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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE TORAH TO HUMANISTIC JEWS

RABBI WINE'S SECOND ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS FOR MODERN JEWS


Over the course of my latest commentaries, I’ve been addressing some essentials of Humanistic Judaism as defined by Rabbi Wine with his answers to the six questions that every branch of Judaism must answer. Today I’ll take a look at the second question:


“How do we deal with the historic primacy of the Torah at a time when the Torah life style [sic] corresponds in no way to the behavior of most Jewish people?”


Here is Rabbi Wine's answer:


Unlike all the other liberal branches of Judaism, Humanistic Judaism does not seek to save the words of the Torah while rejecting its substance. It boldly admits that the Torah is historically interesting but intellectually irrelevant. In an age when information about people and the world continuously changes, no sacred book is appropriate, even as a symbol. Wisdom comes from the testing and insight of contemporary science, which allows no absolute truth. New rules have to be invented for new situations all the time.


Like many newcomers to Humanistic Judaism, the first time I entered our congregation – at a colloquium in 2009 – I was very uncomfortable with the absence of an Ark and Torah. I have since learned that many first-timers feel the same way. Later that evening, when I saw our Torah scroll on display in a place of honor in our library I thought to myself, that’s exactly where a book belongs!


Rabbi Wine’s answer to his own question focuses on the lifestyle implications of the Torah. He accurately points out that most Jews today reject its substance even as liberal Jewish teachers try to make it relevant. Throughout his rabbinate he rightly criticized these efforts to re-interpret passages in the Torah as fruitless attempts to “kosherize” the text. His critique was particularly sharp when it came to values-oriented issues. As a humanist he believed that the highest of human values flow from our obligation to honor human dignity. And while we can certainly excavate that value from the Torah—as liberal Jews do when they cite the creation of humankind “in the image of God”— we cannot ignore the numerous passages that defy concern for human dignity. Not while claiming that human dignity is the basis of the Torah. (See Numbers 31 for a really sharp example of this.)


A few years ago one of our young congregants asked to chant from the Torah scroll during her B’mitzvah celebration. The role model she had chosen for her speech was famed suffragist Alice Paul so naturally she sought a passage that promoted women’s rights. During our conversation I gently informed her that she was not going to find such a passage in the Torah. There’s nothing remotely feminist about it. The best I could offer her was the story of some women who approached Moses about inheriting their father’s possessions when there was not a single eligible male in their family (Numbers 36). Moses brings their dilemma to God who mulls it over and allows it, but only in their very specific case.


In the end she decided to chant that story, making the point that what was important about it was that these women, suffering under the yoke of patriarchal theocracy, spoke up for themselves.


As it happens, she was the first of our congregation to chant from the Torah at a B’mitzvah service. Still, we performed no rituals with the Torah scroll. Before the service we simply placed it, uncovered, on a small table next to the lectern. When the time came, I removed the cover and helped keep it open while she chanted the tale.


While planning how to do all of this I remained aware of Rabbi Wine’s judgment that in an age of continual change “no sacred book is appropriate, even as a symbol.” Had I departed even a little from this? On one hand, I assign no sanctity to the Torah, on the other hand I believe that our written treasures have symbolic value that extends beyond the laws and values they contain. The vast corpus of Jewish literature may not have day-to-day relevance to our lifestyles, yet our literature is indisputably a record of the never-ending Jewish conversation(s) about what it means to be human and Jewish. It would not be wrong to say that the process it reveals is more significant than its many contradictory lessons. It is, to be sure, filled with ideas that are both repulsive and inspiring. Yet the strength of our Humanistic Jewish approach is that we can acknowledge that while it is not authoritative, it is very informative. Even, contra Rabbi Wine, intellectually relevant. How so?


While traditional Jewish approaches, whether liberal or more Orthodox, emphasize eeking out lifestyle commandments and lasting values from Jewish literature, we Humanistic Jews prefer to appreciate them for what they inform us about the ever-evolving nature of Jewish culture. When studied our way – which is to say when analyzed academically – our texts reveal the DNA-like mutations of Jewishness throughout the ages. The starting point for all of this is the Torah itself. For me this is enough to make it a suitable symbol of our people’s never-ending exploration of Jewish identity and universal values.


Since joining our movement, I’ve become aware of Humanistic Jewish congregations that display their Torah scrolls in an Ark or even engage with it ritually during some services. Personally, I am happy to keep it in the library, in a place of honor, utilizing it only now and then as a ritual object that symbolizes the importance to Jewish culture of our written treasures.

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