Pirke Avot 3:11--Rabbi Chanina used to say: Anyone whose [good] deeds are greater than his wisdom — his wisdom will endure. And anyone whose wisdom is greater than his [good] deeds — his wisdom will not endure.
May 18, 2018
4 Sivan 5778
Shabbat B’midbar Numbers 1:1-4:20
Shavuot is observed this weekend. I have often referred to it as the forgotten pilgrimage festival. If it wasn’t for Confirmation in many Reform congregations around the country, most Reform Jews wouldn’t even know it had come and gone. The essence of Shavuot is to celebrate the revelation of Torah on Mt Sinai by God to Moses. (Yes—there is the other part of Shavuot which is about the food—there is usually another part about the food in Jewish celebrations. The tradition is to eat dairy so for the last week I’ve been reading about all sorts of cheesecake recipes or blintz recipes on my Jewish feeds.) So, let’s talk Torah or at least about the Torah.
Last Shabbat I read a piece written by the late Rabbi Aaron Panken z”l about Truth vs. truth. If the Torah is Truth with a capital “T” then one should follow every commandment written in it. There are some who do or at least believe they do and I am not just talking about Orthodox Jews, but some Christians who see Torah as Truth. If so, then one is obligated to put to death a child who curses his mother or father or a homosexual or one who transgresses Shabbat. It means that one accepts the writings in Torah as literal regardless of some of the inherent contradictions that exist within the text.
Most Jews don’t see Torah as Truth. Even the Orthodox read Torah with the commentaries of Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Nachmanides and others. They interpret the text to help us see the words of Torah in a softened or more enlightened light of their day. They don’t see the creation of the world in six-days as 24-hour days and they don’t see capital punishment as a valid means of punishing someone. I say this next phrase with all intent, they reformed the Torah to make it work for them and those around them. Their reforming the text moves them from Truth to truth meaning the Torah teaches us truths, but it is up to us to understand them.
Reform Judaism pushes this even further by struggling with the meaning of revelation. Rabbi Panken taught what most Reform rabbis already acknowledged that revelation is progressive and ongoing. God reveals God’s self to us in new and meaningful ways in every generation. Reform Judaism recognized the problems with the Torah in regard to homosexuality and rejected its premise. Reform Judaism sees each human being as created in God’s image. Reform Judaism rejects the punishment of working on Shabbat and instead urges each Jew to find a way to make Shabbat meaningful. Reform Judaism embraced the moral and ethical code of Torah but empowered each Jew with the responsibility of understanding the truth of Torah in his or her own life. That empowerment means that each and every Jew needs to understand Torah as it was given on Sinai and how it has grown and changed over the ages. In other words, what does the truth of Torah mean to you today.
Progressive revelation isn’t just about the Torah as the Five Books of Moses. Progressive revelation, God’s ongoing dialogue with each of us personally and humanity as a whole, is also about all the teachings. It is about science and nature. It is about relationships and philosophy. It is about understanding self and the group. God is revealing God’s self to us in the books we read or the experiences we have or in wisdom sprouting all around us that can help us get to a better time and a better place. Hopefully this ongoing revelation will lead us to the messianic age or a better world.
I need a God that is active in my life and the world around us. To think that all of God’s wisdom—forever—is contained in the Torah is limiting to me. First of all, there is the rest of Tanach. Secondly, there is all of the teachings of the rabbis 1,500 years ago. Finally, there is all of the teaching, the art, the music, and more that has come down to us today. This is the truth of Torah to me—God is present today to all of us. So, whether you observe Shavuot in a traditional fashion or for one day or two or with cheesecake and blintzes, take a moment to think about Torah and the truths God continues to reveal to all of us.
When you light your Shabbat candles this evening, light one for the great collection of wisdom learned from all humankind. Light the other candle for that moment of revelation on Sinai that began this incredible journey.
Rabbi Jon Adland