Friday, May 25, 2012

What is Torah? A Shavuot Postulate

When I applied to the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary in the spring of 2004, I was just completing the cantorial program there, and was eager to find ways to connect my cantorial and soon-to-be rabbinical sides.  In preparation for the dreaded committee interview, I prepared a devar Torah on a musical topic.*

One of the deans of Rabbinical School challenged me.  “Is that Torah?” he asked, implying that addressing an issue within Jewish music was beyond the realm of an acceptable devar Torah.  His tone of voice suggested that I might as well have been discussing the exhaust system of the 1960s-era Israeli-manufactured car, the Susita.

“Why, yes,” I said.  “Whatever connects us to our tradition, to Jewish life and learning, is Torah.”  His head made a dubious motion, but he let it go.  They accepted me to the program, so I suppose that I must not have been that far off.

Literally, the word “Torah” means “instruction,” and is a cousin to the Hebrew word “moreh,” a teacher.  It appears in the Five Books of Moses many times, referring not to those books as the collected body of stories and law, but in the narrower sense of God’s instruction on a particular matter.  Even in the case of the most-invoked of those occurrences, “Torah tzivvah lanu Mosheh, morashah qehillat Yaaqov,” (“Moses charged us with the Teaching / As the heritage of the congregation of Jacob,” Deuteronomy 33:4) it is not clear that “Torah” refers to our Torah or just the book of Deuteronomy.

In rabbinic literature, the word takes on a greater meaning: not just specific instruction, or the Five Books of Moses, but the full body of Jewish learning.  For example, Avot 1:1:
“Moses received Torah from God as Sinai.  He transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, the Prophets to the members of the Great Assembly.  They formulated three precepts: Be cautious in rendering a decision, rear many students, and build a fence to protect Torah.”  (Translation from Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals)
Torah is far more than what is mounted on the two wooden poles, the scroll that we parade around on various occasions and honor by kissing and teaching our children to chant from.  It is, rather, the entire institution of learning that the rabbis of the Mishnah interpolated all the way back to Moses, the building of fences and the teaching of students and the debating of the most esoteric points of language and context.  It is a living tradition, one which we continue to learn and teach and review and embrace and challenge today.  Everything in our tradition can ultimately be traced back to the Torah (although occasionally via convoluted hermeneutic paths); everything that we do that makes us Jewish is Torah.

As such, the festival of Shavuot is far more than just a commemoration of the events at Mt. Sinai.  It is the anniversary of the gift of Judaism in all its forms, from the ritual to the cultural to the political offshoot of Zionism.  This is the birthday of Jewish life; join us as we learn Torah together on Saturday night to celebrate.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, May 25, 2012.)

* The topic was the similarity of the Ashkenazic and western Sephardic melodies of Shirat Hayam, the Song at the Sea of Reeds, and how that this wandering tune tells an appealing historical tale of our people.

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