If, like me, you make a habit of bringing books with you to synagogue to read along with the Torah portion, I have a couple to recommend for this year’s new Torah cycle—one by a rabbi, and one by a Presbyterian minister (or, more accurately, his daughter who compiled some of her favorites of his sermons into a book after his death). I brought both along with me this past year, to enhance my understanding of the Torah portion; and this rabbi and minister successfully restored my faith in the power of Bible study. When I say Bible study, I mean in the sense of “Turn it and turn it, because all is in it” (Avot, 5).
I am a post-denominational rabbi (ordained privately by Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky in 2005) and an interfaith-interspiritual minister (ordained at One Spirit Interfaith Seminary in 2016). I believe that there is much that is beautiful, uplifting and healing in living inspired by the wisdom of those who have been devoted throughout time to imagining what it means to live a life of Spirit, Service and Surrender. Yet, I also find it difficult often to sit and listen to the Torah portion in synagogue. After almost fifty years of life, hearing the portion week after week, year after year, I find myself often being drawn to what I don’t like in the portion.
For example, living in Israel with the reality of the Palestinian-Jewish conflict, I am especially perturbed by the passages that advocate for coming into Canaan and taking over the land through violent means, presenting this approach as the word of God. It is difficult for me as a woman to listen to a verse that says a man “takes” a woman, knowing full well that it is this verse that has kept countless women in bondage to their ex-husbands. And as a believer in LGBTQ rights, I cringe when I hear Leviticus 18:22 read aloud every year, even if it can be interpreted as not against modern-day homosexuality.
And of course, there are the rules of slavery, the sotah (the wife accused of adultery), the chosen-ness of the Jewish people, killing someone who collects branches on Shabbat, all of which I find very problematic. And so, I decided to see if bringing along both a preacher and a rabbi to synagogue with me in my tallit bag might alter my experience for the better. I was not disappointed.
The Heart of Torah was written by Rabbi Shai Held, who is the president and dean at the Hadar Institute—a center for advanced Jewish learning that includes an egalitarian yeshiva and interdenominational adult education and continuing education for rabbis and educators. Hadar’s stated purpose is to create Jewish community living an interpretation of Torah (in the broadest sense of the word) that reflects the traditional and modern worldview of its founders, of which Held is one.
This is a two-volume set, and for each Torah portion, Held provides us with two short essays. Each essay is at most five or six pages. They are succinct yet full of rich material culled from a variety of sources, such as classical Jewish texts, modern Bible scholars, modern-day theologians (both Jewish and other-than-Jewish), and more.
As the title of this work suggests, Held focuses on what he sees as the Heart of Torah. But what he means by the Heart of Torah is not just the essence of Torah, but the heart that is in Torah. Held highlights values like compassion, love, and gratitude—values that would not necessarily be attributed to the biblical period, nor even be associated especially with Judaism in general.
The values of love and compassion, for example, are popularly associated more with Christianity; and the efficacy of surrender is more usually associated with Islam or Buddhism. Gratitude, forgiveness, empathy, mindfulness, acceptance: these are all words that are very much in vogue today in spiritual circles—and I for one am glad they are!—but they are not words that necessarily come to mind when we think of the Five Books of Moses.
Held, however, finds all of these in the text—and not in a way that is at all forced. Of course, Held was able to choose what to highlight in the portion each week. Often, he leaves the difficult stuff to one side. But at times he confronts it, and somehow he still managed to leave this reader with hope for humanity: no small accomplishment.
Held also often surprised me with some small insights into the text that felt like true gems. For example, on the portion of Mattot-Masei, which can often feel like just a monotonous list of stops along the way to the true desired goal, he writes:
Let me offer a different (admittedly homiletical) interpretation: The text serves to remind us that even seemingly inconsequential stops on our journey can be powerful opportunities for serving God… R Kook insists that “the truth is that there is nothing in the world that is not for the honor for the Blessed Holy One…When one strives with all one’s intelligence and with all one’s abilities to carry out every action with the summit of perfect wholeness in all its dimensions—then one will know the Blessed Holy One in every way.” We serve God, in other words, by being fully present wherever we are.
Or on the Torah portion of Ekev and the commandment to circumcise our hearts:
“God desires the heart,” say the Talmudic sages (BT Sanhdedrin 106b). For all its insistent focus on the deed, and for all its impassioned commitment to the life of the mind, Judaism is also, profoundly, a religion of the heart. Deuteronomy repeatedly reminds Israel to love God and to hold God in awe; it calls upon the people to protect the vulnerable and to care about their fate. It asks Israel, in short, to serve God “with all of your heart, and with all of your being, and with all of your might” (Deut 6:5). Yet it also struggles with human stubbornness and recalcitrance. It challenges us to open our hearts even as it worries that our rebelliousness and obstinacy will prevent us from doing so… Bible scholar Moshe Weinfeld explains that “an uncircumcised heart, like an uncircumcised ear (Jer. 6:10) and uncircumcised lips (Exod. 6:12, 30), means that an organ is incapable of absorbing feelings and impressions from the outside.” To circumcise the heart thus symbolizes “achieving a condition of responsiveness open to God’s word.”
As someone who struggles with the ritual of circumcision, this interpretation of what it means gave me food for thought. Even if this was not Held’s intention, it made me wonder if circumcision was actually thought to make a man more, not less, sensitive sexually. I have often heard it described as a procedure meant to curb a man’s sexual arousal, not increase it. It also made me wonder if one could see it also, even if symbolically, as meant to make the male more open and receptive to his partner’s feelings. More “feminine,” in fact.
However, Held can be bitingly critical of modern-day corruption and warped ethics. For example, on his second essay on Korah, he writes:
Why do the priests in particular need to be reminded about being givers rather than takers? Consider the realm of politics: Our culture is saturated with stories of people who start out genuinely wanting to serve, but quickly grow intoxicated by the power, privilege, and prestige of office. What begins as a yearning to give ends up as a sense of entitlement to take. Religious leaders are, sadly, not exempt from such temptations. A commitment to serve gives way to a compulsive pursuit of fame, or power, or adoration. So God reminds the priests—and by extension all of us: Genuine leadership is about serving, not grasping.
And, of course, from all we have learned from the ongoing #MeToo campaign, this lesson can easily extend to “taking” and “grasping” sexually as well. Relevant to today’s difficult headlines, Held’s commentary on the past, like that of Presbyterian Minister Richard Murdoch, helps illuminate the present.
Void if Detached: Seeking Modern Spirituality Through My Father’s Old Sermons, is, like The Heart of Torah, a book of commentary on the Torah portion—only the delineation of what is read each week in the Presbyterian Church is different than what is read in synagogue. This is a book of sermons written by Murdoch, who died at age 65, leaving behind him binders and binders full of his weekly sermons of over 40 years.
His daughter, Rev. Sarah Bowen, a spiritual seeker who had become estranged from her Christian roots, took it upon herself—as part of her own spiritual and emotional work—to read through this legacy he had left behind and publish her favorites of his sermons in a book. Her personal memoir-style prologue and epilogue add a poignant element to the book, and her religious-historical explanations interspersed throughout the book add a helpful context in which to place the writing with which her father’s sermons are in dialogue.
The book begins with one of Murdoch’s sermons on Genesis and ends with one of his sermons on Revelation. Since in the Presbyterian Church, there are specified readings for each week’s service, much like in a synagogue (although the readings are different), Murdoch gave a weekly sermon based on that week’s biblical text. So the first two thirds of the book are, actually, sermons on the Hebrew Bible. It is only in the last third that he preaches on the Christian Bible.
Interestingly, but perhaps not so surprisingly, I could easily have seen Held gleaning from the texts some of the same messages Murdoch does, and Murdoch gleaning from the texts some of the same messages Held does. In fact, their spiritual, ethical and intellectual approach is so similar that I could easily have mixed up in which book I read which insight. Especially since Held quotes other-than-Jewish scholars as often as Murdoch quotes Jewish ones.
I was struck again and again by how similar Murdoch’s sermons are to Held’s commentary (which also read like sermons). For example, in his sermon on the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and the ten plagues, Murdoch comments on Moses’ deep faith in the process and trust that God had a greater plan. He writes:
Like the Israelites, we have at times been captive to our own ways, and other times we have wandered around in a wilderness. Like the Israelites, we have made our plans and expected God to fit into them. And then when God didn’t fit in, we just went along with our plans anyway. It’s hard to fit ourselves into God’s strategy. We are such take-charge people. We want to shape our own destiny. We want to control what we want in life. It’s what has made us a great civilization; it should be so. But is there not room to let God challenge us and speak to us? Is there not room to fit into divine plans instead of human plans? I hope so and pray so!
Or read his comment on Amos’s parable of the basket of summer fruit: “The summer fruit of peace has spoiled, so quickly the wonderful promise of peaceful harmony and tranquility slipped from the world’s grasp while we were seeking prosperity… Will peace be an absence of conflict? Or will it be harmony and tranquility? Amos’s words are still clear. True peace will be the latter.” These words were written in 1995 in the United States, referring to the Bosnian War. But they feel just as relevant to me today, sitting in Israel of 2018.
When, on Kol Nidrei night I read his sermon on Jonah, it felt especially relevant. He ends on this note:
Renewing your vows is not a fun game, but it is a necessary part of living and evaluating your life. But more than that, it is the only way for personal, human growth. You must constantly put before yourself the why of living—otherwise you will lose the what of living. And you may end up like Jonah—cast upon a shore where neither fish nor fowl wants you. But God does want you. And the best lives are lived from strength in weakness rather than strength from behind masks.
I have long had trouble connecting with this prayer, which has an aura of being one of the most holy services of the year. Why is nullifying a vow such a sacred ritual? Murdoch made me see this prayer in a new light. Perhaps when we nullify our vows year after year, we are in fact nullifying them in order to renew them. We can admit our human fallibility for not having lived up to becoming our Higher Selves, yet that does not mean we have to give up the struggle. It is a life-time effort.
And on Job:
Needing God is not the same thing as needing religion or needing the church. Needing God satisfies a part of the soul that all share. Not all need religion and not all need the church… Religion is an intellectual construct of words that we employ when speaking about our knowledge of God. The church is a social system that has been drawn together by those words as they are lived out in community. But neither religion not church is necessary to satisfy the human need to experience God. God is a need; religion and church become expectations that we might want in order to nurture ourselves. Job is declared as a believer in God, yet no place is he mentioned as being attached to a community of faith… While the need for organized religion and community may not be chosen by all, the need for God is a universal need that has become authentic for our postmodern culture.
He even succeeded in shedding new positive light for me on a text I have long found problematic: the verses from Proverbs called “Eshet Hayil,” the Woman of Valor. On these he writes:
The gender of the divine is irrelevant, and its advocates search in vain. The burning question in theology is: Does God relate to creation and its creatures, or does God simply preside over the creation? … God does have relationships with creation and its creatures: God is loving; God is merciful; God is just; God can be trusted; God can be loved. These are all words couched in human relationships. But relationships… are not automatic. They are very special, but they require energy and skill, love and devotion, mutual respect and forgiveness. There is pain and sorrow, joy and laughter…. [These] are words about [human] relationships. But even beyond that, they become words about relationships between God and those of faith—a faith whose credibility is based…on the willingness to let faith be understood by using our human experience of relationships, as fragile and as vulnerable as they might be.
Reading a Presbyterian minister’s sermons on the Hebrew Bible was an illuminating experience, seeing what different twist he might give on texts that were already an integral part of my life. When he moved over onto less familiar ground, I was curious how the experience would be for me. Truth be told, it did not feel so different. Murdoch does not preach “Christianity” from these texts any more than he preaches “Judaism” from the Old Testament readings. He preaches humanity.
For example, from Matthew 2:1-12, the Visit of the Wise Men, when the star stops over Mary and Joseph’s house after Jesus is born, he expounds:
Our potential is perceived to be the sky, but the concept that there are boundaries is unfamiliar. Boundaries can change the very fulfillment of our perceived potential. What the stars held for the infant Jesus—the visitors believed—was a kingdom of peace and love as an earthly ruler. Yet the boundaries of that potential were turned in a different direction and ultimately made clear in the final week of Jesus’s life. The sin and cruelty of the world has no power over God. Jesus’s destiny of his untimely death was the bequeath of all humanity the truth that God is God—in life and in death. What the stars hold for us individually is a lifetime journey, one that we can feel in our heart when we serve God and our fellow humanity.
Now that is a universal message, if you ask me. It reminded me of the life of another, modern-day, enlightened being, Etty Hillesum, who died at 29 in Auschwitz and left perhaps the most inspiring diary I have ever read behind her (another book I highly recommend if you have not yet had the privilege of reading it).
When Murdoch preaches on John the Baptist, he describes baptism in a way that I could just as easily have described mikveh. He writes about how letting go into the water is like entrusting yourself to God. “Trust,” he says, “like water, always involves a risk: Too much water can drown us; too little water can dehydrate us. Trust can be both a blessing and a curse—too much of the wrong kind of trust will destroy us; to little trust will cause us to shrivel and lose our humanity.”
And I just love what he has to say about excellence vs. perfection, especially in parenting, when he preaches on Matthew 5:45-48: “In so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
On this verse Murdoch says something that is a truly important for all parents to hear, especially those who beat themselves up for the inevitable mistakes that come along with the role: It is love that makes us whole—not the mechanical accounting that all the Is have been dotted and all the Ts crossed. Perfection has its place, by all means. But those who pursue perfection as the key to living have missed the mark. The more excellent path to pursue in parenting—and in life in general—is love. Love, which forgives and forgets.
And on Luke 22:27, when Jesus declares at the Last Supper, “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as the one serves,” Murdoch says: “Service is merely the rent we pay for the space that we occupy in God’s kingdom. Be of service.” Although Held was not writing on the New Testament, if he had been, I could easily have imagined him writing these very same words.
And on Acts 6:1-7, the Seven Chosen to Serve, Murdoch writes about the inevitability of politics seeping into religious institutions.
It is a hard pill for us to swallow that we cannot fulfill all expectations for all people. It is just as hard a pill to swallow that every church, as a gathering of people, is always subject to politics and capable of erring. But while our churches may disappoint us, our true faith is in God, not in his church.
Or another beautiful and universally relevant one-liner evoked from Jesus saying “I thirst” at his crucifixion: “Let us recognize the thirst in ourselves, and let us not be ashamed to show it or to quench it.” Or this one on Ephesians 4:19, where the words “callous” and “hardness of heart” are used to describe those who stray from God: “Do [your spiritual callouses] protect from legitimate pain, or do they alienate you from the life of God by creating a hardness of heart?”
When her father died, Sarah stayed angry for two years. But she felt a spiritual void, and thus took upon herself the project of going through her father’s sermons. She asks the question: If the shoemaker’s children go without shoes, where does that leave a preacher’s daughter? By the end of the book, we learn that as a result of her work perusing, editing and publishing her father’s sermons after his death, Sarah decided to study for ordination as an interspiritual minister.
It is Sarah’s belief, as Aldous Huxley describes in his book, The Perennial Philosophy, that there is a “perennial or mystic inner core to all religious or spiritual traditions, without the trappings, doctrinal literalism, sectarianism, and power structures that are associated with institutionalized religion… each of the world’s religious traditions sharing a single, universal truth on which foundation all religious knowledge and doctrine has grown.”
I think her father would not only have been proud of his daughter, but he would have considered her following in his spiritual footsteps. And I think Held, too, would agree. Even if they are not interspiritual ministers, like Sarah and I are, both Held’s and Murdoch’s biblical commentary are proof of The Perennial Philosophy. The Heart of Bible is this universal truth: Choose love over fear and compassion over hate. This is a message so sorely needing to be voiced as much in our society today as it was way back when these biblical texts were authored, compiled and canonized. Let’s hope that these two books will help spread that message.