What is Torah to Me?

Apropos of Simchas Torah, here are some recent thoughts of mine on Torah.

I am not an observant Jew; but I recently read something online that caught my attention:

Gentiles on this website: “Religious people never question what they’re told, they just followed blindly!”

My actual rabbi: “Sometimes, the Torah can be like an older relative whom we love dearly, and who has a lot of wisdom to give, but who also says things that cause us pain, that we find offensive or wrong. And I think the wrong instinct would be to pretend we don’t hear what they’re saying, or to cut them out entirely, or to be guided by them into thinking and behaving in offensive ways. What we need to do is engage with Torah. We need to wrestle with it, and try to understand it, to figure out where it’s coming from and learn how we can progress from it, because the Torah is not unchanging. It belongs in each of our hearts, and it changes for us as we study it, as each generation challenges its old assumptions.”

This got me thinking, as a Jew who was once religious, who abandoned for a while the faith of his ancestors, returned, and then put aside all superstition and fairy tales. Though I am not observant, I often think about how I can express my Judaism, as a non-believer. And the above posting made me feel as if I could, and perhaps should, return to a few of the customs of my people—like making Shabbos, and studying the weekly parishat.

What is Torah to me? To me, Torah (all of the Tanach, in fact) is a collection of the foundation myths of my people. And it’s a multigenerational conversation about the nature of the cosmos and our place in it. There is philosophy, and ethics, and folktales, and dirty poems.

Yes, Torah is very much like a beloved, but somewhat senile old grandfather, who has a penchant for expressing outmoded, hateful, and hurtful views. He may have a lot of wisdom, gained throughout the years of his life, but so what? We have, as human beings, sympathy for one another, empathy with one another, and an understanding of morality for which we need not rely upon religion. We can’t pretend we don’t hear what Grandad is saying, nor can we cast him out of the house completely, but we can (and should) keep him away from company.

What I think we should do, is what we as Jews have always done down through the centuries; We must wrestle with Torah, as Jacob wrestled with the angel of God. We must learn to understand and appreciate Torah for what it is. We must progress beyond Torah, as this nameless rabbi quoted above says, but not forget it entirely. It has been said that fiction is a lie that conveys truth. But I would never mistake literature for immutable holy writ. The Bible tells me more about who and what my people thought of themselves, and our place in the world, than about concepts of God, or Truth.

I like the phrase, “to wrestle with Torah.” To be a Jew is to question God. To challenge Him, and to argue with Him. Abraham argued with God. Moses argued with God. Job argued with God. And, as noted, Jacob even wrestled with God. The rabbis argued with each other. The Talmud itself is a cross-generational discussion of Torah, spanning centuries, arguing over what Torah ought to mean to us and how to properly observe it in all times and places. Our scientists and philosophers argued with us all. And even if we abandon the idea of God, and move on from superstition, we do not abandon our Jewishness—who and what we are.
Even during my darkest and most “un-Jewish” moments, I have always considered myself Jewish. Even now, when I am no longer observant, and no longer able to accept the existence of God, there is still something within me that “feels” Jewish. What is it, I ask myself? I don’t know. A sense of shared history and national trauma? Yes, that’s part of it. A shared culture and set of languages? That, too. A peculiar outlook on life? Probably. A shared way of seeing the world? Almost certainly. But I don’t know of any one specific thing I could point to.

While I am no longer a believer, I am more likely to introduce myself as a Jew than as an atheist. Perhaps, like the joke in “Yes, Prime Minister,” God is simply an optional extra in Judaism—well, depending on the sect, anyway.

One of the reasons I am grateful for the establishment of the State of Israel is that it helps provide a way of being Jewish that, while taking into account our shared history and cultures, depends upon none of them.

But it all began with Torah.

About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a high school ESOL teacher, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in Beijing's Dongcheng district
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