Finding My Torah

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster
May 10, 2012
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I do Jewish social justice for a living—deep, complicated campaigns that require a grasp of political and legal issues beyond the headlines and shouting points. Since my ordination as a rabbi four years ago, my work at Rabbis for Human Rights-North America has enabled me to delve into philosophic books about torture, questions of constitutional rights, and the intricacies of how Florida tomato workers are paid. I often joke, before expounding at length on some issue, “Yet another thing I did not learn in rabbinical school.”

For me to feel secure speaking about these issues, I need to be an expert—or at least more of an expert than you might expect a rabbi to be. I know the rabbis I organize can explain why this or that cause has roots in Jewish tradition, but they need me to distill down for them why their congregants should be up in arms about the prolonged use of solitary confinement in American prisons. Whenever we consider taking on a new campaign, I have an internal moment of both fear and excitement. It’s “Oh no, I’m going to have to become an expert in something new” competing with “Wonderful! I get to become an expert in something new.”

I’ve learned a lot in four years.

For all of my ongoing learning, I still struggle to define Torah as something other than the thick books in Hebrew or Aramaic on my shelf, and with a particular mode of learning. Usually, if I am feeling expansive, I’ll include the other Jewish books and recent works of scholarship. But when I wrestle through a book on mass incarceration and racial justice, I don’t think of what I am reading as Torah. I feel guilty about my lack of learning. I say to myself, “I really need to get back to more regular Torah study—it isn’t just Torah because I’m a rabbi reading an interesting book.”

I know I am being hard on myself. It’s just a hard framework to shake, even as it is a framework I know is flawed. Limiting what is “Torah” leaves out many voices and many kinds of text. Is Jewish women’s poetry Torah? Is Maus Torah? Can music be Torah? Torah is a single, sacred text, a network of texts (some of which are sacred), and a way of looking at learning

The Hebrew and Aramaic books on the shelf are staring at me.

Yet, I am also aware that if I teach all of my newfound learning, sometimes weaving together sacred text with information and sometimes imparting “just the facts,” it is perceived to be Torah by my audience. The nexus of a rabbi teaching, Jews learning together, and the situation where Jews have come to be inspired about an issue because they are Jews creates Torah (I also believe  suggest that the first part of this nexus is optional). It is about the interaction as much as the text.

We ask questions—actually, we raise Jewish questions, rooted in what we know (or remember, from way back) about Judaism, what we think “Judaism” has to say about something, or what the Jewish part of our gut tells us. Doesn’t Judaism say that anything can be done in order to save a life? Why should it matter to me as a Jew how the worker who picked my tomato was treated, as long as it is kosher? Should we be concerned about Jews before others? What about “love your neighbor as yourself?” Torah as a transaction is more democratic than Torah as the books on my shelf. The books are the base—but we have to do something with it. In the moments of action, my new areas of expertise become Torah.

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Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is the Director of Programs for T'ruah. Ordained in 2008 from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she was a student activist and leader, she is a noted speaker and writer on Judaism and human rights, including speaking internationally on behalf of the U.S. State Department on the issue of human trafficking. Her writing has appeared on CNN.com, the Forward, the New York Daily News, the Huffington Post, and many other publications. Rabbi Kahn-Troster was named to the Jewish Week's 2011 "36 under 36" for her human rights activism. She serves on the board of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, with her husband, Dr. Paul Pelavin, and their daughters Liora and Aliza.

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