I get that occasionally, actually, being a self-confessed Torah-geek. More often, people not in the professional Jewish world just stare blankly at me when I tell them I go to a weekly Torah class religiously (yes, I get it) and love reading Torah. But this blunt challenge came from a colleague, someone who has been living in Torah-land for more than fifteen years. Was this a mid-career crisis, or was he just posing this question to see how I’d answer it?
I didn’t answer it just then, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since, especially since this week we read the parasha Yitro, when the Israelites stood at Sinai and got the Torah. See, just knowing that shows some geek-ness. And I actually typed “we stood at Sinai” and realized that right there, that was a big assumption, the sense that I was there too. Was it habit, or do I really think that? And what possible relevance does it have to my daily life, if I do?
If you look at Torah as literature, you could make the case that these are just really good stories, like Harry Potter, Grimms’ Fairy Tales and Shakespeare. There are story traditions that are that old – China, Scandinavian, all over the world. But Harry, a witch, and the Bard didn’t engender an entire faith that has lasted thousands of years. So what is it about this collection?
Like so much of what’s valuable in life, I think it’s the essential elusiveness of Torah that compels me to keep reading it, and the writings and commentaries that have grown up around it. I can relate to the characters and story lines in Torah. When I was struggling with baby-making, I could cry with Hannah. When I experience leadership issues in organizations, I can take a look at Moses’ leadership journey. There are other models in the world that I could grab onto, and sometimes I do, so how do the Torah-models really prove themselves relevant to me? Why do I bother?
Well, here it is, near as I can sort this out in my mind.
I like being part of a group. I like feeling that there are others enjoying what I enjoy, struggling with what I struggle with, draw strength from, and (often) disagree with. But I’m in.
I believe I am part of this group called Jew, and this Torah book is like their manual. (You thought I was going to write “bible”, right?…see you’re getting the joke.) To be a productive member of this group, I have certain responsibilities, like being literate about the group itself. To be literate about the group, I need to engage with the group’s history and pulse-beat. That pulse-beat comes through in the form of a weekly reading from the group’s central body of writing and its culture. So it behooves me to become familiar with that writing and that culture, to become literate about my group.
I believe I am part of the group called Americans. To be a productive member of this group, it is my responsibility to become familiar with that group’s central body of writing and its culture. I need to read some books, consider and form opinions, watch some TV, and vote. I also believe I am part of a group called thespians. To be an active member of the group, it helps that I know some history, major works, skilled actors, form some opinions, dis some directors, and keep up my chops.
It boils down to a sense of cultural literacy. When I’m culturally literate about Jewish stuff, the Jewish stuff becomes relevant to me. And then the back and forth begins: if I’m culturally literate, the Torah is relevant, which grounds me in more cultural literacy. I get the jokes. I get the references. I get it, or at least, I keep working at getting it. I also like being able to answer questions from other people about my group. I don’t like identifying with something and not know anything about it.
No one in this group is asking me for answers. It’s more like I’m being asked to keep coming up with questions. That’s fun because I have lots of those. Questions are highly valued in this group, and I like that, too. Notice, I haven’t said anything about services and prayer and religion and God. I’m still struggling with all that. Not sure where I land, but this group says the journey is worth my time. Not sure? Just engage. So I do.
I like living within a context. It’s very grounding. Torah gives me context, so I keep reading it. Then again, so does the Arts and Entertainment section of the newspaper, so I read that, too. I guess I was standing at Sinai after all.