Jewish identity is rooted in and flows from the Torah and related sacred writings, the Mishnah and Talmud.
Torah is not merely a collection of writings; it is the ongoing process of engagement – it is the parameters of the Jewish conversation.
To be a Jew is to be a part of this conversation and to find yourself in the narratives it offers.
To appreciate the fullness of the Jewish conversation, we must understand that the process of engaging Torah is mythic, nonliteral, and progressive.
Reading Torah Mythically
The language of spirituality is that of myth.
Humans encapsulate their core truths and find their meaning and place in the world through stories. The human person is a story-telling, metaphor-loving, symbol-making being for whom myth encapsulates information regarding fundamental, existential meaning.
Myth – stories, parables, narratives – provides individuals and cultures with a central framework for wisdom – a collective sense of identity and set of shared values.
Identity depends on story. Without our stories we lose ourselves.
Torah is our story – the Jewish story, and it’s a story with share with Christians and even Muslims.
The Tanakh (Jewish Bible) combines history remembered with history metaphorized, expressing sacred myths that are primarily sweeping spiritual statements, providing context for answers (but not necessarily the answers themselves) to life’s basic questions.
Jewish identity and personal spirituality requires weaving our own experience into these myths to form a narrative context for our life.
However, we live in the age when the Judeo-Christian mythos that sustained Western culture is decaying, most likely beyond the ability to revive and reinvigorate the culture. As our once central myths erode, the West currently suffers from an increasing anarchy of meaning and value, and is tending toward nihilism.
Shatter the shared mythic narratives and symbols that provide a culture with its basis for collective thought and action, and you’re left with a society in fragments, where ego and idiosyncratic personal agendas are the only motives left, and communication between divergent subcultures becomes impossible because there aren’t enough common meanings left to make that an option.
The only way to avert the slide into nihilism’s abyss is to revitalize our sacred narratives and myths. And key to the revitalization is the updating of the Judeo-Christian mythos with a variety of insights, including those from evolution, science, organic systems-thinking, psychology, and social science.
The culture at large requires a re-telling of Torah, and the revitalization of the Jewish community requires the same.
Without Torah there is no Judaism and no Jews (Jewishness as an ethnic-cultural-political identity is essentially a short-lived project.) To quote Rabbi Rami Shapiro:
“God may be a figment of our imagination; Israel may be just one nation among others; Jews may be chosen only in our own eyes; but Torah is indispensable.The future of Judaism and the Jewish people doesn’t depend on where we live, how we vote, or whom we marry. The future depends on whether or not we engage Torah passionately and creatively.”
Reading Torah Non-Literally
Torah is not inerrant, infallible, or even divinely authored – it is a collection of inspired writings that recorded our ancestor’s understandings of the divine.
The sacred texts are not inerrant or infallible – they are a collection of inspired writings that recorded our ancestor’s understandings of the divine.
The texts were not meant to serve as historical or scientific documents, and their moral application must be subtly, culturally applied. Since Torah consists of many viewpoints, and sometimes contradictory ones, our reading is always selective.
Literal readings render the core myths irrelevant.
The Torah contains many ideas and moral notions that are rightly rejected – genocide, patriarchy, sexism, divinely-sanctioned violence, holy war, misogyny, outdated views on sexuality and marriage, and remnants of an ancient worldview that lacked the benefit of today’s scientific, psychological, and historical knowledge.
Despite this necessary filtering, the Biblical writings contain a core of insights that still ring true and animate contemporary Western culture and spiritual practice.
Torah contains revolutionary ideas and timeless truths – the equality of all humanity, the equality of men and women, and the inherent dignity of all human life created in the image of God. It dictates love of strangers and calls for the care of the poor and the outcast. Its vision remains vital for any people who wish to be considered humane.
Reading Torah Progressively
Seeking wisdom is a continuous process, confined to no one group and to no one age. We are to apply the texts to our current realities – with both the text and our current understanding of reality in dialog, neither trumping the other.
The texts are living and meant to speak to every generation. To do so, each generation must engage the texts in an ongoing conversation. Every Jew has a voice in this conversation and a role in Torah’s ongoing reinterpretation.
The process of Torah is progressive, not static.
We must find ways of engaging iron-aged myths with postmodern thinking. What is required is critical naïveté – the ability to recognize myth for what it is, move beyond the literal concerns, and then, with updated knowledge, engage the myth allowing it to inform, engage, and transform us.