Thursday, March 7, 2013

Reading Torah

Yesterday, I gushed about how fantastic it was to learn from Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies (one of the Rabbinical Schools of the Conservative Movement). It was the kind of talk which had us all changing our afternoon plans to attend his 2nd session (which was great, if not as unbelievably wonderful), talking about the session the rest of the day, and so on. It was really that good.

But, I can't figure out how to describe it to you.

Officially, the session was on new, spiritual ways to read the story of The Binding of Isaac (Abraham's near sacrifice, at God's command, of his dearest son, Isaac). And, Artson did offer some powerful interpretations of this powerful, fraught story (one of which is an early contender for a High Holy Day sermon). But, what it was really about is how we, as Rabbis, have to use Torah to help other people find and express meaning.

I'm sitting here, trying to find words to summarize, or even approach, what he taught us. Maybe after listening to it again (I recorded it - I so desperately hope the recording is good!) I'll have a bit more clarity. But, my memory and my notes are just inadequate to capture what he was saying. But, let me give it a shot.

Start with one basic fact - obvious once said, but often unrealized: the Torah, our holiest book, does not tell us how it wants to be read. It's easy to forget that -- especially after thousands of years of Rabbis (and others) telling us what it means. And, many of those interpretations are very, very important. But, they aren't right. They aren't what the Torah really means. They are what the Torah meant to those people, at that moment, in that place.

The Torah is not some perfect instruction book, handed down in all of its holy perfection by an active, external God. The Torah is a book written by people (men, most likely) over a long period. But it was, in large part, written by people who were expert in capturing their inner spiritual lives in writing. And, for millenia, it's been used by those seeking to explore their own inner spiritual lives. And so, it becomes a fantastic tool for us to use in order to explore and project our own inner lives.

Don't get me wrong. It's not that we're supposed to just read the Torah and talk about how it makes us feel. What we're supposed to do is read the Torah, then study the Torah, then study what others have said about it. And then we read it (again) and talk about how it makes us feel. Or, what it makes us think about. Or, what we believe. Or, what angers us. Or, what confuses us. And, we share that. And then we do it again. And that's how we discover what the Torah truly means.

But, Artson contends (and I agree), we won't let ourselves do that, because we don't trust our own authenticity. We don't trust our own Jewish authenticity. We think that someone else's stories are more valid, more true, because they come from someone with a deeper Jewish background, with broader knowledge. From someone who is more Jewish - or, at least, more authentically so.

Our job is not to read the Torah as if it were some ancient book of perfection, and our role is to understand and do - nothing more. The Torah is a book which we use to explore the world around us, and the world within us. It is (my words; his idea - I think) a book that don't believe in, but we believe through.

I'm not capturing this. Believe me - I'm really not expressing this right. I'm getting close to something, but there's so much missing. Everything I've written here (more or less) I knew already, but there was something about what he said, and the way in which he said it, which was so much more than this. Like I said, I'm going to listen to this again, and try to write some more. But, I'm going to make damn sure that I also think about this, very carefully, before I teach any Torah again.

Artson started off both sessions by making a seemingly innocuous, but ultimately essential and radical suggestion: that we stop saying things that we don't believe. Judaism will only survive if we doggedly, zealously avoid lies. Avoid saying anything that we don't believe. Torah, we are taught, is truth. Truth is the ultimate seal of God. Our own truth, which we might find through the Torah, is truth. It's that truth - all truth - that we seek.

If any colleagues who were there want to jump in on this - please do!

And, by the way, check out Rabbi Artson's Bedside Torah. It will show you a bit about how he reads Torah. And, it's so, so good.


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