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Shabbat, 1/17/2009
Ruth Kertzer Seidman

I dedicate this talk to the memory of my father, Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer, whose 25th Yahrtzeit I am observing this week.


Today we read the first portion of the book of Shemot, which we also call by its Greek name, Exodus. The book begins with the names (in Hebrew, Shemot) of the sons of Israel who come to Egypt with their families. Joseph dies. Over the years the Israelites are fruitful and multiply, to the consternation of the Egyptians, and ultimately a new Pharaoh arises who conscripts the Israelites into forced labor. Still the Jewish population keeps increasing, so they are ordered to kill their sons upon birth. The sedrah goes on to tell the miraculous story of the rescue of the infant Moses, his attainment of adulthood, his killing of an Egyptian and flight to Midian, and the episode with the burning bush where God speaks to Moses and tells him it will be mission, with God’s help, to free his people and bring them to the Promised Land.

Moses protests but God prevails. Moses and his family return to Egypt, Moses speaks first to the elders of Israel and then to Pharaoh about liberation. Pharaoh reacts by making the work even heavier for the Israelites who are dismayed. The sedrah ends with the Divine promise to Moses that God will free the people.

As we begin a new book of the Torah, I’d like to look at how we approach Torah reading and Torah study. Over the last year or so I have been thinking quite a bit about what the Torah really means to me. Due to some profound spiritual issues I’ve been facing, Bible study has at times become jarring and difficult to fit into my life. As a result I have been thinking about Torah in its entirety.

For a long time, a few things floating around at Shir Hadash have been uncomfortable to me. One is the idea that we should avoid reading in English the Torah passages that are considered problematical in various ways. This does not make sense for two reasons. One is that if it’s a problem, it’s the same thing if we read it in English or in Hebrew. The fact that some do not understand the Hebrew is irrelevant in my opinion; we are still saying the words, in whatever language. And what is the point of saying words that we don’t understand anyway? The second and main reason that I have a problem with this idea is that if we revere the Torah the way we say we do, I think we should read and study it in its entirety.

Another thing that bothers me is the idea often expressed here is that there are “better” and “worse” parts of the first five books of the Jewish Bible. Now I realize that the imaginative stories about the creation of the world and some of the gripping narratives, such as Joseph and his brothers in Genesis, and the crossing of the Sea in Exodus are more readable and more entertaining than the lists of family generations or the detailed legal sections or the instructions for the dimensions of the Tabernacle. But that, to me, is not the point. (Here I am showing my age, but my own upbringing preceded the idea that the worse thing in the world is to be bored, and that people must constantly be entertained by their teachers or pastors or by the person running a business meeting. But I won’t get into that.)

I think that everything in the Bible is there for a reason, and deserves to be considered, whether or not it is uncomfortable, or worst of all, “boring”. Why do I feel this way?

The Hebrew Bible is the Jews’ primary document. It is our key symbol. In a passage from the Talmud, various mitzvot are enumerated such as honoring ones parents, hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, devotion to prayer, and making peace between people. But, it says, “… the study of the Torah exceeds them all.”

Moreover, look at the customs that have evolved over the years. We rise when the ark is open. We face the Torah as it is carried around the room; we kiss the Torah mantle and kiss the place in the Torah before and after we read. There are rules about taking great care in handling the Torah, and there are rules governing Torah scribes who write the Torah by hand, with requirements for their goodness and purity.

All of this is not the worshipping of an object; rather it is a deep respect for the words in the Torah. This is shown clearly by the requirement that in the public reading from our Torah scroll, every word and, indeed. every syllable must be articulated correctly. In case you were wondering why we have one person standing on each side of the reader and occasionally making a correction, this is the reason. You have to correct the reader. This is not done for the prayers, or even for the rest of the Hebrew Bible, the prophetic books and the writings. These rules were developed before the advent of printing and before wide literacy, but the rules are still observed today. It is considered essential that Jews hear, correctly, the exact words of the five Books of Moses.

Beyond the issue of what sections are read in English, I am more interested in what we choose to pay attention to and study. Why do I think that everything in the five books should be looked at over time?

The canonization process, that is, deciding what books should and should not be included in the Bible, was done with great care and seriousness over many years. There is a body of literature, still studied, that was not canonized. The five books of Moses are thought to have been canonized by the time of the Babylonian exile, 6th century BCE, and the prophetic books around a few hundred years later. The final canonization of the Writings was early in the Common Era.

Nahum Sarna wrote on the significance of what is called the canon:

“Through it Israel became the “People of the Book” and the Bible became the animating force of Jewish existence, its precepts and teachings impressed upon the mind and soul of the nation. The canonized scriptures were looked upon as the faithful witness to the national past, the embodiment of the hopes and dreams of a glorious future, and the guarantee of their fulfillment. They constituted, in time, the main source for the knowledge of Hebrew and typified the supreme standard of stylistic excellence. Through the instrumentality of the Oral Law, they represented the force of truth, wisdom, law, and morality.”

This then is the legacy for the Jewish People. I am not trying to make a case for the Divine origin of scriptures; I am speaking historically, not theologically. If we want to understand our history and our values, we should look at everything we can in the Bible, and in any case, not shrink from confronting those elements that seem to conflict with our modern sensibilities and interests, or because of our concern about how it will sound to people of other faiths, or to Jews who might be considering returning to the fold.

I wonder if part of the problem is that many of us were brought up to think that as Jews we are somehow morally superior. When we find all sorts of bad behavior in our people’s primary text, we usually deal with it by trying to show that it is somehow an aberration, or else that the story is put there to teach us a moral lesson to do better in our own lives. (Traditional commentators did just that.) However, some of these stories are difficult to explain even in these ways. That is when we try to pretend they are not there.

There is also the matter of the large amount of material in the five Books of Moses that cover seemingly obscure ancient laws that are of little interest today. What do we do about these? If we ignore them, what is the meaning of our show of respect for the Torah? Last year as we worked our way through Exodus, I noticed that the portion Mishpatim begins with the laws governing slaves held by Hebrews. This comes immediately after the stirring moral power of the Ten Commandments concluding the previous portion, Yitro. I thought: How could this be? We know that placement is important, what passage follows what. We have been taught that the giving of the Ten Commandments is the culmination of the process started by going out from Egypt, that the true freedom of the Jewish people came when they accepted God’s laws of behavior and morality. Now we see that they themselves are slave owners. This puts a whole new light on our “freedom Seders”.

Jacob, later called Israel, wrestled with an angel. We as Jews should not shrink from wrestling with difficult ideas or with practices of our ancestors that we no longer espouse. We must start by acknowledging that this is our story, no matter its dissonance with our comfort zone. This is the story of the Jewish People, a story our ancestors told, retold, and studied.

I don’t have the all the answers to the concerns raised today, but I have to be optimistic that in time some of this will become clearer. In Avot in the Mishnah, we are told that Ben Bag Bag said, of the Torah, “Turn it over and over, for everything is in it.” I say that we will keep turning it over, and, even if we don’t find all the answers, we are certain that we will keep on learning.