Thursday, May 28, 2009

Twittered Torah?: Connecting on Shavuot

We've had soundbyte Judasim - now it's twitter Judaism. The Torah in 140 characters - or less.

But on Shavuos it's not the 10 tweeks which we commemorate, but the ten commandments. And the paradoxes implicit in matan torah certainly defy the best of twitterers, tweekers and bloggers.

Z'man Matan Tora-teinu - so we refer to Shavuos in our liturgy. Here is the beginning of the paradox. On Shavuos we celebrate the giving of the Torah - so let our prayerbooks refer simply to z'man matan torah! Instead we speak of the giving of our Torah. On Mount Sinai, G-d betows a gift which already belongs to us! This is another way of expressing the truth implicit in the sages' reading of the first word of our Torah - b'reishit. Not only literally, 'in the beginning,' but on a deeper level, as the sages learn בשביל - on behalf of - רשית - the 'first.' G-d created the world on behalf of the 'first' - referred to by our prophets as both 'Israel' and 'Torah.' Beyond the simple meaning of the verse lies the insight that there is no Giver without a recipient. There is no Torah without Israel - no giving of the Torah without those suitable to receive it.

So what is Torah - is it a divine absolute truth? or something that comes into the world through our reception of it? Is such a question the place where the wars over Torah begin? where, on the one side, Jewish fundamentalists claim to have the absolute truth, while, on the other, progressive Jews claim that Torah is a function of perception and interpretation?

The Rabbis were not philosophers, so when they address such questions, they do so not through philosophical precepts, but through stories:

Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Avitar were learning the Book of Judges, arguing about the meaning of a word in a verse. Their argument unresolved, Rabbi Avitar takes a break and finds Elijah the Prophet by the coffee machine. 'So what is G-d doing now?,' Rabbi Avitar asks. 'Funny you should ask,' Elijah replies: 'he's very busy now, learning Torah - actually the dispute between Rabbi Avitar and Rabbi Yochanan.' 'And,' he continues, 'if you put your ear up to the walls of the Divine Study Hall, said the prophet, you will hear G-d learning: "So says my son Yochanan, so says my son Avitar."'

Like the verse about which the two sages were arguing, there are (at least) two ways to understand the story. In a version of a contemporary interpreter, the study hall of Rabbi Avitar and Rabbi Yochanan serves a Mount Sinai in miniature: 'just as G-d placed the words of Torah in the mouth of Moses, so when the two stages where learning, they did not say their own words, but rather the Words of the Living G-d.'

In this understanding, the giving of Torah on Sinai is the model, and the experience of the two sages derives from it. Just as G-d revealed himself to Moses, so he reveals himself to the two sages in the beit ha'midrash. The Nefesh Ha'chaim, however, presents a different - and seemingly more modern and radical - point of view: 'Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Avitar were engaged in the study of Torah, and therefore G-d repeated their words.' In the first account, God as Giver of Torah takes precedence; in the second, the sages of Israel as recipients of Torah come first. One version emphasizes God and Sinai in the past, the other the house of study - the here and now - where Torah is learned and multiplied.

But does the argument about the interpretation of the story have to mark the beginning of the wars over Torah and Judaism - the difference between the belief in Torah as an ancient eternal truth and a contemporary Torah as a product of interpretation? Not if the dispute between the latter readers of the story is understood as a version of the kind of dispute in which Rabbi Avitar and Rabbi Yochanan were themselves involved. Of this dispute, the Heavenly Voice proclaims, 'these and these are the words of the living G-d.' Both perspectives are true, or rather partial truths - which the story itself conveys. The truth of the Torah is absolute, divine, and also a matter of interpretation. Don't tell such things to philosophers or academic literary critics - who instead of entertaining paradox, reject what - to their minds is - contradiction. The giving of Torah begins with relationship and connection - between the Divine Giver and the people of Israel, who in their receiving of the Torah bring the Torah into the world. There is no Torah without the people of Israel!

Torah study - toiling in Torah for its own sake - produces a kind of connection, which, whether in the time of Rabbi Avitar, or our own, links the Torah’s interpreters back to Sinai. So the Nefesh Hachaim explains, 'At every moment that a person is cleaving to the words of the Torah in the appropriate fashion, the words rejoice as if they were given from Sinai.' Rejoicing words - utterances of the here and now - share in the joy felt in the Revelation of Sinai. Z'man Matan Tora-teinu - the giving of the Torah to which we already have a claim, which is already ours. So, as in the liturgy, what the kabbalists call, the Nosain and M'kabel, the Giver and Recipient come together, as past and present do as well, when we sit in the house of study on Shavuos night and hear - if we are learning Torah for it's own sake - the voice of Sinai resound.

Can't twitter that.

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1 comment:

SquarePeg613 said...

Thanks, that was interesting. I constantly struggle with that paradox that you describe -- how can Torah be absolute Truth (which on some level I believe) and also be the product of interpretation (which it clearly is). Are you suggesting that Torah is both of these at the same time?