to the Torah. During Saturday morning services, the rabbi takes out the scroll and parades it around the sanctuary for the people to touch with their prayerbook or the hem of their prayer shawl. It’s not unlike the Catholics’ display of the Host in the monstrance. The object itself is beloved, physically transmitting the presence of God and connecting today’s worshippers to past and future generations.
As the service leaders dressed and undressed the Torah in its velvet wrapper and necklaces of silver crowns, I was reminded of Hindus presenting jewelry, clothing, and food to the statues of their gods. This tender relationship with inanimate objects, sincere as a child with a doll, could be called idolatrous by purists and delusional by skeptics, but to me it appears as an opportunity to re-enchant the world, taking the risk of saying that we perceive the unseen God immanent in all things.
The Jews love the Torah in part because it represents their improbable survival. The Torah has been the center of a distinctive identity that resisted thousands of years of persecution and temptation to assimilate.
But what about the Torah is most meaningful and relevant today? For this congregation, the emphasis was on the ethical ideals of caring for the stranger, the orphan, the poor, and the natural resources that we share. Unselfishness, humility, empathy, responsibility for one another: these were the qualities that Jesus, too, chose to foreground from his own Jewish heritage.
The thing is, though, you have to do some pretty heavy interpreting to play up the universal and rational aspects of the Torah to the exclusion of the tribal and ritual ones. I didn’t sense that anyone was agonizing about the delicious crabcakes and shrimp sushi that we enjoyed at the bar mitzvah boy’s reception. Nor do I think we should. Still, it was hard to reconcile that freedom with the day’s parsha (weekly Torah portion) from Deuteronomy 26-29, in which God warns of the horrifying atrocities the Hebrews will experience at the hands of foreign invaders if they don’t keep the Law of Moses.
The key may be that Jews have always been more comfortable than Protestants with admitting — even celebrating — the role of interpretation in our relationship with the sacred text. One theory retroactively confers divinely inspired status on all future rabbinic interpretations (Talmud and so forth); these too were given at Sinai, the legend goes, but only revealed to us in stages. After all, we have to exist in linear time, but God transcends it. The Torah and its interpretations could be considered the “still point” (in T.S. Eliot’s words) where time and timelessness meet.
As someone who had no Jewish education, I have found the centrality of Hebrew in Jewish worship services to be a barrier to full engagement. I can see how this set-up could also lead people to compartmentalize Torah, not seeing it as a relevant standard for their weekday behavior. On the other hand, being continually presented with the foreignness of the text, Jews have to be more honest about the role of interpretation in every reading. Contrast this to Protestant fundamentalists who behave as if the King James Version had been handed to them by God in leather-bound volumes.
I welcome commentary from readers who are more familiar with Jewish theological practices. Have you found rabbinic styles of interpretation to be freeing and illuminating? Have you seen the Torah updated for modern values in a convincing way?