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Shavuot: The Giving of Torah and the Search for Truth

May 30, 2019

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

Recently, I was in the Sanctuary teaching a member how to perform Hagbah, the honor of raising and displaying the Torah at the conclusion of the Torah reading. In the course of the brief tutorial, he told me that he felt that the Torah itself had become an idol to some Jews.

The comment struck me. Although made during a lesson focused on the public adoration of Torah, I felt that my friend had hit on something real. Indeed, the tendency of people to grossly simplify or distort the meaning of Torah has been a concern of Rabbis for centuries.

Maimonides, the greatest Torah scholar of the last thousand years, wrote a lot about this. He composed his monumental Moreh N’vuchim, “The Guide to the Perplexed”, largely to address the literalization of Torah, which he felt entrapped people in primitive and harmful understandings.

Maimonides believed for example that the Torah refers to G-d in corporeal terms because during the time of the giving of Torah the Israelites were still imbued with a mentality which could only conceive of G-d in this way.

“The minds of the multitude were… guided to the belief that G-d exists by imaging that G-d is corporeal.”

(Guide 1:46)

While the ultimate goal was to free people from this pagan mindset, in reality people continued to conceive of a G-d with a mouth, nose and fingers.

Let us not be too quick to judge. After all, what is more familiar and comforting than the symbols and stories of one’s early education, the “Torah” of one’s youth? It is threatening to question the sacred stories, the images and teachings, which have guided us, sometimes since infancy. We may fear that if we give up these old beliefs, we will be left with nothing to hold onto.

However, knowing G-d and embracing Mitzvot requires the same flexibility and occasional risk-taking as any other intimate, committed relationship. Unwillingness to change may appear pious and protective. In fact, it retards the faith and passion needed for spiritual growth.

One of the most frightening but also necessary aspects of Jewish religious search is giving up the need for certainty. To many, this is counter intuitive: Isn’t the whole religious enterprise about finding the truth? But there is a big difference between insisting that there is truth, and searching for it, and insisting that one has it. The former is Midrash (literally, search; figuratively, Torah interpretation). The latter is dogmatism. Proclamations of the Ultimate Truth may be temporarily empowering, but are finally more likely to cause disillusionment or skepticism, rather than enlightenment.

Our greatest prophets and sages, faced with the immensity of the cosmos and the unsolvability of life’s greatest problems, did not respond with cynicism or despair, but rather with humility and awe. They understood that the limits of our understanding did not mark the limits of existence. Every day we are blessed with scores of kindnesses, but there are realms of existence which we cannot comprehend. To this we respond not with frustration or skepticism but with prayer and love.

As we say every Shabbat morning in Nishmat:

“Were our mouth as full of song as the sea, and our tongue as full of joyous song as the multitude of waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth ot the heavens, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as eagles of the sky and our feet as swifts as hinds , we still could thank You sufficiently Hashem, our G-d and G-d of our ancestors, and to bless your Name for even one of the thousand of thousands and myriads of favors that you perform for our ancestors and for us.”

By appreciating the limits of our knowledge, we understand that the center of the universe is not ourselves, but wonder and mystery, and that is the most healing wisdom of all.

Chag Samei’ach — A joyous Shavuot!

Rabbi Weintraub

Join us in our community-wide Tikkun study session, featuring dozens of teachers and classes, June 8-9, 8:00pm to 5:30am, Congregation Beth Elohim, Eighth Avenue and Garfield Street, (click here for more information) as well as in services at Kane Street, Sunday, June 9, 9:15am, and Monday June 10, 9:15am.

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