Rabbi Arthur Waskow
What is Torah?
In many discussions that I have had with others regarding the teachings of Torah, or when debating Jewish responses to current issues that draw upon Torah, it has appeared helpful to clarify my beliefs about the nature of Torah. In this article, I outline some thoughts on this topic.
For me, it is the record of the "Jewish family's" spiritual search, its/ our search for God, over the last 3500 years. So it has within it many voices, though not every voice that should have been there -- very few women, the most obvious; very few gay people, perhaps the next -- and for about 2,000 years what we call Torah has been heavily dominated by a smallish group of highly verbal-oriented men.
Very recently, thank God, that has begun to change. More of our voices are not only joining the exploration -- surely they were always exploring -- but being heard by the whole community, and attended to, and their thoughts encoded as Torah.
AND -- seeing Torah as this outpouring of the spiritual search of Jews does not, for me, prevent it from being also at least some of the time the voice of God. Why? Because I think of the struggle for spiritual enlightenment as itself God breaking through in the universe -- the struggle, not only the result. As the Rebbe of Chernobyl said 200 years ago, "What is the world? The world is God, wrapped in robes of God so as to appear material. And who are we? God, wrapped in robes of God; and our task is to unwrap the robes and dis-cover that we and all the world are God."
We are God trying to dis-cover who we are. And Torah is the particular Jewish record of that universal effort.
When I say "universal," I mean especially but not only human. I think the universe -- all of it -- is in the midst of an evolution toward a deeper, fuller, consciousness of itself as God. Humans (at least on this planet) are on the leading edge of that process. But the emergence of higher and higher levels of coherence, from galaxies to stars to planets to chemical soups to "life" that wills its own change only thru millennia of genetic evolution to life that wills its own change through locomotion to life that becomes capable of seeing its surroundings as a whole, including itself within them, and beginning to understand there IS a universe -- that seems to me God unfolding.
(I am drawing here both on Lurianic Kabbalah and on a very radical -- some thought heretical -- Catholic theologian of about 50 years ago, Teilhard de Chardin.)
As a mystic once said, "The eye through which we see God is the same eye thru which God sees us." The Torah thru which we yearn for and describe God is the same Torah thru which God yearns for and describes us.
Which does not mean that "anything goes": genocide of Canaanites, subjugation of women, proscription of gays -- just because it is written in what we have inherited. The spiritual search goes on, the process of "dis-covering" our Selves goes on.
Some of what is in ancient Torah I think of as efforts at forward steps very much crippled by the leg-irons of that level of society, the assumptions and possibilities from before. Unavoidable, but sad. For instance, the assigning of rigidly different roles to men and to women: an effort to make sure that both active Making/ Doing / Learning and receptive Loving/ Communing / Being got done in the world -- a worthy goal of spiritual life -- heavily leg-chained by male dominance and by seemingly available limited choices for how to actualize those energies. So one got heavily assigned to men, another to women.
Today we are in the midst of trying to keep both those energies alive ACROSS gender boundaries. Striking a vital balance this way is not in fact so easy. But it is crucial.
Or -- why conquer Canaan and (in theory, though not in fact) wipe out those who lived there? -- I see it as: A deep urge to change the world, to make it decent. The only means that seemed possible: military victory and scouring the land of other cultures. We do the job on our own.
That was the Biblical model. The advent of advanced Hellenistic society, including the Roman legion, smashed that model.
So Rabbinic Judaism gave up on changing the world and focused on making an internally holy and mentschlich Jewish community. For almost 2000 years it mostly worked -- suffering pogroms and expulsions, but livable. Still living on our own, but in a new way.
The Shoah smashed THAT model. In the Modern world, no place to hide and grow in spirituality. Either the Great Powers must be tamed and civilized, or they will not merely harass and torment, but wipe out all smaller cultures, including ours.
Now what? I would say, a decision that we MUST change the Big World -- but not thru military conquest. Which means, not on our own. We can take the Prophetic vision of our share in transforming the world ALONGSIDE others. Using nonviolence (like Freedom Seders, Tibet Seders, Hoshana Rabbah in public, aimed to heal the Hudson and to correct GE, which has refused to clean out of the River the PCB's it dumped there).
So that's how I see the evolution of Torah as an aspect of the evolution of God's Own Self and of our own selves, esp. our dis-covery of God in our own selves. There is a great deal of this evolution, this spiritual search, still to go. We are in the midst of great surge in the effort. That is what Jewish renewal is, who we are: part of a great surge forward in God-as-human's self-awareness of being God.
by Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Director, The Shalom Center.