Torah for an Interconnected and Changing World
A Shavuot tribute to TheTorah.com on its 8th anniversary (and my 88th birthday).
Congratulations to TheTorah.com and its staff on reaching their 8th anniversary – coincidentally on my 88th birthday.
I was amused to receive a birthday message from the Gabbai of my shul in Oxford inviting me to read the הפטרה on the first day of Shavuot and assuring me that he had reserved it for me for the next 32 years. But for an organization such as TABS, not bound by the rules of mortality, 32 years is not enough—a seed has been planted, a sapling established, and we pray that it will grow to a mighty tree and continue to thrive far into the future.
Whether 8 or 88, birthdays are an occasion to step back, take a broad view, and reflect on whence we have come, where we are, where we are going. The Torah’s origin stories—where we came from—are of creation (Gen 1–3) and revelation (Exod 19–20), world and nation. Both themes are bound up with Shavuot.
Shavuot and Judaism – Adapting to the World
For us, Shavuot is most familiar as the celebration of God’s revelation at Sinai. While the Bible never explicitly ties Shavuot in with Sinai, this connection is assumed as early as the 2nd century B.C.E. Book of Jubilees, and is developed by the rabbis, who refer to Shavuot in the liturgy as זמן מתן תורתנו “the time of the giving of our Torah.”
But Shavuot is also a harvest festival, as is clear from its other name, ביכורים, First Produce. The name Shavuot itself means “Weeks,” and it marks the end of the Omer period, the seven-week spring harvest which begins on the festival of Matzot. When we read of Naomi and Ruth arriving in Bethlehem בזמן קציר החטים, “at the time of the wheat harvest,” we recall that in biblical times, this was a joyous period, marking the annual “renewal of creation” experienced every spring.
Over time, however, Jewish perspectives changed, and the days of the Omer became a period of mourning and came to be associated with such tragedies as the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students (b. Yebamot 62b), and first crusade. This change in the nature of Omer period is just one example of a larger reality: The world changes, and religion adjusts along with it.
Changes in Interconnectedness
In our times, one of the most decisive changes is the interconnectedness of the world. The food on my table may have originated in one corner of the globe, been processed in another, marketed in a third, before being shipped to my local supplier; I can, moreover, enjoy the produce of the Land of Israel once more, wherever I live. This interconnectivity means we have new responsibilities shared with other people, irrespective of nationality or religion; a famine in any part of the world is the concern of all.
The COVID-19 pandemic currently affecting the world is a stern reminder—if we needed one—of our interconnectedness and mutual dependence: Viruses do not respect political, social, or religious boundaries. Pandemic aside, an even greater threat is posed to the world in general by climate change, a direct result of failure to fulfill the task for which Adam was placed in the garden, לעבדה ולשמרה “To till it, and to safeguard it” (Gen 2:15).
Information technology also connects people across the world in previously unimaginable ways. For better or for worse, it is no longer possible to shut ourselves off from what lies beyond our community and immediate locality.
Expanding Our Idea of Torah Knowledge
While the world is filled with more Torah-learning than ever in the past, and the availability of a large number of texts in translation, much of this learning, especially in the more traditional yeshivot and chadarim, is self-contained and self-sealing. Moreover, this style of learning rests on the assumption that all knowledge, or at least all that matters, is contained in accurately transmitted traditional texts.
In an age when the world’s accumulated learning can be accessed from anywhere at the touch of a button, such an assumption generates confusion and perpetuates error. You cannot learn history by analyzing texts generated in sixth century “Babylonia,” or geography—even that of the Holy Land—by reading medieval commentaries on Tanakh; within the heartland of Torah—the halakha—you cannot comprehend law if you do not understand how it relates to society and how society evolves over time.
This highlights the importance of TheTorah.com, and the work it does to bring knowledge, whatever its source, to bear on the understanding of Torah, and of the texts through which it has been presented through the ages. Such knowledge not only helps us understand Torah texts in their original context and their meaning has been reinterpreted over time, but it also can help us deal with other problems in Torah study, namely ethical lapses.
Confronting Ethical Challenges
Many “Torah texts,” whether biblical or rabbinic, clash with contemporary thinking and values. To pick an example relevant to Shavuot, the rabbinic midrash Sifrei Deuteronomy (343) writes:
דבר אחר ויאמר ה' מסיני בא, כשנגלה הקדוש ברוך הוא ליתן תורה לישראל לא על ישראל בלבד הוא נגלה אלא על כל האומות
Another explanation of, “He said, the Lord came from Sinai …” (Deut 33:2) When the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself to give the Torah to Israel He did not reveal Himself only to Israel, but to all the nations”
Clearly, the compiler of Sifrei thought that Torah was significant not just for Israel but for humanity as a whole. However, he continues in a pessimistic vein: Esau’s descendants rejected it because their way of life was based on murder, Ammon and Moab similarly depended on fornication, and Ishmael on theft. This kind of dismissive writing about other nations and their moral or religious attitudes is provoking to the modern ear.
Understanding that even Torah texts—in this case, Oral Torah—are products of their time, and can fall into biases, is important as it gives us room to take a step back. This polemical stance towards other groups and religious traditions was a common trope in this period, but we need not be so cynical ourselves.
No religion in our world teaches that you should murder, fornicate or steal (though equally, no religion has succeeded in eliminating murderers, fornicators, and thieves). Interconnections—social, cultural, economic and intellectual—mean that we are no longer an isolated society, and therefore have responsibilities beyond our immediate religious community.
It is entirely appropriate that today, within the Jewish community, there are groups actively devoted to human rights and to interfaith cooperation. Such matters are very much in my thoughts as I celebrate the still evolving festival of Shavuot, which also happens to be my birthday—and that of Torah.com!
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
Dr. Rabbi Norman Solomon was a Fellow (retired) in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He remains a member of Wolfson College and the Oxford University Teaching and Research Unit in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was ordained at Jews’ College and did his Ph.D. at the University of Manchester. Solomon has served as rabbi to a number of Orthodox Congregations in England and is a Past President of the British Association for Jewish Studies. He is the author of Torah from Heaven.