Humanistic Torah commentary – weekly blog posts for 5775
This year, each week I will publish a commentary on the weekly parshah. This project was my rabbinic thesis – a Torah commentary from a Humanistic Jewish perspective. Through it, I came to learn, reflect on, and add my voice to the centuries of rabbinic contemplation of our earliest stories and texts. I hope you’ll find these commentaries accessible, engaging, and thought-provoking.
This first entry is my introduction to my Humanistic Torah commentary from that rabbinic thesis. It will set the stage for the weekly writings that will follow the weekly parshah read by Jews around the world. If you’d like more information on how Humanistic Jews view Torah, you can also watch me in this Youtube video from my congregation’s website: http://www.oraynu.org
“In the beginning….” This is the phrase that begins the vast canon of the Jewish textual tradition. The Torah is the sacred text of the Jewish people, and has been read, studied and interpreted for over two millenia. It is not, as some imagine, a static document that was written and frozen. Rather, it is a living document; its history of writing, re-writing, and redaction is part of its dynamism, but so too are the ways in which the multitude of interpretations applied to the text have altered the way the text is
viewed itself. This can vary according to theological position, religious/cultural movement, and individual understanding.
Humanistic Judaism lays equal claim to the Torah as any other Jewish movement. The tradition of reading and studying text, rooted in Torah study, has given way to the thinkers of the haskalah (Jewish enlightenment), and the ways in which Jews as a people
have valued education and critical thinking. These are cornerstones of Humanistic Judaism. The Torah is not a simply text to understand; part law code, part anthology of myth and story, part history, its various elements coalesce and challenge us to find ways of understanding and interpreting the text that lend meaning to our own view of Judaism
and to our own lives.
Many traditional Jews have viewed the Torah as mostly a historical
document which tells the real stories of our earliest ancestors. Modern archaeology has confirmed what scholars, investigating textual contradictions and the history of the Torah’s writing and redaction, have known for centuries. there is little evidence for the
historicity of the bible. The events of the Torah are not “true,” although they have given Jews a sense of the truth of their identity over the generations, and they point to truths of human behaviour, family life, community, and values that we do find interesting. This project, however, is not about arguing for why Humanistic Jews should read the bible, or
how. It is not about the nexus between history and fiction in the bible. These themes arise periodically in what follows, but are extant to the thrust of the project itself. The goal of this work is to provide Humanistic Torah commentaries, according to the divisions
created by the weekly parashot (sections of the text read in synagogue each week). This is so that Humanistic Jews may find new and deeper meanings in the text, those more applicable to and consistent with their own view of Judaism. This commentary does not
fear historicizing the text, but nor is that its focus. Rather, the purpose is to provide material for Humanistic Jewish communities and individuals.
No Torah commentary can be exhaustive. In fact, each weekly entry touches on only a fraction of what could be brought forth from the Torah text. This project does not claim to be THE Humanistic Torah commentary, but rather A Humanistic Torah commentary. It is, however, the first that addresses the entire Torah from a Humanistic perspective. This commentary considers midrashic sources from the long history of the
rabbinic tradition, thinkers/critics such as Rashi, Sforno and Nachmanides, and newer commentaries such as The Woman’s Torah Commentary edited by Elyse Goldstein. Most of what follows stems from my own viewpoint and understanding of the text. I am not a biblical scholar, and nor are my insights into the text more authoritative than anyone
else’s. If you disagree with my views then you are part of a long tradition of disagreement and dialogue about how to interpret Torah. My goal is not to put an end to this dialogue, but rather to enter into its conversation and, perhaps, to start making Torah scholarship more central to Humanistic Jewish practice. It is part of our intellectual tradition.
There is a personal side to the commentaries here. As a rabbinic student I began to mark Shabbat. Along with my husband and whichever of our friends and family choose to join us from week to week, we light candles, drink Manischewitz, eat sweet challah, and enjoy a meal. I also use the time on Shabbat to read the Torah and haftorah portions
and various commentaries. Writing my own has become a natural extension of this practice as I too wish to engage with the writers and thinkers I encounter. For me, the celebration of Shabbat has filled a need in me to mark a special time of the week. The ideas to be explored helped to make the experience intellectual as well as emotional. I hope that others find what follows meaningful.