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At the end of exile comes the cloud, the in-dwelling presence of YHWH, the Shekhinah. It seems a common (if not perhaps universal) human desire for what William James called the MORE, that experience of oneness, of awe, of in-breathing, of breaking down the barriers between self and cosmos. P’kudei continues the long, repetitive description of offerings, processes, plans, and building of the Mishkan/Ohel but the patterns that emerge in the text possibly point to a metaphor for the struggle to draw forth, hamshakhah, the MORE into the everyday world of work and life.

With each passing passage of the accounting of the building materials and of the avodah of construction comes the phrase “as YHWH commanded.” A description of the dedication (chanukah?) of the mishkan through anointing and hallowing the structure, the clothing, and the priests follows the accounting. And the whole sidrah is capped off with the descent of the presence of YHWH to dwell with Israel in “all their journeys.” Here human labor becomes the dwelling place of the divine; work becomes a means to experience the holy; by extension, could this be a way to think of daily labor, daily banal deeds? Or is it limited to the creation of structures and ritual objects? Limited to the priests?

The students of the Maggid took this one step further by seeing the whole thing as a physical manifestation of a spiritual process. While maintaining the historical importance of Israel’s history, the early hasidic rabbis saw in the construction of the Mishkan in the wilderness to end the exile as an allegory for the inner wilderness where the soul wanders, and to the ability of the soul to build its inner mishkan, to labor to create within oneself a space for the divine by constructing a mishkan of mitzvot and the whole Torah, both written and oral. The Orah le-Hayyim taught that the intention of the builders of the Mishkan was so strong that it evoked desire within the Shekhinah to dwell among them; the individual’s intention in doing mitzvot and in studying torah can cause the Shekhinah to dwell within her or him, making the individual a Tabernacle of Testimony.

Rabbi Or Rose teaches that in these passages there is a tension between the Hasidic teaching that the entire earth, all of creation, is filled with the presence of YHWH, but that we must build the mishkan within in order to feel, experience, see that presence. The tension is resolved because the immanence makes the experience possible. But it is only available to us through our own effort to build the mishkan.

I’ve been rereading and studying Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism over the past week for a course I’m teaching on cultural theory. I’m not sure if this is why I focused on the labor themes of the text or not, but I could not help but wonder at the relationship between skill, work, and calling as they are described in the text. Many online commentaries of this parasha zero in on the Shabbat injunctions at the beginning and riff on that, but for me, that’s the least interesting part of the parasha.

In Fox’s translation, a few words and phrases get repeated and associated repeatedly throughout the passage in reference both to the offerings of materials to build the Mishkan and in regards to the workers actually creating it:

  • to raise
  • to lift up
  • to make-willing, to be willing
  • wise mind, wisdom
  • spirit and mind

There is a feeling in the text, in the way that these concepts get repeated over and over in Fox’s translation, that one is impelled to offer (donate) as the words are repeated both for the mind being lifted up to offer and then the individual Hebrew lifting up that offering. There’s a sense of being impelled or called to offer and then that offering is lifted up for the building of the Tabernacle. The same language is then used for the workers who actually build the Mishkan, that their minds are infused with wisdom and have been raised up with wisdom from YHWH to do the work.

The URJ commentary points to the historical existence of Hebrew arts—sculpture, architecture, mosaic, painting, etc.—and explains the historical distancing of the Jews from representational art. But I wondered as I read about the Torah itself which seems to “lift up” artisanship and art and skill in labor and creation as wisdom and as a calling from YHWH, as part of the creative work that humankind must do in relationship with the Divine.

It wasn’t until I looked at the Speaking Torah portion for Vayak’heil that it all came together. The Maggid’s students took these passages and, in a mode of רמז and סוד interpretation give us a mystical, Jewish understanding of labor. Because I’ve been reading about Calvinist readings of labor this week, I feel pushed to distinguish the two, but there is some significant overlap here as well.

In two separate places, the rebbes teach that when we are working in mindfulness of what it means to work as a creation of YHWH, it hallows all work and is a manifestation of humans participating in the ongoing process of creation. The Me’or Eynayim calls this Torah within us, that what impels, motivates, or pushes us to act for good in the world is actually Torah itself, and we are vessels. In the passage describing the work of women on the Mishkan, the T’semah ha-Shem li-Tsevi interprets קל אשה to mean not just merely all the Hebrew women, but rather, all womanhood itself, which would then be the Sh’khinah; here, it is the Sh’kninah that impels or motivates work, and we are the vessels of that cosmic impetus, again participating in ongoing creation.

There is a meditative mindfulness about work here that distinguishes it from the Calvinist concept of “vocation.” Rather than fulfilling one’s earthly role for the sole purpose of the glorification of god, the Rebbes taught that we are co-creators with the divine, that the divine works through us, and that through mindfulness of this dynamic we participate in creation itself. (This dovetails with the chasidic teaching that Betzalel, the chief architect of the Mishkan, was a master of the Hebrew letters who knew how they were used to create the world, and deployed them to create the Mishkan in reflection of the original creation.)

The editors of Speaking Torah contradict the current, extreme versions of chasidism that insist that these passages actually refer to study, so the eschew work and deny the dignity and holiness of the workaday world (a dynamic that has caused significant problems within the state of Israel). They argue that the teachings are clear that the labors of daily life are themselves a sacred activity with the possibility of sacrilizing daily life; in the editors reading, the Me’or Eynayim actually says that mindful work the rest of the week is what actually makes the Shabbat holy.

Whereas Calvinism’s vocation is about holding one’s nose to work in the social structure for the sole purpose of glorifying god, the Maggid’s teachings about work combined with my reading of the parasha see the spirit or mind being implanted with knowledge or skill necessary to participate with Torah/Sh’khinah/YHWH in creation itself. Work, in this way, is an end or process toward unification with Keter, toward the negation of the self in the recognition of the self as vessel for the divine. In the Hayyim v’Hesed, a comparison of Jacob and Moses leads to a teaching that as Moses turned away from the body in his recognition of his own nothingness compared to God, so did Jacob turn toward his body and make it whole and perfect by using it. Because the world is fallen and utterly depraved, this kind of sanctification is not possible in the Calvinist view, and indeed would be blasphemous.

There is a kind of mystical experience, then, associated with everyday work, but it is unclear in the Hayyim v’Hesed (at least in the passage quoted by the editors) whether or not this is an ideal (Moses as exemplar) or a command. But reading deeper, it seems to be rejected by the Rebbes as it is in the banal, every-day world of the body and work that the divine is made present in the world.

That leaves me with several questions at the level of practice. How can mindfulness of the Torah/Sh’khinah working through a human vessel be incorporated into an experience of daily work? And does the nature of the work matter at all? Is all work (all deed?) holy by definition, or can that mindfulness lead you to the realization that your work is not holy or hallowing? If Ya’akov hallowed himself through his embodied working, but if Moshe’s sanctification came from self-negation, then what is the relationship between embodiedness, work, and sanctification of the world (tikkun olam)?

Without You, we are nothing at all. So whatever holiness we call forth, it is really as though You were calling and doing it all. Our mind and strength are entirely Your own. … All our deeds are nothing more than a response to your call. When we turn ourselves toward the good, fulfilling Your pure will, it is just like [You] responding [to Yourself.] — ‘Avodat Yisrael

The confession of undiminished astonishment is rare in a literature that is so used to providing answers and explanations. In the end, we are being told here, they are all worth nothing. All we can do is stand before the mystery—and go on living and following God’s word in this strange world. —Editors, Speaking Torah, Vol. 1 

T’tzaveh continues the instructions regarding the mishkan, but moves to ritual practices and purgations and hallowings (kadesh-ings) of the priests. In several places I read this week the reminder that mishkan and shekhinah share the same Hebrew root (but nowhere did anyone actually give the root). But with a little sleuthing, I found the root שכן, to dwell. It is to the relationship between holiness and in-dwelling, the relationship between the physical (the mishkan) and that which dwells in it (the shekhinah) that I found myself returning to through the week.

The text of the parashat moves quickly and frankly from the ‘eternal light’ of the menorah through the bloody rituals of sacrifice. But nearly all the commentary I found on the text focused almost exclusively either on the imagery of the light of the menorah from the first few verses of the parashat, or an anthropological explanation of the rituals of animal sacrifices and the significance of blood to the ancient Hebrews. On the second count, I found myself wanting more depth and complexity. Clearly, the ancient Hebrews saw blood as something essential, a substance of deep significance in the structure of life and the world as they saw it. And just as clearly, the post-Temple rabbinic tradition has replaced blood and ritual sacrifice with notions of transcendence and in-dwelling. But I want to know more about the ways that such rituals function culturally and the way they are experienced. I suspect there are some good anthropological texts out there that treat such things; I will need to look for them, however.

When I was preparing for the hatafat dam brit, I read several commentaries on the ritual of shedding of blood of convert men, including a book about circumcision called Covenant of Blood by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman. Hoffman’s views are pretty critical of the ways that blood rituals developed from their ancient roots through Rabbinic judaism; and he begins with a willingness for the ancients to be seen as responding to their lived experiences rather than what we moderns might judge as bloodthirstiness or simple wrongheadedness. Yet it was hard for me not to read the passaged about spreading blood around the altar, smearing blood on the priests, and purifying the ground with the blood of animals in terms of its primitiveness, superstition, and violence. One of my teachers, Rabbi Wolf-Prusan taught me that much of what motivated the ancient Hebrews was about the mystery, frustration, and precariousness of embodied living, trying to make sense of life and death, the combination of living consciousness and a mortal body. In that framework, I can read the passage in its context and I can appreciate the significance of ritual as an effort to hallow the ground, the place, and the people.

One pattern stood out to me in the descriptions of the high priest’s vestments, a pattern of remembering, which seems to be a central theme in Judaism, not to forget what has happened before, and to bear the burden of memory as a sacred burden. The Torah describes the priest’s clothing in terms that made me think of them as mnemonic, not in a literal memorization sense, but in the sense that remembering is itself a kind of sacred act. Here is the pattern that gets repeated several times throughout the parashat (with a couple different variations)

to bear
the names (of Israel)
over your (the priest’s) heart (or on his shoulders (the ephod))
in the mishkan
to remember
in YHWH‘s presence
regularly (marking the time)

This ritualized, almost poetic, repetitive of the act of remembering becomes a practice of awareness of identity and relationship, and marks a kind of liminal enactment of the relationship between the physical and the kodesh.

Perhaps this is why I’m particularly drawn to the brief passage in Speaking Torah that I began with above. I still find myself struggling to define or understand or grasp in some meaningful way, other than experientially, the Holy. And maybe at the end, really all we can do is stand before that mystery and wonder.

T’rumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19)

We Children of Israel are forever building up our entire selves to become dwelling places for divinity. … We Israelites are called upon to build up the full form of shekhinah (= mishkan) by using our entire selves. … The verse [Exodus 25:8] does not say ‘within it’ but ‘whihin them’! … This is what we have taught: that each of us must build up our entire self to be a fit dwelling of divinity. Then God indeed dwells within us. This is what the holy Zohar meant when it taught that the form in which the world was created, the form of the mishkan, and the human form, are all the same.

— Malbim, Or ha-Me’ir quoted in Speaking Torah, Vol. 1

A common idea among modern liberal Jews is that Torah is an emergent phenomenon arising from the ongoing, centuries-long dialogue, debate, and struggle of Jews with the text and with each other about what this founding document might mean. Torah is both communal and accretive, in this view. But some parts of the text are easier than others to have this kind of dialogue, and this middle section of Sh’mot baffles me, not at the p’shat level—it’s anthropological origins in ancient middle eastern cultic practice are clear, fascinating, and interesting—but at the deeper levels.

As I wrap up the week of study, I keep coming back to the idea that the משכן (mishkan) stands for the immanence of the Divine, of holiness, both in that it is human constructed—that is, we create the holy space—and that it is “in our midst.”

The Text (Monday)

I seem to have picked an inauspicious (or perhaps immanently auspicious) parsha to start my Torah blogging with. Reading it on the morning train on my way to work, it was hard to keep my eyes from glazing over. The seemingly endless descriptions of curtains, poles, and slaughter-sites feels really disconnected from life of a modern Jew. I understand the symbolic and anthropological import to the mishkan, but knowing such doesn’t change the construction instructions into scintillating reading.

Fox’s commentary with his translation offered some interesting ways to frame the building instructions from the anthropological point of view, that the dwelling place of the divine is the earthly locus of the divine presence, the axis mundi, to borrow Eliade’s phrase. Fox argues that the litany of materials and measurements are the message of the mishkan passage, culminating in the injunctions about Shabbat (next week’s parsha). I like this idea of the measurements and materials being a human expression of perfect proportions and perfect matter, but it is difficult for me to make something meaningful out of that. [But i love the imagery of the winged-sphinxes (usually “cherubim”) protecting the holy witness of divine will.]

Commentaries (Thursday)

Reading the commentaries this week, I find myself thinking mostly about the relationship between human action and holiness, about how we are partners in the acts of creation and in the making of holiness in the world. I’m sure I’ve been quite influenced by the contemporary Judaism of which I’m a part, which takes the Lorianic Kabbalah and makes the key ideas of tikkun olam as central to Jewish worldview and life.

After Sinai, the moment of complete immersion in the presence of the Eternal, the people must wander away from the axis mundi, the center of the universe in Sinai [thinking Eliade here], but the mishkan allows them to take the presence with them. That they must construct it themselves emphasizes the humanness of making holiness and the human responsibility in kadeshing (if you’ll pardon a coinage) the world we live in. To extrapolate from Rosenzweig’s argument that these chapters of Exodus are actually the pinnacle of the Torah, this is the moment when a formerly enslaved people were able to turn their work, the labor of their bodies, to something higher, and to do so of their own free will. Questions about what we are working for and why come to the fore—am I building a mishkan, as it were, or a pyramid?

I also like the centrality of wandering to this line of thinking about the mishkan. This is a story of people in exile, used to living apart from the holy place, and it creates a bridge between the physical, historical land of revelation and the wandering people. The divine goes with you, if you build it. [I first encountered the idea that one of the Hebrews great innovations was that you could take your god with you, and did not become subject to new gods when you moved (or were forced) from one land to another in Karen Armstrong's work when I was in college.]

Sod (Shabbat)

The early hasidic masters seem focus on the spiritual meaning of the mishkan and the meaning of making an offering, a t’murah (literally an ‘uplifting’). Reading the redactors’ commentary, it is no wonder that I found earlier this week the fact that this is a portable, moveable dwelling place so appealing, as it is both the divine presence for the diaspora and the interior experience of holiness from practice, which is what drew me to Judaism in the first place. In the No’am Elimelekh, we learn that the mitzvot can, depending on your intention, serve to open the heart to experience the divine in this world, again emphasizing the immanence of the divine and the connection of holiness to human acts.

Thinking about the Malbim’s command to build a dwelling place for the divine in your own heart, and Rabbi Green’s response to the idea, I keep thinking about the ineffability of Sinai, the overwhelming experience of oneness with YHWH and the experience of covenant, and the desire, maybe the drive, to put it into words or to somehow make it real, thingly, but the impossibility of doing so. It strikes me that the mishkan was empty; it was a physical shell, but there was no god within it. You cannot make an image of g-d because the physical cannot contain the expanse of olamim, the eternal Being itself; and what you can make, a dwelling, leaves us with awesome emptiness and silence.

Torah Study

Much has happened since I stopped posting on this blog, including my official conversion to Judaism following all the halachic steps (hatafat dam brit, beit din, and mikvah). After yamim nora’im, I decided I was going to do a more focused torah study this year, following the weekly parashot. I wanted to dig into the text a bit deeper than I have in the past, so I’m doing a three-part study following the tradition of Torah reading on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat.

On Mondays, I read the parasha itself, using the Everett Fox translation.

Thursdays is modern/scholarly commentary day, usually using the URJ’s Torah; as I get the money, I’d like to use the URJ’s women’s torah commentary, the Conservative movement’s Eitz Chayim, and the queer Torah commentary. But for the moment, money restricts me to the standard. I also have the Oxford Jewish Study Bible which has lots of great notes on the Hebrew.

And on Shabbat morning, I read Speaking Torah, the hasidic commentary as collected by some of the best neo-Hasidic rabbis in the United States, Arthur Green, Ebn Leader, Ariel Evan Mayse, and Or N. Rose. Speaking Torah has kinda broken my mind open as it more or less refuses that p’shat reading altogether and goes straight to sod.

Since the Jewish tradition is to study Torah in pairs or groups, but I’m a single guy living alone, I thought I might see if I can use the internet to get some dialogue. Paraphrasing the old Talmudic tradition, when Rabbi A speaks, the voice of heaven says he is correct; and when Rabbi B speaks in direct opposition, the voice of heaven says he is correct; and when Rabbi C says “But they contradict each other!” the voice of heaven says he is correct, too.  So my assumption is that all voices are important and welcome even where they directly contradict.

Practice & Holiness

Why practice a religion? Why keep commandments? Why observe the ritual practices of any tradition, let alone Judaism? I imagine that for some people who no longer believe in a personal god, or who have a historical or anthropological view of religion, practice and ritual are the contextual, human-made acts of superstition or cultural identity. And they are correct. But that is only the beginning of the story. To understand that humans evolved brains that can perceive their own insignificance in the face of the universe, that is, who can feel awe; to know that our brains evolved in a way that we perceive things that aren’t there; or to know that culture, including religion, emerges out of social interaction in specific times and places and is modified to meet human needs; etc.; is merely to know where religion comes from.  But knowing all of that does not erase the real effects of religious practice on individuals and communities, nor does it negate the powerful meanings it generates for adherents.

So clearly, for a rationalist who believes in evolution and in the historical, human production of the Bible, the meaning of ritual, practice, and observance cannot rest upon the ancient convictions that they were given or commanded by a supernatural God. Nor can they end with a mere sociological or functionalist explanation. Can religious practice be meaningful for a rationalist, beyond being an expression of ethnic identity or group fealty?

My own reasons for practice are largely personal, experiential, and ethical, and even aesthetic. I find meaning in the ritual that marks the passage of time and marks time as sacred, both in shabbat and in the holidays; it gives structure and flow to the cycles of my life. I find davening to be a kind of meditative focusing of attention in the sacred, to what is important to me, both in my personal shacharit and at shul. I find the reading of Torah on Saturday mornings to connect the communal to the historical through language and ritual, as it takes multiple people to read correctly. In short, I like practicing Judaism.

Recently I have been reading books about the spiritual aspects of Jewish practice, and one notion has really caught my attention: that Jewish attention to ritual detail and to arguing about how to observe is itself the sacred practice that grounds us in the importance of what we are doing here and now. In a Mormon context—with mandatory belief and constant surveillance—arguments about practice were always expressions of power and domination. They can be so in Judaism as well; but because Judaism’s whole worldview sees sin and salvation and time differently, it feels different somehow. This Rabbi argued that the argument itself is a practice that constantly reminds us of our earthy, embodiedness and our embeddedness in a community. Jewish practice is about being present and paying attention to what we are doing right now. The rules of Judaism and the joy in small things like challah or a shabbat double mitzvot (wink) emphasize its nowness, the holiness of the life we live, rather than a life deferred or to come.

The holiness code in Leviticus, which Christians read as antithetical to salvation, turns out to be the core of not just the rules, but the meaning of Jewish practice itself: To be holy, because God is holy. In his book Sinai & Zion, Dr. Jon D. Levenson, a professor of Hebrew Bible at University of Chicago, has tried to show the Jewishness of the Tanakh, and to reclaim Torah from Christian misreadings. His approach is to explain Jewish theology as expressed in the Torah by seeing it historically and anthropologically, and to carefully peel back the Christian prejudices that often fail to see what is actually in the Torah.  Levenson argues that the mitzvot are terms of the covenant, demonstrations of commitment to the suzerain יהוה.

Levenson’s history of Hebrew monotheism, while threatening to some traditional believers, to me humanizes the ancient Hebrews and shows how one group of people, over thousands of years, created its own unique relationship to the universe and to the sacred. Levenson argues that the Hebrews created, through their conception of a covenant with יהוה, a three level theology, which I then borrowed into my own vision of the panentheistic divine as described by Rabbi Green in Radical Judaism.

The Hebrews focused their belief in one god (historically, by ignoring or discrediting other gods). In modern radical Judaism, I would say that Judaism sees the unity and holiness of all Being, of existence itself, of the universe as a whole, in terms of our relationship to it and our consciousness of it. I also think of the mystical explanations of the breath of ה–שם that connects us all, in each breath, to the ongoing creative unfolding of the universe.

The Hebrews central religious tenet was to love god wholly. I feel this love as a deep sense of connection to all of “creation,” to the earth and all living things, and to the universe as a whole. Many eco-Jews today anchor their environmental ethics in this relationship to creation. But it is the fact of existence and knowledge that I exist within and as a part of all existence that a kind of openness breaks open in a love of the divine.

Levenson explains that in Torah, history led up to the covenant at Sinai, and after Sinai are the mitzvot, the ongoing, day-to-day actions that link the people to יהוה. Levenson’s reading of Torah suggests strongly (although he doesn’t say it) that observance of the mitzvot is the means of constantly enacting the relationship to the divine.

In a literal sense, historical, anthropological, the mitzvot are a cultural creation.

But in choosing Judaism, I think what I’m doing is throwing in my lot with the Jews, saying that I choose to take upon myself that relationship to the divine that they have created over the past couple millennia, to commit myself to a Jewish practice as the way my life will be an expression of the sacredness of existence.

The Bible is not an intellectual sinecure, and its acceptance should not be like setting up a talismanic lock that seals both the mind and the conscience against the intrusion of new thoughts. Revelation [the Bible] is not vicarious thinking. Its purpose is not to substitute for but to extend our understanding. (273)

Since I began this journey 18 months ago, I have been avoiding really grappling with what I think of The Torah(a) (i.e., the Pentateuch) and the Tanakh (the Bible). Having spent a good deal of my life studying critically the production and reception of texts, and having studied in my early 20s biblical high criticism, and having studied  the history and sociology of Christian fundamentalism (which is a particular, uh, problematic relationship to the Bible text) in graduate school, I just didn’t see a place for the Bible in my spiritual life. Indeed, until recently I hadn’t picked up a bible, except out of curiosity or to look up an allusion in nearly 15 years. In February and March, I briefly tried to study the weekly parashat, before giving that up in frustration with the arcanely offensive ancient text.

I have recently returned to reading Heschel’s God in Search of Man—which I had laid aside last fall after becoming frustrated with Heschel’s theism—having realized that I have much to learn from Heschel even if I don’t share his belief about god or his conception of faith. This was partly precipitated by a Shavu’ot study group that focused on the meaning of Torah for liberal Jews, where we discussed Heschel’s belief that The Torah requires interpretation to be meaningful and complete. After reading more of Heschel’s writings on Torah this morning, I still find myself struggling with his theism; Heschel is far too concerned with the “divine inspiration” of the prophets for my comfort. But I also find myself excited by his understanding of The Torah as a text and his notion of how to approach the text as a Jew.

In Ch. 27 “The Principle of Revelation,” Heschel lays out some key principles that I find important for my humanist approach to Judaism and for a meaningful approach to the Bible and to all of Torah. Here are my interpretations of Heschel’s principles of approaching Torah through text.

1. Text vs. Meaning: Heschel distinguishes between, on one hand, the text—including its literary and historical production in a specific context—and on the other hand, the meaning of the text. For Heschel, the true content of the Torah is not the same thing as its literary “frame”, which is human. This distinction helps me settle into reading the Bible, because it allows me to maintainthe space for textual and historical criticism and, although I probably have a slightly different idea of this than Heschel, it maintains the possibility of meaning and interpretation.

2. Text as Dialogic, Holy with Human: For Heschel, the Bible is a record not of God’s revealed Word as such, but rather, of the prophets’ interaction and response to that revelation. I would go a step further toward a humanist reading, where the Bible represents historical and local records of a people’s (or individual’s) efforts to understand their experience of the Holy, in particular political, cultural, historical moments. For Heschel, the Bible is necessarily dialogic, the “word of God and man; a record of both revelation and response” (260). As a non-theist/humanist, the importance here is in the dialogism, the relationship of humans to experience; that it is always interpretive and responsive.

3. Text as Incomplete and as Hidden: In Mormon mythology, there is a story in the origins of the Book of Mormon, that Joseph Smith only translated 1/3 of the book; the other 2/3 of the book were sealed. Harold Bloom, in his interpretation of Mormonism as “the American religion”, compares this piece of the Mormon origin mythology to parts of Kabbalah, where the emphasis is placed on hidden and future knowledge. Heschel reads parts of the Tanakh to say that much of torah remains hidden or unrevealed; knowledge as yet unknown. For Heschel, a large part of reading The Torah and the Bible is in the yearning for that hidden, as yet unknown knowledge. There is something profound in both the Mormon and the Jewish notions of hidden knowledge, of mysteries unrevealed—human life is characterized by having a brain that yearns to know its environment, and which evolved to do so through conscious problem solving. But that very capacity, our evolved consciousness, also makes us aware of the fact that we don’t know. In fact, we know very little. This sacrilization of the unknown and of the desire to know are indeed, for me, a driving force in my life at large. Heschel argues that the Messianic age will be characterized by a revelation of what is hidden. In a humanist judaism, the messianic age is not a literal time, but rather a state of the world that we strive to bring about through, for example, tikkun olam. The hidden knowledge can become, in a humanist reading, the knowledge one gains by leading a dedicated, ethical, engaged, curious life.

4. Text as Common, Mundane, Human, and Ugly: Heschel argues that the divine truth of Torah is hidden in the robes of the every-day human experience of the people who wrote the Bible, and that, indeed, the holiness can be hidden within the most mundane or even offensively human of concerns. I cannot help but see The Torah and the Tanakh as the production of a people in a time and place, albeit for me the record of one people’s (the Hebrews’) struggle to understand and make sense of their experience of the ineffable, the holy. Heschel’s teaching leaves that human layer in place; but he believes that underneath that outer human layer lies the divine truths.

5. Text as a Container of Meaning: This leads Heschel to an interpretive move that resonates with my education in literary criticism: The text is only the vehicle for our understanding, for our meaning-building from the text. Heschel offers a metaphor of a clothed human: The obvious, historical, human layer of the Bible is the clothing; the general principles and ideas of the text are the human body underneath the clothing; but the real meaning of the Holy, the soul of the human, the actual Torah, requires insight, work, and struggle. Heschel goes so far as to say that only those who were at Sinai can pierce through the text to the Soul. Again, the theistic framing doesn’t work for me; but what does work for me is the centrality and location of meaning as being in the engagement with the text. For Heschel, Torah isn’t the text itself, but is within the text, like wine is in a jar (268). The text of the Bible is mere container or surface. This resonates with some post-structural textual criticism that I still find useful in dealing with cultural texts and objects.

6. Text Requires Engagement: Through several different points, I think Heschel is arguing that texts are not inert, stand-alone objects; they are rather living, breathing, human entities that exist only in our interaction with them. I gather this from Heschel’s insistence that the prophets of the Bible by definition challenged god/the divine and argued with god/the divine; that biblical passages change meaning over time as context and history and experience change human perspective; and that truth comes only through the courage to look beyond the surface level to how something actually is or actually works.

7.  Text Requires Philosophy of Religion: Heschel argues against two approaches to text. First, the fundamentalist approach to the Bible falsely assumes the Bible is self-contained and self-sufficient, and ignores its history and production. Second, the rationalist approach which may in its overconfidence eliminate the possibility of meaningful interpretation. His critique of rationalism earlier in the book bothered me as incomplete and as apologia; but here it resonated with me, as I have read scientists railing against human culture generally, as if the kind of empirical truth scientific method can produce is actually the source of all knowledge (e.g., Sam Harris’s recent work on morality) and as if scientific method weren’t itself structured within value systems and historical moments. So I’m fine with being cautious about a rationalist approach to textual interpretation. Heschel proposes the philosophy of religion approach to the text as the antidote for both, as its purpose is to lead us to “higher knowledge and understanding.” Here he loses me, as I’m not sure what “higher knowledge or understanding” would even mean. Rather, I would argue that the antidote for both fundamentalism and problematic rationalism would be a humanist-rationalism, one that takes science and history and sociology seriously, but one which understands the human need for and process of meaning making and which also takes the human experience of holiness (not its empirical existence or non-existence) seriously. This will be a place that I will need to work out in detail in the future.

8. Text as Interactive and Ongoing: Finally, and for me, most importantly, Heschel explains the Jewish/rabbinic approach to the Bible, one which I experienced first hand at this week’s Traveling Shavuot study groups. Torah is, essentially, not the text; rather Torah is the interaction of Israel with the text. The call to study The Torah is in fact a call to continue this interaction, this struggle with text, in order to produce Torah. If The Torah (or the Bible) is seen as complete and self-contained, it becomes a stumbling block to true understanding and to truth. Heschel goes so far as to argue that those who claim a fundamentalist relationship to the Bible can never have Torah at all, because they have foreclosed the possibility of struggle and interpretation (274). “Judaism is based on a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation,” he says. Torah is both written (the text) and oral (interpretation and communal dialogue). Jews speak often of Israel as “struggle with god”; but here, Israel becomes “struggle with text”. He then flips the claims of authority that mark Christianity’s approach to truth (as well as Islam’s): “The source of authority is not the word as given in the text, but Israel’s understanding of the text.” Torah is in the life of Israel (struggle with god), not in a literal book. Without a continual, ongoing, never-ending effort to understand, the text is just paper (275).

What I loved about Heschel, in the end, was his approach to the Bible as text, rather than as the word. It can be boiled down to a couple key points that are compatible with my humanist values: the text is human and historical; and the text’s meaning and holiness comes from our dialogic interaction with it. I’m sure Heschel would be uncomfortable with my leaving out revelation; but as always, for me, holiness is in the human experience, the encounter with Existence, the Universe, and with our own dyingness.

teku

Note:

(a) In Hebrew and the Jewish tradition, the word תורה can mean several different things: the particular five books of Moses; or more generally law or teachings; and in the rabbinical tradition, torah can be oral or written, the entire body of knowledge of judaism and jewishness. For my purposes here, when I type The Torah (with caps) it refers to the Pentateuch; when I type it without the definite article, it will be in reference to the broader idea of teachings or laws.

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