Torah: An Unfolding Story

May 1, 2012
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Nick Renner

In considering the role that sacred texts and Torah play in my life, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a colleague about violent passages found in the book of Judges. Biblical but not Torah, the book of Judges includes some of the more insidious elements in our canonical writings. My colleague asked something to this effect: “How can we really relate to all this bloodshed as a virtuous, godly thing?” Pondering the question, I realized that I don’t see our Jewish canonical scriptures as monolithic and authoritative tomes, transgressing many contemporary values while demanding absolute fealty. To me, the power of Torah lies in the way in which its drama is recounted through a range of texts and interpretations that map our narrative and tell our story.

Many Jews debate whether or not the Torah is divinely revealed, or whether it is a work of human authorship. This question doesn’t help me get at the meaning of Torah in my own life. Regardless of who wrote our scripture and under what circumstances, I understand Torah as the story of my people’s relationship with God. Reading the Torah as a living document, with evolving impact and meaning for subsequent generations, has helped me to maintain the centrality of text in my own understanding of religious life, and also helped me to feel a sense of connection and rootedness with Jewish tradition. In contrast to what some might say, I don’t see contemporary progressive Jewish movements as a deviation from normative Judaism; I see them as part of an unfolding story.

Mishnah, Gemara, legal scholars, and mystics all serve to refract our holy writings and provide us with a framework for being Jews. And just as we use the Torah and the full range of subsequent works to understand our people’s story, so, too, can we come to understand something about ourselves. Today, not only can we look at halakhic answers, but we can see many of the historical, social, cultural, and theological processes that lead us to contemporary, innovative solutions. Today, we can examine our own Judaism and how it came to be, with respect to these processes, and we can see how we fit into the broader Jewish story.

While I live my life by Jewish precepts and instruction, I find my relationship with sacred texts to be complicated. While I sometimes look to various sacred texts to enrich my understanding of a practice or to find a concrete answer to a halakhic question, far more often I go to a text with the aim of taking part in a broad discourse that spans across generations, centuries, and continents. Jewish explication — arguing and wrestling with one another as well as with scholars, thinkers, and philosophers of earlier generations — has existed for centuries. Jews have always had a plurality of opinions and ideas, and that’s why the Talmud is one of the longest written works in the ancient world; it preserved many dissenting ideas and arguments.

This model of wrestling, arguing, and grappling with sacred texts most accurately captures my relationship with them. It isn’t a matter of simply deferring to authority. Rather, it is deeply engaging with Torah through arguing and questioning that marks the relationship. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s civilization-based approach to learning about Judaism has helped me to form a relationship with Judaism that is contextualized; I’ve come to see different Jewish eras and innovations as a function not only of the received tradition, but also of their respective times and places. This approach suggests ways in which contemporary practices are both reflective of the world around us and deeply rooted in Jewish tradition.

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Nick Renner is a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa. Originally from Chapel Hill, N.C., Renner is looking forward to his second year as the rabbinic intern at the University of Delaware Hillel.

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