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The Confusing Crossroad Between Ancient Texts and Modern Readers

by Rabbi Jenny Solomon

On a recent Shabbat morning at Beth Meyer, we celebrated an adult bat mitzvah, new adult Torah readers, and a fabulous post-bar mitzvah teen who returned to chant Torah nearly a year after he became a bar mitzvah during a more restrictive phase of COVID. To be honest, it was a rabbi’s dream come true; Torah was radiating from the scroll to the hearts and minds of our congregation.

Our Torah readers chanted: “You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.” And “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” Finally, “The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” There was so much joy and nahas (pride) as we heard these words chanted, and we were reminded of our people’s eternal wisdom and call for high moral standards.

At the same time, we were reminded that these beloved verses are surrounded by verses describing sexual prohibitions, which for many of us, are painful to hear. These verses do not align with our values and, in some cases, directly contradict what we know to be true and just. How do we square the treasured parts of our Torah with the ones we consider difficult, troubling, and morally problematic? As I heard some of these verses chanted aloud in our holy sanctuary, I will be honest with you — I felt deeply uncomfortable. I secretly hoped the Torah readers would speed past these archaic laws and get back to the “good stuff.” Alas, that is not how the Torah works.

As Conservative Jews we are committed to engaging with the whole Torah, as we have received it. But much like the Constitution of the United States, which we also hold dear yet continue to amend, ongoing interpretation of the Torah is part and parcel of Jewish living and learning. Just as the ancient rabbis added their voices to their understanding and re-understanding of the Torah, we add ours. Sometimes, this means outright disagreement with the Torah’s precepts.

For example, we no longer stone rebellious children, kill those who violate Shabbat, or make a woman suspected of adultery drink from a magic elixir to determine whether she is innocent (sotah). We also no longer condemn anyone in our community for loving and having a sexual relationship with anyone else — regardless of gender or sex. To quote “Rabbi” Lin Manuel-Miranda, “Love is love is love is love.”

As a Beth Meyer family, we stand on the shoulders of generations of other Jews who boldly read from the Torah, stretched to understanding its myriad meanings, and added their own commentaries. When we say, “two Jews, three opinions,” we mean it!

And when we hear you disagree with the Torah commentaries that we bring on Shabbat morning or in our classes, our hearts leap with joy. Our willingness to take issue with the Torah is a sign that we care. It’s a demonstration of sincere encounter. Sometimes I even wonder if the Torah’s most problematic verses are there precisely to give us the chance to say, “No! That cannot be how we build a holy society. That cannot be what God asks of us.” I am grateful that in our Jewish community, these sorts of opinions are not only tolerated, they are encouraged.

Our nation’s Founding Fathers, whose contributions were many, were also marked by moral failings: slavery, adultery, racism, and misogyny. We cannot justify or excuse these failings, but we can observe the ways in which their efforts helped our country outgrow the moral limitations of their time and to set in motion principles that eventually brought greater liberation and equality to the citizens of our country. So too, our Torah is an ancient document reflecting what our ancestors thought was wisdom.

Much of it, we judge today, is wisdom that is profound, sublime, and eternal. But some parts of the Torah are not reflective of what we have come to understand as moral or spiritual. The Torah reflects our people’s encounter with God, but that encounter did not end with them. It continues with us. And each one of us is endowed with the mitzvah to engage with the Torah on our own terms. To wrestle with it. Interpret it. And, yes, even disagree with it.

I marvel at the way we continue, over space and time, to mine the text for its wisdom and to courageously use Torah values to argue with other Torah principles. The conflict between “tradition” and modernity is not new. As our ethics evolve, some of the Torah's laws and precepts will be left on the books, but left behind as relics of a different age with a different — and to our minds problematic — worldview.

One day, our own “enlightened” views will likely be outmoded. But I pray that our descendants will feel bound not by our imperfect words, but by the robust spiritual tradition which calls us, from within our limited perspective, to give voice to the Torah’s great teachings.

Thu, July 18 2024 12 Tammuz 5784