Thursday, September 9, 2010

Torah Is. (A response to an online Rosh Hashanah Experience at

I’ve not been having great experiences with the organized Jewish community lately, so today, after examining (and trying out some of)the options available to me locally, I decided to try something different in the way of a service. I watched the streaming service from from Beth Adam in Cincinnati.

I’ve been following the trailblazing efforts of this congregation and its clergy in creating true online community, and I do think they’re on to something. There is, of course, the great benefit to people who are shut-ins or otherwise unable to physically attend a service. It also serves those who might not choose (or make the effort) to attend a service in person. It also serves people like me who are intellectually curious and exploring what Judaism is and can be in the 21st century and beyond.

The service itself didn’t truly take advantage of the technology. They haven’t quite gotten there yet. They are inclusive, referring often to those “participating” online. Yet it was still pretty much an observer experience for the person watching the live stream. I think there are interactive possibilities here yet to be explored and tried. (There may have been some real time commentary going on amongst participants, but I didn’t see any on the Twitter feed-perhaps it was there on the FaceBook conversation?)

Their “makhzor” is available for purchase/download, if one cares to follow along.  Seems to me the technology allows for something much more interactive, and I encourage the folks at to consider the possibilities of incorporating more inter-activity, and adding descriptive text, transliteration, or even text to the feed. Maybe invite some online folks to do some music or present a dvar Torah. Have a screen in Sanctuary so that people there in the congregation can see interactive presentations from off-site.

However, the thrust of this blog entry is not the service and the technology, so I’ll move on and leave this discussion for the future.

Now, being familiar with the congregation (I’ve watched some streamed and archived Shabbat services, and looked over their web site pretty thoroughly) I knew going in that the service I would be observing (I’m not quite ready to say it was participatory for the online folks) might not be my particular cup of tea. Beth Adam is a humanist congregation. (They do seem to take great pains to avoid combining the term “secular” with “humanist”  and in explaining that their philosophy is not necessarily atheistic. There is room for talk of G”d, and, as their website says, their members have divergent and wide-ranging beliefs and understandings in that regard. (A skeptic, or a true atheist, might  view a lot of this as apologetics, and perhaps, to some extent, it is. I know that, for myself, someone who is not content with a totally secular humanistic viewpoint, who needs a little mystery in his theology, how Beth Adam self-describes goes a long way in making me willing to partake of their liturgical product.)

I knew to expect a liturgy that was non-traditional, for the most part. There were a few familiar liturgical components, but, for the most part, the service was one that had been crafted by, and reflected the views of the congregation. I have to admit that I did miss the traditional liturgy and text. That being said, I can say that what was substituted in its place was not random – it was thoughtful, and thought-provoking.

There was music, though not a lot of it, provided by a choir, pianist, and violinist. At least there was a choir. Since relocating here to the Jewish bubble that is the northern Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, I’ve missed that. Nobody here does anything like that. I’m, frankly, one who likes HHDays services full of music, supported by a choir. Something of a cross between true “glatt Reform”  HHD service music (which can be very “High Church”) and more folksy-camp-style stuff. Exactly the sort of service we had every year (and for which, by way of disclosure, I was choir director and accompanist) at my former congregation, Bethesda Jewish Congregation. I am one of those rare folks who likes the bombastic Gilbert and Sullivan-esque settings of Lewandowski, Sulzer and others as much as the contemporary folk/rock settings of Friedman, Klepper, Taubman, Nichols, Dropkin, et al.

In any case, the music was pleasant enough, mostly in a sort of pseudo-classical style with hints of renewal. (Think Natasha Hirschhorn.) I just wish there was more of it, and it was a little more accessible and sing-a-long-able. (Here is a place where technology could have a role. Imagine musicians, choirs, and others in off-site locations being able to contribute directly to the service in real-time.)

I was a bit thrown by one bit of Beth Adam minhag. They didn’t use any of the traditional Torah readings, and there wasn’t any real, formal “seder kriat haTorah.” Rabbi Barr did read a few p’sukim of text in Hebrew (read, not chant.) They chose, for this year, to use parts of the Joseph story. For Rosh Hashanah, it was the story of Joseph, Potiphar, and Potiphar’s wife.  For Yom Kippur, I’m led to understand, they’ll pick up with butler, baker, and all that stuff.

Fine. I can live without another hearing of the binding of Yitzkhak, or of Hannah and Eli. I can read those texts for myself and explore and think about them.

Rabbi Laura Baum gave a nice Dvar Torah centered around the Joseph story. It was, however, a very humanistic reading – not that there’s anything wrong with that (wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)

In any case, what really prompted me to write this blog entry was something Rabbi Baum said. To paraphrase, she said that the claim that G”d wrote the text diminishes Torah. I found that a very thoughtful and thought-provoking comment. To some degree, I understand and agree with some of that sentiment. On the other hand, as I stated, I still need a little mystery in my theology.  I once had a prolonged dispute with a learned, older Reform rabbi who told me that I could not consider myself a Reform Jew if I accepted the idea of Torah mi-Sinai. My position, I explained to him, was that, while I did not presently accept the idea that the Torah was written by G”d and given to use in complete form at Sinai through Moses, I was, and would likely always be open to the possibility that maybe the Torah really was mi-Sinai. He remained steadfast in his belief that this excluded me from considering myself Reform (and this encounter is one reason why then and now, I consider myself post-denominational. I daven Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, and even, albeit reluctantly, Renewal. But that’s a story for another time.)

[Sidebar: I find it wryly amusing how often I hear “Torah Tziva Lanu Moshe” used and sung at services in Reform settings – although usually without the third part - “morasha kehillat Ya’akov.”]

Whether of Divine creation, Divine inspiration, or simply human creation, the Torah is. It is, in many ways, a very imperfect document. (I believe Rabbi Baum also made a reference to this as another reason to disavow Divine authorship, but, at least for me, the idea of a less-than-perfect G”d, even with all its inherent problems, is not anathema.)

Rather than accept fully the idea that claims of Divine authorship diminish Torah, I would argue somewhat the opposite. There’s a certain humility present in the idea that human thought alone was not enough to create Torah. I think this humility is necessary to combat the potential hubris that can accompany an entirely human-centric viewpoint of the world. That’s one reason I’m not a secular humanist. I’m not entirely convinced that we, as a species, are entirely capable of doing a lot of the things to which we aspire. In fact, I like the idea that there are things we don’t understand. Yes, the history of humankind demands that we add “don’t understand…yet.” I just hope we never reach the day when there is no need for the “…yet.”  Robert Browning’s “a mean’s reach…” comes to mind. Comes the day when there’s no need for “…yet” there’ll be nothing left for which to strive!

As to the point that the imperfection of Torah either excludes Divine authorship or points to clearly human authorship, I say that both are true and not true. As I have argued before in my musings and elsewhere, Torah’s imperfections are the gifts Torah gives to us that challenge us to keep turning it and turning it. Divine authorship does not diminish this brilliance. Whether Divine or human, it’s brilliant, and keeps us debating and discussing. It keeps Judaism alive and going.

[Sidebar: I can’t help interjecting at this point that here is another place for using interactive technology. Imagine, instead of a sermon, an interactive discussion. Agreed, there are possible pitfalls, but there are always workarounds.]

That (keeping Judaism alive and going) is what Rabbi Baum was asking about and talking about in her d’var. She asked us to imagine a world without Judaism – where it had nothing special to offer and had simply ceased to be. I agree with her that Torah is one, if not the prime, reason, why we need not imagine such a world. Judaism exists, evolves, continues. Torah is. Whence Torah is not always a necessary question (though I do not discourage considering it.)

Shanah Tovah,

Adrian (aka Migdalor Guy)

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

No comments: