Torat Emet: A Torah that Truly Continues to Sustain
I occasionally look back with bemusement on the period of my life – mostly college and graduate school – in which I was overwhelmingly (pre)occupied with questions of revelation and the authority of Torah. Particularly given the challenges presented by biblical criticism, finding a “solution” to the challenge – one both intellectually honest and with the power to provide theological underpinning to my halakhic commitments – seemed critically important.
Today, that project strikes me as both impossible and unnecessary. Central though it is to much of Jewish theology, revelation cannot be proven. Nor, though, can we disprove the notion that at some point in history God shared with the Jewish people insight, command or presence – whatever each of us may choose to call it.
Yearning for God’s Presence
In those not infrequent moments when Torah provides what feels like unparalleled access to the divine, I sense a God who gave us a true Torah, asher natan lanu torat emet. Love, which commands, inspires, directs and infuses life with meaning as can nothing else, seems the apt metaphor. Thirty years after my preoccupation with command and authority, I find myself yearning not for certainty but for presence, not for knowledge but for soul.
Moreover, in a world increasingly detached from its moral moorings, something about the timelessness of the Torah’s profound, millennia-old social vision seems to me no less miraculous than any revelatory moment could be. A fundamental thrust towards human equality, reverence for the divine and human as ends in themselves, the centrality of the family, a focus on ritual as key to fashioning moments of sanctity – all those are increasingly eroding in today’s world. – Although there are, of course, aspects of Torah which strike us as morally troubling – the Torah’s fundamental insights on the matters listed above is also part of what I mean by asher natan lanu torat emet.
That Torah has proven itself the sine qua non of Jewish survival – communities anchored to Torah have survived for thousands of years while communities tethered loosely or not at all have ultimately joined the dust heap of Jewish history – is, to me, yet another meaning of torat emet.
The Siren-Like Allure of Theological Certainties
Despite the attraction of theological certainties, their allure is like that of Homer’s sirens, leading to deathly danger. Given what we are now witness to (in man of the world’s religions) when communities are built on a foundation of theological certainty, I still prefer to struggle to hear God’s voice more in the search than in the command.
Revelation through Performance of Mitzvot
I find myself attracted to Franz Rosenzweig’s (1886-1929) notion that it is actually through the performance of mitzvot that one might come to hear God’s commanding voice. Revelation derivative of mitzvah, and not the classic obverse, renders a Jewish life less certain but also more nuanced than the common understandings of what “truth” and “revealed” mean.
The uncertainty about revelation inherent in this position used to distress me, but it no longer does. We need religious life that seeks not epistemological certainty, but communities of learning and practice in which the modes of discourse and manners of comportment create an abiding sense of God’s presence – and thus, command. In those fleeting moments of success, we are blessed to feel the embrace of torat emet – the truth of the Torah that has for millennia been the source of our sustenance and survival.
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September 6, 2015
July 31, 2020
Dr. Rabbi Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College, in Jerusalem. Ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California. Among his many books are The Promise of Israel, Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, and Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn.
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