Parshat Ekev

1. Shabbat Shalom

2. Last Shabbat, in response to the crisis in Israel over who is a Jew, we took a look at what it means to be a Conservative/Masorti Jew. After all, if we expect the members of Israel’s Knesset to understand our needs and our commitment to Judaism, Israel and Jewish Law, we need to understand ourselves what we mean when we say, “I am a Conservative Jew!” Last Shabbat I talked about how we look at Jewish Law. I noted that for Jewish Law to be alive, it must be able to change. It has always changed and we just continue that fundamental concept in our Movement. We believe in tradition, but when the law needs to be changed so that it can help us to live better, more meaningful lives, we believe that changing Jewish law is a requirement that we must not ignore.

3. There is another side to our Movement as well. It is not in the practical, day to day observance of Judaism, but more in the philosophic area. Being a Jew has a lot to do with our actions in the world, but being a Jew also must deal with what we believe. What we do must be based on what we believe, and what we believe must play out in what we do. For example, Jews believe in one God, no more, and no less. We do not believe that we are on our own nor do we believe that we are at the mercy of conflicts in the universe between competing gods. This fundamental belief makes possible our commitment to justice. Our belief in one god, makes it possible for us to act with justice in the world.

4. So how are Conservative Jews different from other Jews? The point of difference is not how many gods there are in our faith. The issue is about how that God communicates the Divine will to human beings. Jews consider the Torah as the record of what God has commanded the Jewish people (and what God has commanded other people as well). According to the Torah, the Divine will was communicated to our people when they stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai. The Torah said that God spoke to the people of Israel and to Moses and the result was the contents of our Torah scroll.

5. Modern philosophers tell us that in our time, there are really only two types of Jews. Those who believe that the record in the Torah is literally true, and those who do not. The literalists tell us that we have no right to change one letter, or one vowel of the text of the Torah because it is Divine in origin and it represents the words that our ancestors heard at Sinai. The non-literalists also believe that the Torah is the record of God’s communication with human beings, but that communication did not occur at Mount Sinai. The Torah is the record of all the ways we have heard the words of God over hundreds if not thousands of years. Over time, the record of this communication was edited into the Torah that we read today.

6. It would be easy if we could just prove one way or the other if the Torah is true or not. Unfortunately, there is no proof one way or the other. There are no other accounts of what happened at Sinai or if Sinai even happened at all. One of the weird things about the Torah is the fact that we have no historical evidence of anything in the Bible until after the death of King Solomon. Does this mean that the Torah is not true? Does it mean that it is all fiction? Does it mean that there was no Moses, Abraham or King David? The honest answer is that we just don’t know. Anyone who says one way or the other is taking the matter on faith, not on any historical basis.

7. So does this mean that the Torah is not true? Well, that depends on what you consider to be the truth. Literalists believe that the Torah is not only a true account of what God said to us but that it is historically true as well. But if we think about it, historical accuracy does not change at all the truth of the lessons in the Torah. Abraham’s legacy of faith and hospitality, Moses’ struggle to help us learn how to stop being slaves and start acting like free people all do not depend on historical accuracy. Whether or not our ancestors stood at Sinai does not make the Ten Commandments any less important or compelling.

8. The literalists tell us that if God did not speak to us with clear words at Sinai, then the Torah is just a collection of good ideas that people had and would therefore have no authority to command us on how we should live our lives. Non-literalists believe that the Torah is a Midrash, the master story, as to how our ancestors viewed their relationship to God. It may have been written by human hands, but clearly there is Divinity in every Mitzvah, indeed in every letter. How God communicated with us is an interesting question, but we believe that God did speak to us and the Torah is our story as to how we understand that communication.

9. Last Shabbat we read again, the words of the Ten Commandments. But according to the Torah, how many of them were actually spoken by God? The Torah is not very clear. At first it seems to say that God spoke “all these words”, but later it says that the people first heard God and were very frightened and told Moses that he should listen to God and then tell the people what God said. If you look at the commandments, you see that the first two commandments are written as if God spoke them, but the other eight are written in the “third person” as if they were communicated to the people by Moses. Some sages in the Talmud wrote that all the people heard at Sinai was the first commandment, that the second one was also given to the people by Moses. Actually it is really hard to figure out what the second commandment really is but that is a different lesson for a different day. I have always been intrigued by the lesson of one Hasidic Rabbi who said that perhaps all the people heard at Sinai was the first word, “Anochi” the Divine declaration of self. And then he goes on to say that perhaps all the people heard was just the first letter of the first word of the commandments. What letter is that? “Aleph” and what is the sound of an Aleph? It is the one letter that has no sound!

10. Does that mean our ancestors listened for God’s voice and heard nothing? I don’t think so. Our Tradition tells us that each person at Sinai, and the people who lived before Sinai and all those destined to be born after Sinai, they all heard the voice of God. That each person heard it in their own language and in a way that they could clearly understand it. That at the moment that God spoke, the world was completely silent. Perhaps what they heard, they did not “hear” with their ears. Perhaps they only heard the voice of God through their hearts. Elijah wanted to hear God’s voice and only heard a still small voice. A murmuring sound that perhaps he felt in his heart and which was not audible through his ears. Like I said, the Torah is not very clear on all of this, perhaps because how God speaks, is not the same as the way we speak.

11. Everyone here has been listening to Rabbis preach about the Torah for most of our lives. Does it really make any real difference in the truth of those lessons if the Torah was one original document or a redaction of four different historical documents? We who read many different newspapers and listen to different television programs so that we can put the information together and learn the truth, do we really think that even the Torah was not compiled from the lessons of many people over a long period of time? Rather than discredit the truth of the Torah, these different sources testify to the eternal truths of the Torah that were evident over a long span of time.

12. The difference in belief then colors the way we view the world. God’s teachings were not limited to Sinai, but have spoken to us in every generation including our own generation. When we study Torah and seek to learn the truth in what it has to say, we are participating in an act of revelation as important as the one recorded in the Torah. Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary summarized this idea when he wrote, “When I pray, I talk to God. When I study, God talks to me.” Revelation is not a record of something that happened long ago, it is an ongoing conversation that we can have with God when we sit down and study the words of Torah.

13. I admit that this way of understanding God and Torah will not work very well if we still consider God to be just like Michelangelo painted him on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. If we think of God as an old man with a long beard sitting on a throne in heaven, then a historical understanding of Torah will not resonate with that theology very well. But we don’t think of God as being far away in Heaven, but a part of our very existence. If we consider God to be close by and caring about who we are and how we live our lives, then we can also understand how the words of Torah can shape our lives even if we cannot prove the historical accuracy of the text.

14. Our non-literal view of the Torah helps us understand God as being a close and personal part of our lives. God is therefore always close at hand, in good times and in bad times. God rejoices with us when we celebrate and cries with us in our hour of sadness and despair. We can always count on God and we live our lives so that God can count on us, to bring justice, mercy, kindness and compassion into the world, just as God commanded us to do in the Torah. This is the essence of our belief and content of the brit, the covenant that we have with our Creator.

15. May everyday bring us closer to God and closer to living a Godly life, not with blind faith in a text, but in the greater faith that comes when we open our minds and hearts to hear God’s voice as it commands us as it commanded our ancestors.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

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