Friday, July 12, 2013

Gravity and the Luminescent Age of Torah - Devarim 5773 (Summer Sermon Series #3)

When I was in AP Physics in high school, I recall my teacher, Mr. Blackmer, teaching us about gravity. Some of you might remember (if you dig deep enough into your memory) that Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation is as follows:

F = G ────
F is the measure of gravitational force between two objects
G is the gravitational constant
m1 and m2 are the masses of the two objects
r is the distance between them

Usually, when we think of gravity, it is in the context of our relationship with the Earth. The Earth is turning, and the reason we are not all flung off into space is because gravitational attraction keeps us tethered to the ground. But we attract the Earth as much as the Earth attracts us. Mr. Blackmer wanted to demonstrate that gravitational attraction affects both bodies, and that when we jump up (for example), the Earth pulls us back down just as we pull the Earth up to us. Yes, the distance that we are pulling the Earth is vanishingly small. But it’s there. So Mr. Blackmer suggested the following: whenever you’re feeling down, and powerless, jump! It’s a reminder that you can affect really big things.

And then, to demonstrate, he jumped up, and the Earth moved just a wee bit to meet him.

Gravity is, I think, a nice image to illustrate the relationship between Jews and Jewish learning. Torah (used in its widest sense) is a huge mass of information, and many Jews are attracted to it, some more than others. And by studying it, we affect the entire body of Jewish learning, even if only by a little, because when we learn, we insert ourselves into the text.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that the highest mitzvah of Jewish life is Talmud Torah, the learning of Torah in its widest sense, including all the texts of the rabbinic canon (Mishnah, Gemara, midrash, commentaries ancient and modern, and so forth). I spoke about the fact that more of us are studying Torah now than ever before, mostly due to access to new translations and new electronic tools for learning the greatest works of Jewish tradition. I can read Maimonides on my phone; I can search the Shulhan Arukh (R. Yosef Caro’s 16th century codification of Jewish law) on my desktop; you can study the Talmud on a tablet anywhere.

Judaism has entered the information age. In just a few years, the very idea of paper books will seem unwieldy and quaint. The implications for how we interact with Judaism are tremendous; we have always been “the People of the Book.” Somehow, “the People of the E-book” doesn’t quite work as well.

Shabbat issues aside, these new electronic Jewish resources are good for the Jews. We are living in a Luminescent Age of learning Torah, which bodes well for the future of Judaism. The availability of all of our holy texts at our fingertips means that more of us will seek (well, search) and more of us will find. And more of us will discover the value of learning Torah, of struggling with Jewish text.

We read this morning the beginning of the book of Devarim / Deuteronomy, the fifth and last book of the Torah. It opens with the phrase, “Elleh ha-devarim” “These are the words that Moshe addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.” (It is worth noting here that although devarim in modern Hebrew means “things,” it is classically understood as “words.”)

Elleh ha-devarim. It is the beginning of the end of the Torah. We are now forty years after yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the departure from Egypt, and on the East Bank of the Jordan River (funny how the “East Bank” never comes up in the news!), and Moshe is delivering a book-length speech to the Israelites prior to his death.

Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, aka Ramban, aka Nachmanides, the prolific commentator of 13th-century Spain, in his introduction to Devarim, observes that “Elleh ha-devarim” implies all of the laws given in the book from the Ten Commandments forward. A few verses later in Devarim (1:5), we read the following:
בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן, בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב, הוֹאִיל מֹשֶׁה, בֵּאֵר אֶת-הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת...
On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Teaching...
Rashi suggests that this verse means that prior to his death, Moshe translated the entire Torah into seventy languages, the seventy that are traditionally thought of in rabbinic text as the original languages created in the Tower of Babel episode.

Put together, these ideas suggests to me that these medieval commentators saw the book of Devarim as a symbol of the Torah writ large, an iconic representation of all Jewish learning - the laws, the stories, the translation and commentary, and everything that flows from it. Translation, by the way, is not only a form of commentary in itself; it was also thought of rabbinically as intrinsic to the learning of Torah. In the Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 8a, we are urged to read the entire Torah three times each year, twice in the Hebrew and once in translation or with commentary. The Talmud goes further to promise that those who do so will enjoy long life.

These devarim, these words - they are our heritage, our past, present and future.

Ladies and gentlemen, I suspect that, more than Shabbat, more than kashrut, more than the physical aspects of Jewish observance, it is our collected body of knowledge and our commitment to study that has kept us Jewish. The Babylonians, the Romans, the Islamic conquests, the Crusaders, the Inquisition, the Nazis - they could destroy our holy places. But they could not destroy what we carried in our heads and in our hearts. The gravitational attraction of our mass of Torah has kept us from flying off into oblivion, kept us on the ground.

But there is even more to the story. Rashi and Ramban and their fellow commentators are only a fraction of the journey that has brought these devarim, these words to us here today. For nearly two thousand years, since the beginnings of rabbinic literature, we have engaged as a people in the teaching, learning, interpreting, commenting, arguing over, creating and re-creating Torah. Every generation in every place where Jews have lived has, in some sense, shaped the Torah. We read the story of Creation differently here and now than our ancestors did in Jerusalem in the first century. We read the Exodus story differently today than the Spanish exiles of the 15th century. We understand Moshe’s rebuke of the people differently than Moses Maimonides did in Egypt of the 12th century, or Moses Mendelson did in 18th century Germany. And all of these may be effectively included in the mass of Torah that is all part of how we read it today - we are the next point in the Torah continuum, the next “dor” in “ledor vador,” from generation to generation.

The 20th-century German Jewish philosopher Martin Buber envisioned the revelation at Sinai, the moment when God gives Moshe the tablets of the Torah, as a kind of collision of humans with the Divine.  The Sinai experience left both God and humans fundamentally changed, like moving objects that crash into each other and exchange their momentum. The same is true for the words of our tradition. Every time we pull those books off of the Jewish bookshelf, every time we engage with our sacred texts, we are fundamentally changed, and so are the ancient words for all who come after us. And revelation continues even today, as Torah unfolds and God reveals more to us. We change, God changes, and the very nature of Judaism changes.

And that is one key to understanding who we are in the Conservative movement, and who we are at Temple Israel. We conserve tradition; we return to our traditional books year after year. But we also acknowledge that tradition has changed, that the Judaism of today is unique to this time and and to this place, but still connected to what came before.

I want to wrap this up by addressing something that happened in Israel this week, which will also serve as a connecting piece to the next two sermons in the series, on egalitarianism and Israel.

On Monday morning, Rosh Hodesh Av, the Women of the Wall and their supporters, about 350 people, showed up at the Kotel / Western Wall in Jerusalem for their monthly prayer service, the first such service since the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that it is legal (!) for anybody to pray at the Kotel “according to their custom.” In the case of Women of the Wall, that means praying out loud in a group, with some wearing tallitot and tefillin. We will speak more next week about why doing these things are acceptable under halakhah, Jewish law.

But it is not acceptable to the Haredi sector of Orthodoxy. To prevent the WoW from praying according to their custom, Haredi rabbis ordered girls’ seminaries to bus their students to the Kotel at 6:30 AM, half an hour before WoW meets, to fill up the Kotel plaza with people so that the WoW group could not get much further than the entry gates. Furthermore, a group of Haredim blew whistles, jeered and shouted at them, held aloft offensive signs, and a few threw bottles and eggs at those who were trying to daven. The police allowed the WoW to hold their service, and detained those that threw things. You can see video of this here.

It is true that many of us in the Jewish world read our sources and traditions differently, and it is a shame and embarrassment that some of us who hold the idea of Torah so dear choose to fight against an interpretation that conflicts with their own. Disagreement is a part of the continuum of Torah; on any given page of the Jewish bookshelf, one may find arguments that are leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. But mean-spirited, nearly-violent protests against other Jews who are trying to worship in a way that is condoned by 80% of the Jewish world?

This is why we at Temple Israel, in the Conservative world, must give in to the gravity of Torah. Let it pull you in. We must step up our efforts to engage with Torah, and not let the fundamentalists dictate how to read our holy books and how to interact with God.

Read it not as “Elleh ha-devarim,” these are the words, but rather, “Elleh devareinu,” these are OUR words. This is the living tradition that we have received from God, and that has been passed down to us via our ancestors. Every hand that has touched it has changed it just a little bit. And the next hand will always be yours.

The words of Torah include you. Find yourself in the text! It’s your heritage. We have, of course, many opportunities to learn here at Temple Israel, and if you want to dive into Torah but do not know where to start, come see me. Do not let the Luminescent Age of Torah pass you by!

Don’t fight against the gravity of Torah. Jump, and it will come up to meet you (but just a little bit).

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, July 13, 2013.) 

The first two installments in the Summer Sermon Series may be found here:

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