The Paint and the Portrait

May 1, 2012
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Aaron Potek

When I’m in an unfamiliar environment, I’m often asked to speak on behalf of Orthodox Jews, or the Jewish people, or Americans, as if any of those identities represented a unified opinion. In the same way that I’m uncomfortable lumping diverse groups of people into one overarching category, I am equally uncomfortable doing something similar with the texts that I spend most of my days studying as a rabbinical school student. Not all texts are sacred, and not all sacred texts are equally sacred. It would be easier if they were. For many Haredi Jews, rabbinic commentators composed their works with “ruach hakodesh” (divine inspiration); therefore, we cannot distinguish between the works of the prophets and, say, the commentary of Rashi. On the other hand, many liberal Jews believe that all of our texts were created by humans and have, therefore, less inherent spiritual value.

There are many levels and varieties of holiness in texts. Older texts are closer to divine revelation, yet newer texts are closer to our ultimate redemption. Some texts reflect God’s hopes for us; others reflect our hopes for God. Each new generation must produce texts that reveal, clarify, reapply, or reshape the divine truths found within the body of texts it inherits. What unites all these texts is that they are opportunities to connect with something beyond us. As someone engaged in that endeavor, I embrace the fact that these texts guide my life. Sometimes they tell me what to do. Sometimes they challenge me to think about something in a new way. Sometimes they teach me something about myself. Each text has the potential to affect me in a profound way, even, perhaps especially, when I passionately disagree with it. These texts are the paints I’ve been handed to create my life portrait.

Connecting to God is not easy, and neither is the process of trying to figure out what God wants from me. Texts won’t make these challenges disappear, but I do believe they can open a door to a meaningful relationship with God. These texts are authoritative in that they obligate us to wrestle with them. This process is what unites the Jewish people; it’s also why we are so disconnected. Holy texts rarely give us clear guidance. We are commanded not to murder, and yet we are also commanded to annihilate the nation of Amalek. We are told every person is created equally in the image of God, yet we are the chosen people. We are given detailed laws about bringing sacrifices, yet we are later informed that God cares about justice, not sacrifices. There are texts that can be used to support completely opposing viewpoints and ideologies. Perhaps the only thing I am certain about when it comes to God’s will is that we have no choice but to struggle with these texts. They are our identity.

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Aaron Potek is a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in Riverdale, N.Y. This summer he will be working as an educator for Genesis, a pluralistic, experiential program for teenagers from across the world. He hopes to serve as a campus rabbi after receiving ordination.

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