Our People's Torah
Many years ago, when my daughter was a teenager, already a voracious reader and budding writer, we participated in a particularly vibrant Torah study one Shabbat morning with our havurah. Studying a morally difficult passage, adults and young people wrestled with multiple meanings of the Torah text. At one point, my daughter asked with incisive clarity, “Why do we assume that this text is true? What makes us think the Torah is superior to so many other fine works of literature and philosophy?” With this question, my daughter named a vital dilemma of post-Enlightenment Jewish life.
The Encounter of Israel with God
Like my daughter and so many contemporary Jews, I do not expect the Torah to be a source of accurate historical or scientific phenomena. Rather, I view the Torah as the humanly recorded account of our people’s early encounter with God, conveying their best understanding of the nature of life and the vision for living that flows from that encounter. Among the great works of religious literature, the Torah, including the ever-growing body of “oral Torah,” is the story of our own people’s history, destiny, morality and worldview.
Herein lies its truth and value, as a vast, deeply meaningful, time-honored and still-unfolding description of the human condition from the perspective of the Jewish people. It is not the singular source of “Truth” for all peoples at all times but our people’s repository of profound insight into reality and of guidance for individual and communal life.
Not a Perfect or an Exclusive Truth
I do not expect the Torah to be perfect, since divine intelligence can only come into the world through human vessels, and it is inevitably diminished in the process. The Torah, like every expression of divine wisdom, is necessarily limited by the understanding and experience of its human authors.
I do not think of the Torah as an exclusive or superior source of truth – for Jews or for anyone, or as superior to other wisdom teachings. To think otherwise would be to construct too small a definition of the presence of divine wisdom in the world. Divine wisdom has flowed into the world in many forms and contexts, and continues to do so: in the wisdom teachings of many religious and philosophical traditions, in great literature, and through the lives of individuals.
The Torah’s Place among the Jews
Torah is a guide to boundless richness of wisdom, understanding, and virtue, a guide for individual lives of righteousness and compassion and for caring and just communities. Torah calls us to a life of meaning, integrity, concern for others, and connectedness to community and to God. When we approach it with open hearts and minds, we participate in our people’s eternal process of discovering the divine and one another. When we listen carefully, we can hear God’s voice speaking through it, even in our own day, for our own lives.
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September 6, 2015
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Dr. Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as the director of the Pardes Rodef Shalom (Pursuer of Peace) Communities Program and as a spiritual director and interfaith activist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She holds a DM (Doctor of Ministry) from United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, and was the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi by JTS. She is the author of From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace.
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