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Archive for the ‘Torah’ Category

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.

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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)?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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A few months ago, a teacher at shul told me that I would probably find that the rhythm of my year would soon shift to revolve around Passover and the High Holy Days. I didn’t quite understand what he meant, but this spring I have felt a kind of inner tectonic shift, reorienting myself to spring and fall. I didn’t expect Pesach to be as meaningful as it was and have enjoyed 8 days of opening and awareness.

Spring

And underneath it all, just a good old fashioned, pre-monotheistic (i.e., pagan) ritual celebration of springtime. Sacrifice of the firstborn lamb (totally pagan) and ritual meal of the first fruits of the field (totally pagan). The histories I have read basically all said the same thing: Pesach is a syncretic practice of probably two different pagan traditions, one pastoral and one agricultural, with a gradually emerging, nationalistic monotheism that was ultimately congealed during Babylonian captivity.

Although I’m slightly mortified by the thought of animal sacrifice, I find a depth of meaning in the grounded, in-your-face recognition of the fragility and utter dependence on other living things that the blood sacrifices of many older cultures contained within them.

In many ways, I’m probably a pagan at heart. I feel strongly the movement of the seasons, the changing in the length of days, the passage of time and change of the earth as it moves in its orbit. Like any good American raised west of the Rockies, I feel my most powerful connections when I’m out in wilderness (a fraught term, I realize).

This year, my practice included a long and, for me, glorious walk through Golden Gate Park and along Ocean Beach, watching birds, smelling the (invasive) trees, and talking with a good friend. Next year I want to find a way to bring those older, deeper roots of passover even more to the surface.

Bodies and Awareness through Eating Practice

The former Mormon in me rebels against minutiae of rules and strictures and the pressures of a community monitoring my practice. I am deeply lucky to have good Jewish friends who are either patient with my choices (and mistakes) or fully supportive, even when their choices are different. As a practice for the festival, I had decided to keep fully kosher and kosher for Pesach. Of course, I made a hilarious gaff on Erev Pesach by serving creamed asparagus with beef. And I decided to go the Sephardi route and rejected the kitnyot laws as arcane and ultimately too ascetic for my personal spiritual life.

Pesach Table 5771

What emerged for me was a hyper-awareness of my body, of eating, and of hunger and satedness. I thought about everything that I put into my mouth for 8 days. I thought about whether or not I really wanted it in my mouth, whether or not i was really hungry, whether or not I needed the nutrients and calories, and whether or not it would support my practice to eat it. This had a dual impact. First, as a person who is more or less a mindless eater (reflected in my voluminous girth) it gave me an experience of conscious eating that I’d never had. It was eye opening in a way that diet never could have been. I’m still, er, digesting what it means. Second, it set aside the eight days of Pesach as a time apart, a time unto itself. Judaism loves the notion of separation—which is frankly one of the things that I struggle with in Judaism, as I tend to be a lumper rather than a splitter—and for the purposes of practice I found the separation through an embodied practice so basic as eating to be just enough to push my awareness into a different space.

Moses, Mitzrayim, and (Re)Birth

Rabbi Waskow’s recent book on the passover story, an extended book-long midrash on the maggid, opens up the possibilities for understanding the exodus in a new way, one that resonated with me much more deeply than the national story so often retold. The traditional, ethnocentric, nation-building story only works for me on a metaphorical level, where I can think of the Hebrew people as they are described in the text, as being a hodgepodge, multi-ethnic, mongrel group of escaping slaves, so that rather than an ethos, Israel becomes a collection of the oppressed that can stand in metaphorically for the whole lot of the human family struggling for freedom.

Further, I’m surely not the first Jew to struggle with the idea of a god who would harden Pharaoh’s heart, magically force him to abuse, crush, and subjugate the Hebrews, in order to prove his power through the plagues. As the Hebrew god spends a lot of time in the Torah waving his divine phallus about to demonstrate his masculine superiority over all other forms of holiness, I find myself cranky with the ancient tribalism of it all and the immanent violence of the story. I cannot abide a god who would murder one nation’s first born in order to make a motley crew of escaping slaves into his own Firstborn.

Waskow’s midrash steps back from the surface-level, direct details of the story to see an intense story of birth, a feminization of divine power, a massive metaphor for the emergence of a new Being, a new kind of Holiness. Waskow teaches that, when read openly and with attention, the white fire reveals something quite different from the black fire in the Book of Exodus. Whereas for Waskow the new lesson is one of the centrality of the feminine, what resonated for me in his teaching (which builds on the last few decades of feminist Torah reading) was specifically the imagery of birth.

The midwives who resist Pharoh’s order are the beginning of the new story, with their resistance and their observation of the strength and power of the Hebrew women. In the white fire, all the blood of the escape—the entire Nile turning to blood, the blood of the firstborn Egyptians, the blood on the lintel (a not-so-subtle metaphor of a cervix), combined with the water of the (Red) Sea of Reeds—comes to stand for the blood of childbirth. Mitzrayim, the narrow place, the birth canal. Waskow writes,

They could feel their lives, pregnant with possibility, begin to point toward a destination. A birth. … These doorways echo the bloody doorway of the womb through which all human being must pass to being independent beings. … It reminds us that history, biology, human earthlings, and the earth, are intertwined.

Perhaps it’s my interminable midlife crisis, perhaps it’s my longing to be a father, perhaps it’s Just a resonant Jungian archetype, but i can’t stop thinking about birth, becoming a new being, starting anew looking forward to the other shore.

Holiness

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (quoted in Waskow)

As I’ve discussed at length in previous posts, I seek the human experience of holiness, and I want a framework within which to share it in community. Pesach this year has been a brief eight-day encounter with the Burning Bush, a glimpse into that state of awareness that brings me a sense of belonging, purpose, and connectedness.

Rabbi Waskow continues his midrash with the spiral of god’s name, ehyeh asher ehyeh asher ehyeh asher ehyeh

Here he continues his feminist reading of the white fire, where the deeper, older name of god, Shaddai, insists on a feminine god who gives birth. The transformation of the name of god from Breasts to an unpronounceable name that only exists in breath, yyyyyyyhhhhhhhwwwwwwhhhhh, connects us to the breath of life.

God was seen as infinite mother, pouring forth blessings from breasts above and womb below, from heavens that pour forth nourishing rain from the ocean deeps that birth new life. … [And the new name is] just yyyhhhwwwhhh, a Breathing. ‘I am the breath of life and the breath of life is what will set you free. Teach them that if they learn My Name is just Breathing, they will be able to reach across all tongues and boundaries, to pass over them all for birth, and life, and freedom.’

Pesach became for me this year a reminder to Breathe. Life is breath; holiness is life. L’Chaim.

teku

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There are moments when the psychic and spiritual violence I have experienced in my life reappear. Heart races, adrenaline pumps, emotions explode. I don’t know why this still shocks me when it happens, but I find myself having out-of-body experiences, watching myself react in fear and anger at moments when I had expected to have a good handle on a situation. I had gone into Monday night’s hebrew/judaism class relatively excited for the discussion, because I knew we would be tackling the texts of Leviticus that prohibit sex between men. I had read Rabbi Greenberg’s book, an extended midrash on the text, wherein he argues that the text really forbids penetration of another man; and I’d read Rabbi Noily’s essay on the Hebrew of the passage. So I was coming in confident in my exegetical foundation for the discussion. What I was unprepared for was feeling like I was being assaulted over and over again by the conversation.

As an educator who often discusses difficult topics (e.g., Rwandan genocide; rape within American slavery; etc.), I have a deep ethical awareness and vigilance about the effect that those kinds of conversations can have on students whose own lives or personalities make them vulnerable to a kind of emotional or psychic violence that, although unintended and invisible, is nonetheless real. I found myself on the other side of that problem this week, where it felt like I was being beaten and abused by the conversation. I have complete trust in Rabbi Noily, and do not believe that she or any of my classmates intended any harm. Yet I was harmed, violated by the conversation.

Before tackling the Leviticus pieces, we split into chavrutot to discuss two passages, one from Genesis and one from Judges, that have been used for nearly 2000 years as justification for the murder and repression of homosexual men and as evidence for the sinfulness of homosexuality. The two stories contain much that our modern ethical sensibilities balk at, not least of which is the fact that the two householders in the stories both offer their virgin daughters as substitute offerings for the men the mobs want to rape.

By at least the third century C.E., the sin of Sodom was interpreted by both Christians and Jews as male-male sex, the desire of the mob to have sex with the male guests of the righteous hosts. God’s punishment for that sin was a fiery, sulfury death. From “sodomite” as an epithet for me and my kind, to “sodomy” as a legal designation for acts punishable by death as recently as the mid-19th century, to “sod off” still in common usage in British slang, the power of this myth has moved through time and informs millions of angry religious anti-gay activists in America today, from Focus on the Family to the Orthodox Union to the Mormon church.

In my chavrutah, and in the large group discussion, this history and mythic reading of the text was either ignored or silenced. When I tried to talk about it, I was told curtly that “that’s not what that passage even means”, as if their personal reading of the text magically erases the past 2000 years or the present hatred and fear of gay men. Understandably, the women wanted to talk about the chattel status of the virgin daughters in the text; but seemed unwilling (or unable) to make the connection of sexism and homophobia. In a classroom setting where I’m the teacher, for some reason I am usually able to maintain a bit of distance and guide conversations in certain ways. But in this setting, it felt like I was made invisible, that the evident homophobia of the passages (or at the very least the centuries of homophobic interpretations of the passage) was just swept away as incidental or unimportant. Again, I don’t think the silencing was on purpose; but it was the effect of the conversation.

When we drew back together to discuss Leviticus, the process continued, with people offering their readings of the text and with the elision of the meaning and power of a text that commands that men who lie with men be put to death as mere “misinterpretations.” Although I actually found the Rabbi’s read of the text compelling, listening to people discuss the value and moral insight of a text that calls me and people like me ‘abominations’ worthy of death to be nearly unbearable. And not one person—not a single one—condemned the obvious message of the text or the 2000 years of violence that flowed from it.

An acquaintance of mine from an online ex-mormon community I used to participate in became so livid with me a few years ago that she left the community for nearly two years. The argument was about the nature of child molestation, age, and sexual attraction; my argument was from an intellectual parsing of the social rules of sexuality and the biology of attraction. It had the effect on her of affirming her worst experiences of patriarchy and religious abuse. I do not think to this day that the substance of my arguments was bad, nor do I think that my intentions were wrong; but that really doesn’t matter when the person in front of me was suffering because the content of the conversation was doing violence to her. I do not know how to negotiate such troubled ethical waters, and I do not blame or condemn the people in my class for the discussion they were having. Yet I cannot and will not deny or elide the pain and excruciating memories that the conversation evoked.

Rationally speaking, the Rabbi’s reading offered an interesting perspective. She argued that the cultural context of Leviticus was a world in which penetration was always an act of domination and was by definition unwanted; therefore, penetration was seen as an act of violence by definition. Given that the most likely direct meaning of the two Leviticus verses are prohibitions against penetrating other males (most likely anally, but also perhaps orally), in its context it is reasonable to read the text as part of a larger moral theme in the Holiness Code against harming others. [It must be noted that this is part of a larger patriarchal system where women, in their abject status, are appropriate objects of penetration; so by extension, the Holiness code is actually forbidding the making of a man into a woman by penetrating him. Again, the interrelationship of homophobia and sexism.]

The apex of the Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 contains a core of ethical commands that resonate powerfully with me, and which most historians agree formed the basis of both Pharisaical teachings and the teachings of Jesus: protect the weak against the powerful and love other humans as you love yourself. So Rabbi Noily’s read is that for Jews of the post-return Mediterranean world, not penetrating another male (i.e., not making him into a woman) would be a law against domination and unethical power.

Although rationally (and ethically) I like the ideas and ethics of that reading, my experience of her reading was of having been erased from the text and from history. How easy it is for the process of midrash and interpretation to disconnect from history and context of the teachers and students. One student was excited to use this reading as amunition against her fundamentalist family; but without understanding of the dominant and dominating interpretations of Leviticus within Christianity, without the full understanding that this is a complex and somewhat of a hopeful reinterpretation that flies in the face of the self-evident meaning of the text (male-male sex is an abomination and you are commanded to kill anyone who perpetrates it), there is simply no way that that reading can work in the political-religious context of today’s homophobic America (including the thousands of dollars the Orthodox Union raised for Prop 8).

Paul Ricoeur defines myth as

…not a false explanation by means of images and fables, but a traditional narration which relates to events that happened at the beginning of time and which has the purpose of providing grounds for the ritual actions of men [sic] today and, in a general manner, establishing all the forms of action and thought by which man [sic] understands himself in the world. (quoted in Idel, 21).

As a former literary guy (two bachelors degrees in literature), I am completely down with interpreting and reinterpreting texts. I love the long tradition of many ancient religions of various peoples in different times and places remaking the myth to meet its own needs. It is, in a great sense, why my friend Mira says that Hebrew and Torah are alive, not dead traditions. But my experience of trying to understand and interpret these key (for me) texts in Tanakh highlighted a major problem: Sometimes the myth cannot be salvaged. Sometimes the current needs, current understandings, current desires are just too different; the past’s myth too starkly unethical, too potentially violent for restoration.

If myth provides the foundations for thought and action in the world, what do you do with a myth so tainted by the patriarchy of its inception and so burdened by 2000 years of use to violent ends that it seems irredeemable? Is reinterpretation of a relatively reified text enough to get us out from under the weight of its origins or past? If our modern ethics have put us in a place where seeing people as they are, outside of halakhic, priestly requirements, is the foundational imperative, if protecting the weak against the powerful is really the ethical center, what do we do with a myth whose very core creates the social system that produces the weak in the first place?

For now for me, re-reading, reinterpreting this passage is insufficient. My wrestling with Torah and tanakh will have to include the ability to insist that the text can simply be wrong on its face. A mature spiritual life must allow (perhaps it even demands) making strong moral stances against tradition. Perhaps part of the holiness of Torah is that challenge to be a moral person in contradisctintion to the Book itself.

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Rabbi Lew’s book about the High Holy Days is called This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared—and I think I’m starting to see why. I decided just after Tisha B’Av that I was going to do the full holiday cycle this year as I explore the Jewish calendar and experience Judaism as a personal spiritual practice. I’m even going to go Kosher during the Days of Awe/Yamim No’arim (although I’ll probably go the easy route and just go vegetarian for 10 days which is the no-brainer way to keep kosher).

I said I wanted religious practice, and I got some practice tonight.

None of the books I have been reading, including Rabbi Lew’s, had much to say about S’lichot, other than that it is the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah and is a preparation for Rosh Hashanah. The service at Sha’ar Zahav was really sweet; about 25 people, many of whom I have met or seen at services before. It felt good to participate in a small intimate ritual. Tonight was a night of firsts for me: My first havdalah; my first s’lichot; and my first time holding the Torah.

Before services began, the guy leading the service asked my friend Avram and me to participate in changing the mantles on the Torah scrolls. During the service, I was asked to take the largest of three scrolls from the ark, place it on Avram’s lap so he could hold it while I removed the usual colorful mantle and replace it with a white one for the High Holy Days. I hadn’t expected to have that honor, and it’s a bit difficult to explain what that meant to me. More than anything, it was about being a member of the community, trusted enough to care for the Torah scroll. I do wish sometimes that I could shut off my inner sociologist. It’s weird to have my sociologist brain sort of ticking through the social scientific words for what was happening to me in terms of holding the axis mundi and participating in a communal sacrilization while at the same time actually experiencing it. Regardless, it was a momentous and humbling experience and made me feel intimately and profoundly connected to the community. It made me feel like a Jew.

The S’lichot liturgy itself presented another opportunity for practice, a journey which actually began a few weeks ago in Judaism class, where we had spent a good deal of time talking about the Rosh Hashanah liturgy and I had a bit of an aversion to the discussion about sin and repentance. Rabbi Noily deftly negotiated our various reactions to the liturgy by framing it as a difficult ancient text tied to the memory of animal sacrifice and burnt offerings in the temple and rigid and difficult rules of behavior and harsh punishments, which we in turn have to make spiritual sense of in the 21st century. But it was difficult for me not to have some mild PTSD from my upbringing, where mormonism’s obsession with “moral cleanliness” and “worthiness” combined with my nascent homosexuality combined into a deadly cocktail of hyper-surveillance and self-hatred. I really cannot go back to a place of that kind of nearly obsessive attention to being Perfect.

The discussions with Rabbi Noily and reading Rabbi Lew’s book have brought me to a new understanding of what “repentance” can mean, and have also given me something else I’ve craved: A context for thinking deeply about ethics and meaning. T’shuvah, the Hebrew word for repentance, is more like “turning back” or “returning”. It’s a contemplation and evaluation of where you are and a looking forward to where you want to go. The High Holy Days become, in the hands of contemporary Rabbis and Jewish thinkers, a process of both personal and communal transformation. There is no grand tally in the sky, one’s soul is not tainted for ever, no blood sacrifice is needed. In fact, the Jewish conception of sin, cheit, a misfiring of an arrow, actually focuses not on how sin affects your soul, how evil or dirty or unworthy you are; rather, the concept of cheit focuses on the consequences in the real world of wrongdoing, that when we miss the mark, our actions have consequences and that there’s nothing we can do to stop those consequences. Forgiveness isn’t about balancing a grand ledger in the sky and wiping our souls clean, it’s about acknowledging and taking responsibility for the consequences of our actions, even those actions that cannot be taken back or repaired, and hoping for magnanimity and generosity of those we’ve wronged to forgive us.

But actually saying the liturgy, even just these small portions of it, I found myself resisting it. I both reveled, tonight, in the beautiful melody of the Avinu Malkeinu and recoiled at the recitation of sins. I loved the final blast of the shofar (it helped that two great butch lesbians were the blowers…going to a queer shul gives me all kinds of queer pleasures), although I continued to struggle with beating my chest and calling myself an abomination.

In his book Ehyeh, Rabbi Green says that his purpose in making a Kabbalah for the 21st century, a Kabbalah that accounts for our current scientific knowledge and the spiritual needs of today while building upon the Jewish past, he says that his primary message is for us to be openhearted, that transformation and healing of ourselves, our communities, and our world requires an open-heartedness. In his explanation of the nature of evil, building on the Cain and Able story, he writes

Another reading of it may be found, however, in the difficult key verse in which God warns Cain, ‘Sin crouches at the entranceway. Its desire is for you, but you may rule over it’ (Genesis 4:7). … Why does sin crouch at the entranceway? The entranceway to what? … Suppose we read it as referring to the entranceway to the innermost self? When does sin—read it as violence, aggression, or rage—arise? It comes up at the entranceway. … Much of the evil we do comes about in the course of flight from our own vulnerability. … [Our] response to evil lies in training the self toward greater openness. We must learn to be less afraid, and endeavor to build a society and a vision of humanity less dependent on the thickness of our shells. This is the real work, the worldly task, of those who have been privileged with insight…. This is the core question: How do we learn to live in a more openhearted way? How does Judaism serve as a vehicle to lead us to openheartedness?

As I recited the sins, I thought of this notion of practicing, working to be openhearted, to being soft and vulnerable and seeing things as they are, with unabashed honesty and without excuse. During the month of Elul, I have tried every few days to take stock of my life, where am I, how did I get here, what kind of man am I, is this good enough, can I do better… I have come to see that over the past 10 years, I have become accustomed to merely being dissatisfied, disgruntled, disappointed. But since the death of my friend Karl last Spring, that hasn’t been enough. My anger and resentment at where my life has ended up has clouded my ability to see how I got here. What I have struggled to admit, to acknowledge, to own is that my choices brought me here. I chose this life. These are the consequences of my actions.

So I beat my chest and called myself an abomination, an oppressor, a liar, a violence-perpetrator; I called upon the 13 names of a forgiving G-d; I sang the Avinu Malkeinu–all as a practice of opening my heart to humbly take responsibility for my choices and to own the effect that I’ve had on myself, my fellow-beings, and the world, and to practicing opening my hear to the hope for a transformation of heart and mind and soul, both to repair the wrongs I’ve made and to make new and better choices.

I asked for practice. I got it and then some. It is real. And I am completely unprepared.

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I’m struggling with Torah.

I remember the first time I went to shul as a seeker and not just a visitor, and it was a bar mitzvah Saturday morning service, and the Rabbi was speaking briefly and mentioned just in passing the complex Jewish relationship to its text. She said something like, “The text that we love, read, are inspired by, study, struggle with, get angry and infuriated over…”

I’ve been reading the weekly parshas mainly as an act of “living Jewishly”, but really wondering what I’m doing with this text.

I’m having flashbacks of my Mormon days, when I would pore over scripture trying to extract something meaningful or useful at all, or trying to decipher what some 2000 year dead Jewish faith-healer supposedly said, or what Joseph Smith’s imagination could have possibly wrought of worth. I have reminiscent feelings of obligation and duty, and unrequited desire for the truth.

It seems there are levels of reading Torah, some of which make me squirm with discomfort.

1) Literalist: This is a true history of God with His people. This one is not even on the table for me.

2) Metaphorical but Sacred: This I can respect and it dovetails with a very common move that many Europeans and Americans started making in liberal religion in the 19th century. But this also makes me uncomfortable because it feels to me, in my post-mormon rawness, like an effort to put humpty-dumpty back together again.

3) As a historical artifact: This appeals to my scholarly side and I have to admit that the URJ’s Torah has some fantastic notes and commentary in it that I *have* found to be intellectually engaging and interesting. But I’m not sure if historical curiosity alone for me is enough to sustain an interest in reading Torah.

4) As a cultural touchstone: Now as a Jew-by-choice, a book worm, a wannabe philologist, and a sociologist, one of the most incredible phenomena about Judaism is the 2000 year (approx.) accretion of discussion about Torah. So it’s not Torah itself, but rather diving into a 2000 year old tradition of discussing and arguing about Torah with fellow Jews. And that so much of it is written down and part of this vast incredible textual heritage of Judaism, from Talmud, to Midrash, to philosophers and modern thinkers. In this way, the text of Torah has grown to stunningly immense proportions, far bigger then the Torah itself.

5) As literature. This appeals to me. With two lit degrees (one in English and one in French), and having been a heavy fiction reader growing up, there’s something comforting and also really stimulating about talking about literature and its meaning. Treating the characters of Torah as characters in a novel, talking about motivations, psychologies, etc.; imagining them as real people; and trying to understand the authors and their motivations and politics. Seeing the Torah as aesthetic, though, is also problematic for me, because I come at scripture with a deep mistrust about the truth-claims that are made about it, which can sometimes block me from seeing it as a beautiful product of human imagination.

6) As mystical text. One of the two main branches of jewish mysticism focuses on Torah study, where Hebrew, its letters and words, are themselves vehicles to a mystical communion with God. Here the words, letters, and language themselves convey meaning that is deeper than the surface. I’m fascinated by this practice, but don’t yet have the skills to engage it.

7) As a vehicle for social interaction: Arguing about Torah with other liberal Jews could be (I don’t know, but I think) could really be a great way to engage in larger discussions about the life, ethics, morality, social justice, the sacred, etc., and the anchor of important social bonds. So Torah could serve as an anchor for present social group cohesion. It definitely does that on a large scale for Jews (and Christians and Muslims); but I mean for small, intimate intellectual and spiritual social bonds as well.

In the end, I still have two blocks: First, my religious past makes me emotionally distrustful of the text itself and especially of the way religious groups use of scripture; and second, I’m a trained social scientist and I know the history and scholarship about the production of the text which has demystified it.

teku

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