Friday, May 29, 2020

Renewing and Reinterpreting Torah

People often think that the Torah provides an exact guide for leading a Jewish life. This is simply not the case. They say as well, “Herein one finds the 613 mitzvot—commandments.” Again, although these mitzvot are derived from the five books of Moses, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, they are not arranged there in numerical fashion. Long ago the rabbis said there were 613 commandments, but it was not clear how they derived this number. It was not until the medieval period that commentators started enumerating this list.

And here is another surprise. Each of these commentators’ lists are organized in different manners. The details are not exactly the same. It’s not that there is debate over whether or not Shabbat observance is a mitzvah, it is instead how many commandments are contained therein or what number it occupies the list. Does one begin the list with the first chapter of Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply” or instead with the first positive commandment: “Believe in God?” We are dependent on a body of interpretation, and generations of interpreters, in order to give us the detailed instructions, and laws, that we call Judaism.

The Torah does not describe Jewish observance and belief. It is instead the groundwork upon which we build, and continue to construct, our tradition. We are not fundamentalists. We do not point to the Torah, or the Hebrew Bible, for that matter, and say, “This is exactly how we should do things.” Otherwise, to cite one obvious example, we would be sacrificing animals rather than reciting the Shema and Amidah.

What makes us Jews more than anything else is Talmud Torah, the study of Torah. We pore over the Torah’s words in order to glimpse what God wants of us. We gain mere glimmers. These truths are refracted through millennia of interpretations. The glasses through which we look are those of preceding generations of interpreters. We continue to interpret in our own day. We look through these glasses not at them.

On this holiday of Shavuot, we renew our commitment to Torah. It’s not so much the book but the study of Torah that makes us Jews and continues to give us Judaism. And that more than anything else is what we celebrate on this holiday. If we are not sitting around the table—even if this year, it is a virtual table—and debating the Torah’s verses and words we are not renewing our Jewish faith.

Rabbi Yehoshua, a great sage, once said: “There cannot be a beit midrash (study hall) without a hiddush (novel idea).” (Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 3a).

Our holy task is to study and forever come up with new and innovative ideas. These only emerge when we go over the Torah’s words—together.

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