TheTorah.com is a website that looks at the weekly reading of the Torah for people who do not take every word in the Torah literally. In addition to valuing traditional commentators and interpretations, it caters to those who are interested in seeing how academics, scholars of different disciplines and backgrounds, understand the Torah. It is not for the faint-hearted, fundamentalists or those who who are unable or unwilling to take a rational point of view.
I consider it to be extremely important in bridging the gap between rationality and faith, belief and acceptance. But more than that I think it is crucial in reaching out to those who feel that traditional interpretations alone, no longer meet their intellectual needs. And this is so important in preventing young open minds from rejecting Torah as being too doctrinaire.
The biggest challenge today in Jewish life is no longer preserving Orthodoxy. The Charedi world is thriving. It retains most of its alumni. On the other hand, we are losing far more through apathy, ignorance and assimilation. It may well be too late to reach those who have absolutely no knowledge of Jewish spirituality or of Jewish learning. But I think the greatest challenge is to reach out to those with a background, from Jewish schools or observant families, who are turning their backs and minds on a simplistic way of looking at our traditional texts.
We live in a world where people like to think for themselves, to make up their own minds. For better or for worse ours is an era of individuality. How should religion relate to it? By shutting up the mental gates, closing minds, peddling conformity of ideas? Or by opening up, tolerating, allowing freedom of thought?
Yeshivah Chovevei Torah in New York, started out to meet these goals. It was a reaction against the creeping influence of non-rationalist rabbis over Yeshiva University. Amongst its alumni is Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber who is the editor of thetorah.com. Recently some YCT students issued a declaration dissociating themselves from Rabbi Farber on the grounds that his exploration of other ways of looking at Torah texts have taken him beyond the pale of Orthodoxy and they, as students of YCT, did not want to be tarred by his brush and regarded as heterodox. Leaving aside the craven opportunism and self-interest of these gentlemen it was just another example of the petty name calling, rivalry and dissent within the “broad church” of Orthodoxy. Furthermore, it negates thousands of years of alternative interpretations from impeccable rabbinical authorities.
Trying to impose any auto da Fe on Orthodox Jews is offensive to me as a rationalist precisely because although there are indeed accepted ideas and fundamental concepts in Judaism, how they are understood has always avoided the rigid theological constraints of Christian theology. That was what made our world of ideas unique. Although fundamental concepts are regarded as core components of Jewish identity, the right to use one’s mind, the right to be able to think for oneself is surely a measure of a healthy society and a healthy human being. One may disagree and express disagreement, but to be derogatory is just as much a breach of Torah values as the sins the accusers are laying at Rabbi Farber’s feet.
What is more, the prime mover of thetorah.com is a Kollel rabbi of impeccable credentials and a member of the Charedi community. If YCT students want to dissociate themselves from men like these who look beyond traditional sources for answers to serious questions, then I wonder what they are doing in YCT. If thinking orthodoxy has no room for questions it will wither on the vine of obscurantism. I am proud to be associated with the torah.com and Rabbi Farber and I urge every thinking committed Jew to rally to its support.
But why do all orthodoxies tend towards pettiness? Whenever any group seeks to define itself by distancing itself from and negating others, it inevitably risks becoming a petty witch hunting travesty of its own ideals. In time, it falls prey to internal division and sectarianism. That was why we needed prophets, to keep us reminded of our ideals and goals.
Once one adopts a policy of negativity, of attacking the other instead of asserting the positive, one demeans, discriminates and humiliates. That becomes the currency. And the result is that one turns in on oneself, petty tensions proliferate and it becomes a suicidal feeding frenzy. Orthodoxies are like that in every religion. In politics it is even worse. And when the two get together it is positively satanic.
Some issues are incredibly complex. Does “Torah from Sinai” mean all of it, part of it, most of it or none of it? Was it spoken, transmitted, dictated, inspired, influenced, deduced at a specific moment some four thousand years ago, over forty days, or forty years? And if so in what language and what script? Or was it invented or edited or complied or adopted or adapted or reconstructed or deconstructed or created or evolved out of something, nothing or everything? And if many rabbis in the Talmudic era could argue about the details then, why not now? And what really matters? Theological slogans or living a life of Torah and genuine morality?
I’d rather see energy expended purging Charedi Orthodoxy of a sub-culture of corruption, illegality, materialism and brushing everything under the carpet. Communities can have their own ideas. And can choose to be either open or closed. They can refuse to accept anyone who thinks or behaves differently. Or to tolerate those who may or may not completely, partially, occasionally, formally or informally agree or not quite or sort of or it depends. So long as they abide by the rules of the club. That’s why most of us prefer living in free societies that do not insist that we all believe the same thing. The last thing we need is a “belief test” as well as a “means test” as well as “snif test” or a “look into my eyes and swear test”. Censoring is always counter-productive.
You want to wear a black coat in summer? Be my guest! But don’t rubbish those who prefer not to. You want to believe the world is five thousand years ago? Gezunt! But why insult those who think its older. You want to study Torah only? Of course why shouldn’t you. But don’t prevent those who want to earn a living from being able to educate themselves. And you don’t want to serve in the Israeli army? It’s your decision but stop bullying those religious people who do? And now to cap it we want to hound people who think for themselves.
Am I to understand that the God of Micah who said “Be kind, love justice and walk humbly with your God” really wants people to snub or insult others just because they disagree about how to understand texts or history? Let’s focus on the positive, on the good.