Friday, May 22, 2015

The True Value of Torah - Shavuot 5775

A curious news story crossed my computer screen last week. My rabbinic alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary, which some of you may know that I truly love, has been in a difficult financial position for some time, and has decided to sell off some assets for the sake of easing their budget deficit. Among the items that they are selling is a treasure from JTS’ vaunted Rare Book Room: a fragment of an original Gutenberg bible.

It’s eight leaves of one of the first books ever printed by Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, in the year 1455. This fragment was donated to JTS in 1922 by the Schiff family, Jewish-American financiers of the early 20th century, who purchased it from a rare-book dealer who broke the original copy into pieces to sell it for more money. This particular fragment is the Latin translation of the Book of Esther, and it’s in excellent condition. Sotheby’s expects that it will fetch between $500,000 and $700,000.

Dr. David Kraemer, the librarian of JTS and a former Talmud professor of mine, says that selling the item is not a real loss to JTS because, since JTS is primarily focused on Jewish studies, these pages from a Christian translation are not of much use in the JTS library, and that this fragment has more or less been sitting on a shelf, “collecting dust” for more than 90 years.

The story is interesting, but I think it opens up a wider question that is entirely appropriate for Shavuot: What is the value of Torah? (And, just to be clear here, I’m not limiting the discussion to merely THE Torah, i.e. the five books of Moses, but all the Tanakh and all the interpretation that flows from it).

When I think of studying Torah, which is, according to the Mishnah, the most important mitzvah of all 613, I don’t think of dusty scholars in rare book rooms handling ancient texts with tweezers. On the contrary: you can go into any Judaica shop in the world and purchase brand-spankin’-new editions of the Tanakh with contemporary commentaries, which will be sitting right alongside the ancient and medieval interpreters, volumes of the Talmud and midrash and halakhic works and bookshelves upon bookshelves of perspectives on Jewish text, all reprinted and reprinted. There are, as the Talmudic maxim goes, shiv’im panim laTorah, 70 faces to the Torah, meaning that there are many ways of reading every word, every verse. But really, we have only yet uncovered maybe 28 of those 70. We have not even found half of the perspectives on Torah.

We continue to interpret for today. The Torah is a living document, both a testament to our historical roots as well as a contemporary perspective on our lives. While we in the Conservative movement have traditionally understood that to mean contemporary approaches to halakhah (e.g. As when the movement permitted driving to synagogue on Shabbat, even though doing so is a clear violation of the long-settled traditional halakhah / laws of Shabbat observance), there are other, less circumscribed ways to read Torah for today. These ways may be far more valuable to the average Jew than academic discussions about the details of halakhic observance.

So let me give you an example of the real value of Torah. Last night at our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, Danny Mishkin and I spoke about an idea that should be obvious when we are talking about Torah: immediate relevance.

Why is this important? Because we are living in a world of limited time, limited focus, and the ubiquitous sentiment that if it’s not relevant and/or beneficial to me, I’m not going to invest my time in it. It is a bit of an exaggeration to say that each of us has only 140 characters in which to make our point, but it’s not too far from the truth. Long form is getting to be a harder and harder sell, particularly to our children. And this is a challenge for Jewish tradition, particularly for tefillah / prayer.

But it is a challenge we must face boldly. Times change, and Torah has never been left behind; it is an eternal tradition. (By the way, Gutenberg and others were printing books for a couple of decades before the Jews decided to accept printed works. The first Jewish printed books were volumes of the Talmud produced in Italy in the 1470s, but we soon got over our skepticism about the new technology. That is happening once again as part of the paradigm shift which we discussed last night. Judaism is catching up with the rest of the world. Ein kol hadash tahat hashemesh, says Qohelet. There is nothing entirely new under the sun.)

Here is an item of immediate relevance, one which we discussed on Saturday evening. We study Torah because it helps us make decisions and guide our lives (Pirqei Avot 1:14):
אם אין אני לי, מי לי; וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני; ואם לא עכשיו, אימתיי.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am for myself alone, what am I?
And if not now, when?
Take a moment to reflect on these words.

What does it mean to us? Is it about the balance of personal commitments vs. communal contributions? Is it about trying to make a living in a dog-eat-dog world? Is it about balancing family and work? Is it about the natural give-and-take of human relationships? Is it about managing one’s anger? Is it about monetary charity, or donating your time?

Each of us might see something different in this mishnah. But I would suggest that this is one of hundreds, or maybe thousands of quotables in Jewish tradition that would be worth keeping on a mental index card, and pulling out whenever you are faced with the challenge of choosing yourself over others, or vice versa. And these decisions come up every day, many times a day for all of us.

Hillel’s words are a mantra of balance, of figuring out where to put our energy and focus in this time-poor, over-stressed, over-stuffed world. This piece of wisdom is immediately relevant. I can use it to improve myself and my life, particularly if I refer back to it in the moment of need.

You cannot put a dollar amount on any word or page of Torah. It is truly priceless. OK, so some pages are worth more than others. But it is possible to glean personal meaning and yes, value from every page of commentary, halakhic analysis, midrash, and so forth.

This is the true value of Torah; it reflects back to us who we are, and compels us to change our behavior for the better.

So, while JTS might be selling off rarities for a few quick bucks, the real worth of those eight leaves, which tell the story of the Jewish woman who challenges authority, maintains her identity in a potentially hostile, non-Jewish environment, and leads her people out of danger, is not to be found at Sotheby’s. The intrinsic value is not the impression of the Latin words by the world’s first printing press. It is in the content, the meaning, and the lessons that we learn from Esther and Mordecai and the Jews of ancient Persia.

What makes Torah valuable is that every word means something different in each person’s mouth, mind, heart and hand, and that it brings those things together to improve our lives and repair this broken world. Furthemore, what makes it truly priceless is that it is completely ours, and every perspective it gives us is true. As we chant after a passage of the Torah is read in the synagogue:
… אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָנוּ תּורַת אֱמֶת וְחַיֵּי עולָם נָטַע בְּתוכֵנוּ.
… asher natan lanu Torat emet, vehayyei olam nata betokheinu.
… who gave us the Torah of truth, planting within us life eternal.
Our Torah of truth gives us eternity as a people because Torah itself is eternal, and as long as we continue to (in the words of Ben Bag Bag, Pirqei Avot 5:24) “turn it over and over,” we too will continue to reap its benefits forever. It is both immediately relevant and timeless. And that is its true value.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, the first day of Shavuot, May 24, 2015.)

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