Whose Torah and why it matters
by Jonathan Rosenblum
Baltimore Jewish Times
June 15, 2001
My family was active in one of the leading Conservative synagogues in the country. I attended Hebrew school three times a week from second through eighth grade and once a week through high school. At the end of my Jewish studies, I could read Hebrew, but knew no more than ten to twenty nouns.
I had never heard of Rashi, the principal Biblical exegete, and could not have even read the script in which Rashi is traditionally printed. Nor had I so much as glanced a page of Talmud, much less attempted to learn it.
Not that I considered myself Jewishly ignorant. Far from it. I had a ready catechism of proudly held Jewish ``truths," most prominent among them being that Judaism is a religion of action not faith. Action, of course, meant collecting money for Biafra, not keeping kosher or observing Shabbos.
Traditional observance was minimal, although even that was enough to earn me the nickname ``the rabbi" among my Jewish friends.. We attended synagogue with some frequency and almost always had a Friday night dinner. Once when a non-Jewish friend brought a ham sandwich into the house, he was promptly sent outside to eat it.
Of course, I knew that there were a handful of ``religious" families in our congregation who kept kosher homes, and an even smaller number of young people who walked to synagogue on Shabbos. Their greater level of observance, however, occasioned no guilt on my part. What Conservative rabbi Howard Singer has termed the ``tacit agreement" between Conservative rabbis and their congregations to never discuss ``G-d or Jewish law" was fully observed in my synagogue, though I heard many sermons on the theme ``Judaism thought of it first."
I tended to view ``mitzvos" as assertions of Jewish pride rather than as means of relating to G-d. I fasted all Yom Kippur from the age of nine, but the afternoon was usually spent watching the World Series on TV.
While all this seems speculiar to me today, it never did at the time.
The recent speech by leading Conservative rabbi David Wolpe, in which he informed his congregation on Seder night that the Exodus from Egypt almost certainly did not occur, that the Jewish people never wandered in the Desert for forty years, and never heard G-d speak to them at Sinai, explains a great deal about my younger self.
Wolpe insists that it makes no difference to our commitment to halachically observant lives whether G-d ever spoke to us or the Torah is the product of human authors, or whether the events recorded in the Torah ever took place or fall into the category of Ur-myth.
That claim is refuted by both sociology and the individual experience of most of those raised with such views.
If the Torah was a written by a committee of our long gone ancestors, it falls into the category of ancient wisdom literature. Such literature may be interesting, beautiful (see Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis on Biblical narrative), and even inspiring.
It will not, however, be a complete guide for life in the 21st century, any more than the Iliad. Nor will it inspire the intensity of study, on a society-wide basis, that the Torah has for over three thousand years.
Terming the Torah ``divinely inspired" does not solve the experiential problem. If the first thing G-d inspired its authors to do was to make up a series of meta-myths and pass them off as history, we will hardly be inspired by the quality of moral instruction likely to be found there.
When the Torah is transformed into mere metaphor -- a collection of bite-sized messages for moderns – halachic observance is bound to decline. Once we have absorbed the message, we can ignore the halacha. Thus the prohibition on homosexuality is reinterpreted as a warning against exploitive sexual relationships, since in the ancient world such relationships often involved wide disparities in age.
Thus reinterpreted many Conservative rabbis feel free to bless same sex commitment ceremonies and the student body at Jewish Theological Seminary almost unanimously support the admission of openly homosexual students.
Clearly too our human authors mixed a lot of human chaff with their divine inspiration. JTS chancellor Ismar Schorsch recently dismissed almost all of the book of Leviticus and much of Exodus and Numbers as the products of an ancient ``cult" that have been superseded by our superior modern understanding.
In deciding what is eternal and what is time-bound, however, the modern Conservative Jew has only his own understanding to guide him. Each Jew is left to create his own Torah, picking and discarding according to taste, without even the benefit of traditional Torah learning.
``Divine inspiration" is closely related to another favorite Conservative notion: that o ``Catholic Israel" – the notion that whatever the collective Jewish people do at a particular moment in time has some sort of Divine sanction. But at a time when that collective body of the Jewish people is increasingly impossible to identify and the vast majority of its members, by any definition, are neither aware of the Torah’s dictates nor terribly concerned with becoming more knowledgeable, Catholic Israel is a notion guaranteed to define the level of Jewish commitment downward.
Popular practice becomes the tail wagging the halachic dog. The Torah’s prohibition on lighting a fire on Shabbos is overruled by a ``rabbinic enactment" allowing driving to synagogue on Shabbos, and a unlearned laity is invited to participate in the determination of the Conservative movement’s halachic standards.
Related Topics: Pluralism, Shavuot
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list