On this Rosh Hashanah, 5778, what are the greatest challenges facing our generation as Jews and as Americans? Is it the rise of anti-Semitism? Is it the Palestinians or ISIS? Is it intermarriage? While these issues may feel like existential threats, I believe the greatest threat that faces us is Jewish illiteracy and indifference.
Most of us could list all of the negative incidents and canards leveled against Jews and Israel, but many of us would be hard-pressed to list the most significant transformative moments, ideas, and events in Jewish history. We know more about those who have sought to destroy us than about the philosophers, poets, activists, and visionaries who have helped to form and shape our heritage.
When I ask 13-year-olds and their parents why becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is important to them, they most often respond – because it’s “tradition.” At times of celebration and grief congregants want to return to “tradition.” But what does it mean?
Tevya, in Fiddler, sang about the passing of tradition. Even he didn’t realize that that is what tradition is all about, “passing on.” The Hebrew term masoret and the Latin word traditio, both mean to “pass on.” Today, we’ll talk about the substance and meaning of the Torah tradition.
This is how the ancient sages expressed it in the opening words of the Mishnah, the earliest record of Judaism after the Bible:
“Moses received Torah at Sinai;
he passed it on to Joshua;
Joshua passed it on to the elders;
The elders to the prophets;
And the prophets passed it on to the teachers of the Great Assembly.(Pirke Avot 1:1)
This Torah or “teaching” refers primarily to the first 5 books of the Bible. But “Torah” also means an entire process of interpretation and transmission. And so, Judaism speaks of two Torahs:
Torah sh’biktav, the “Written Torah” which he have in the scroll;
And Torah sh’b’alpe, the “Oral or Spoken Torah,” the ongoing teaching, the moral, cultural, legal, and spiritual traditions that unfold from the written Torah.
Torah is not static; it is passed on. It is handed from parents to children, teachers to disciples, not in frozen form, but fluid, enriched, changed, interpreted, alive. The ancient rabbis imaginatively taught:
When Moses ascended the mountain, he found the Holy Blessed One occupied in attaching little decorations or crowns to the letters of the Torah.
Moses asked G-d; “Master of the Universe, why are You drawing those crowns?”
G-d replied, “Someday in the future, a man named Akiva ben Joseph will appear, and he will be able to make heaps of interpretations based on these little crowns.”
“Moses said, “Let me see him.”
“Turn around,” G-d said.
Moses then found himself in Rabbi Akiva’s academy and took a seat in the back to listen to the class. But he was unable to understand [a word of] what was going on, and he was distressed.
Finally, a certain subject came up and the students asked Akiva, “How do you know this?” and Akiva replied, “This is Torah, from Moses on Sinai.” And Moses was comforted… (Talmud, Menahot 29b)
Moses could not understand Rabbi Akiva’s teaching, his interpretation and transmission of Torah. There was a generation gap, at least a thousand year gap. Was Rabbi Akiva destroying the Torah or preserving it?
Torah is synonymous with Judaism. The word Judaism is of recent vintage. Our ancestors spoke simply of the Life of Torah – a dynamic, unfolding, ongoing conversation between the generations. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, taught that Judaism or Torah is the “evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people,” the sum total of the Jewish experience. As a civilization, Judaism includes history, law, language, literature, music, poetry, art, rituals, folkways, standards for personal and social ethics or morality, spiritual ideas, aesthetic values. This Torah, this tradition, is evolving, growing, dynamic – not static. It is diverse, pluralistic, complex – not monolithic.
The Prophet Jeremiah taught, “Is not My word like fire, says the Eternal, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” When the hammer strikes the rock, sparks fly. Many sparks. The meanings and possibilities of Torah are myriad. Our sages envisioned the enlightenment of Torah as spectacular as a fireworks display on July 4th.
The Jewish tradition was never interested in finding the “true” meaning of Torah, but rather, exploring the many truths of Torah. When the rabbis argued respectfully about a text, even if they disagreed among themselves, the judgment would be, “Elu v’elu divrei Elokim hayim” – “both these and these are the words of the living G-d.” While in Christianity, “the Word became flesh,” in Judaism the Word becomes more words and more words! We flesh out the words for ever-new meanings and possibilities.
There’s an ancient story in the Talmud of how, once, in the midst of a very intense debate in the academy, a series of miraculous interventions seemed to support the opinion of one sage, Rabbi Eliezer, over the other, Rabbi Joshua. Even a divine voice was heard in favor of Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion. Rabbi Joshua rose to his feet and proclaimed, “Lo B’Shamayim Hi!” – “The Torah is not in the heavens!” quoting Torah back to G-d. He meant that the Torah has been given to flesh and blood. G-d, please stay out of the argument! The decisions are now left up to humanity. And what about G-d? The Talmud comments, “G-d was pleased and said, ‘my children netzachuni,’” which means both “my children have defeated me” and “my children have made me eternal.” Under the auspices of the great rabbis and sages, Judaism became the human charge, the endeavor of the community.
A 18th century Polish mystic, Rabbi Isaac Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin, said that, “the Torah must be interpreted and reinterpreted in every generation, in every land, in light of new and changing circumstances. Just as we are G-d’s partners in completing the creation of the world (Shabbat 119b), so are we G-d’s partners in continuing the evolving understanding of Torah and halacha, of teaching and law.” This was not a revolution; rather, it was an accurate rendering of Jewish tradition. We are beckoned to wrestle with the Torah and to maintain its relevance in every generation.
While in the Orthodox understanding, the entire written Torah is deemed the revealed word of G-d, some Conservative modernists question whether the Torah was literally revealed, and regard the Sinai event as the encounter which inspired the writing of Torah in subsequent generations. Among the Reform, there are those who believe that only the moral, and not the ritual law, is divinely inspired. Reconstructionists and other progressive Jews reverse the process, and instead of claiming that “G-d gave the Torah to Israel,” we affirm that Israel, in its quest for G-d, creates Torah. Torah is not the last word; it is the first word. The story continues to be written and we are its authors.
To our ancestors, Torah was eternal, primordial, the blueprint G-d consulted in creating the world. It was true and alive for all times, with no beginning and no end. The ancient rabbis taught, “There is no before or after in the Torah.” Chronology melts away in its letters. We are the before and the after; we are the descendants and the ancestors; the receivers and the transmitters; the learners and the teachers; the question and the answer…and the question…
That is perhaps why we read it from a scroll, we roll it forward and backward, backward and forward again. The scroll is a work of art, but the Torah is not a museum piece, an heirloom that we tuck into the Ark and bring out to admire; something fragile we guard, and protect, and safely hide away. No! Torah is the living word which we treasure and carry and touch and kiss, we dance and rejoice with it, we roll and read and chant and learn and teach it.
Torah, tradition, is the circle of life, renewing itself like the seasons, in the constant flow of what was, what is, and what yet shall be. Let us write ourselves, let us be and become part of the ancient yet ever-renewing cycle of Torah, our Tree of Life. When we return the scrolls to the Ark we sing the words, eitz chayim hi lamachazikim ba…”She is a tree of life for them that grasp it. Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths lead to peace.”