David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, was quoted in a New York Times article saying; the notion that the Bible is not literally true ‘’is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis.’’ That is mostly true among liberal rabbis and Jews as well. So, why study Torah?
One of my teachers called the Bible literature, not journalism. Again, so why study it? Well, you see, I was a literature major and English teacher for many years. And what I learned is that truth comes not necessarily from fact, but from allegories that present universal human behavior and its consequences. One thing I have always loved about the Bible and our tradition is we don’t have saints! Can you think of a hero of the Tanakh that did not have flaws? For me, the Torah is a treasure trove of lessons and insights into the recesses of our own hearts and souls. It is why we can study the Torah year after year, and each time we read a parsha, we can glean new awareness.
Now I know, this view of the Torah as human rather than divine will upset a number of people. An orthodox rabbi once asked me, “well if G-d did not provide us with a moral code, what would keep us from killing each other?” Good question! Maybe as a species, we ultimately learned that our individual survival depended on the survival and thriving of others in our community. At least that is what some sociologists say.
But still, it goes against so much of what many of us were brought up to believe, and it is so hard to give up what was once so comforting. But think about it this way: Judaism is about questioning. It is about finding your way in a world that is fraught with spiritual, psychological and physical obstacles. We are challenged to find our own answers. The people in the pages of our Tanakh are just like us. How did they confront their challenges and what were the outcomes? What did Joseph have to endure to evolve from a somewhat bratty kid to a tzadik? And how does Jacob’s duplicity in his youth affect him later on? And then there’s David—a seriously flawed man who is revered as one of our heroes. What’s that about?
A few months ago I visited the California Institute of Women—a prison that has a vibrant Jewish program. When I asked those who had converted to Judaism what it was that attracted them—they all said the same thing: “It offers us a path to live by and shows us that forgiveness is possible through our own actions.”
Well, that’s why we study Torah. To say it is “just literature” is to demean its value, and even more, the place it has held in the Jewish community. When we didn’t have a state, we had Torah to bind us together with other Jews. When we were discriminated against and persecuted, we held fast to Torah to keep us spiritually alive. And as we confront new challenges and terrors in our world today, we have the Torah to remind us that we can prevail. So Happy Shavuot – Go study!
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.