I have never studied Torah. For all my years of Jewish education, this essential element of Judaism has somehow eluded me. Perhaps my gaping hole of knowledge comes from personal choices- opting out of text based electives during Hebrew school, for example. Perhaps the void stems from systematic choices, wherein my day school teachers veered toward the sexier, more enticing, themes. Sure, I know my Bible stories, especially the more narrative tales from Genesis. But test me on any rules from Leviticus and I will draw a blank; ask me to recite any psalms and you won’t get farther than a NFTY inspired off-tune rendition of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”
Finally, during my last semester of college, I attempted to re-lay the foundation of Jewish studies underneath layers of my already erected knowledge. I enrolled in “Hebrew Bible,” a class mostly for freshman and potential Jewish Studies majors. I was uncomfortable not only because of my off-fitting status; the class challenged me to balance a confidence in Jewish identity with an ignorance of my own religious texts. I felt all at once the proudest student and the meekest.
The syllabus for “Hebrew Bible” was divided into different methodological categories. We learned how to read the Tanach through various perspectives: historical, religious, literary, political, feminist, queer. Each story, when analyzed through the various interpretative lenses of academia, took on a new meaning. Joshua revealed the building of Jewish nationalism, while Proverbs exposed a complicated past of gender norms in Hebrew culture. The stories I vaguely recognized before, now disclosed layers of meaning I never imagined.
With this surplus of new information, I learned that the Torah is an ever evolving document. While I expected to find a clue to my Jewish heritage, I instead found the key to a transformative discourse that continues to shape Jewish thought today. Most poignantly, I understood that the Torah’s relevancy is not merely assigned to those of faith; instead, myriad academic traditions turn to the Jewish religious texts in order to understand the construction of our Western societies in general. Even without believing in religious tradition, the Torah provides an anchor for understanding ourselves as religious Jews, cultural Jews, artistic Jews, political Jews, queer Jews, thinking Jews. And as the categories of analysis expand, so does the Torah’s potential to remain the foundational text for us.email print