The Heretical Blessings of Torah

Rabbi Juan Mejia
May 14, 2012
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Most of my rabbinical activity is dedicated to teaching people who did not grow up with a clearly defined Jewish identity or who are converting to the Jewish people from without.  In this capacity,  I had always found it very challenging to teach Tanach to this crowd.  It was easy to teach them Jewish Law and customs, since here you have very practical concrete elements.  “This is how you do Jewish, go and do it.”  However, whenever I started to teach parashah, especially when assisted by the traditional commentaries and midrashim on the text, the same problems surfaced again and again. “But rabbi, how can  Rashi and Ramban interpret this verse so differently?  Which one of them is right?”  “But rabbi, isn´t what you´re saying contradicting the midrash?  How can you contradict the midrash?”  Over and over my attempts to teach the richness of the Jewish Biblical exegetical tradition came to loggerheads with the idea, brought from people’s previous belief systems, that the Bible has to have one interpretation which is not only factually and historically true but also self-evident. My frustration grew so much that for many years I refused to teach the weekly portion to my students.

It turns out that it was all my fault.  Pedagogically, I should have persevered in affirming more explicitly and more forcefully the multi-faceted nature of the Jewish view of Torah, which instead of focusing on claims of objectivity, authority and exclusivity, fosters individuality, subjectivity and creativity.  I have since returned to teaching the weekly parasha to people who have been living Jewish lives for some time and who have embodied the practices and traditions of Judaism into their own routine. And, to my great surprise, I have discovered that this multi-teared approach to text has been one of the greatest boons that Judaism has bequeathed my students.  One of my students, a father of a ten year old who studies the parashah with his son every week, has told me that since studying Torah in a Jewish way he feels that he is able to look at a problem from many perspectives.  His son has also benefited academically from the constant exercise of holding and measuring often contradictory positions in his argument. When I began working with some of these communities, the model of leadership was vertical and rigid: people waiting passively from the “authorized” views and opinions from the rabbi or the teacher.  After patient years of studying Torah as Jews, all of these communities have shown a greater tolerance for different opinions, thus fostering more democratic and discursive communities.  This dialectical heritage of the multi-faceted Torah of the Jews where many sources and many authorities can convive together without one of them having the last word, has been one of the most transformative forces in the lives of these communities: truly separating them from the authoritarian and rigid societies that surround them in Latin America.

The word “heresy” comes from the Greek term “hairesis”, which means “choice”.  In the rich tapestry of Judaism, especially in the realm of midrash and Biblical exegesis, we always have a catalogue of choices and opinions to pick from or to pick a fight with.  This gymnastic of the mind and of the will account, in my opinion, for the great skeptical powers of the Jewish people which in turn have established us as a dynamic force of culture throughout our history.  May we continue to be blessed with the heretical boons of this culture of multiplicity and disagreement.

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Rabbi Juan Mejia was born in Bogotá, Colombia. After discovering the Jewish roots of his family, he embarked on a spiritual journey that lead him back to the religion and the people of his ancestors. He holds an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from the National University of Colombia and a summa cum laude Master´s Degree in Jewish Civilization from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He received rabbinic ordination from the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in NY. He plans to devote his life to the Torah education of both Jews and descendants of anusim wherever they may be. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oklahoma City, OK. He was recently appointed as the coordinator for the Southwest for the Jewish non-profit organization Bechol Lashon.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Juan,

    I read about you in the Oklahoman newspaper today. It raised a question – what persuaded you that the Messiah that the Jews seek is not Jesus Christ?


    Dan Radke
    Bethany, OK

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