Ways to Connect to Torah

3Despite being one of the “big three” pilgrimage holidays, Shavuot is one of the least celebrated Jewish holidays among American Jews. This is probably because the unique “ritual” associated with it – staying up all night studying Torah – is often both inaccessible and impractical. But it also might reflect a deep ambivalence that American Jews feel toward the Torah. Much like Rabbi Isaac – who asked over 1000 years ago: “Why didn’t the Torah start in the middle of Exodus with the first commandment?” – many Jews today see the Torah as a book of laws, laws that unlike Rabbi Isaac they don’t follow. No wonder they don’t stay up all night studying it.

Here are 3 alternative ways of relating to the Torah that might inspire us to crack open a Jewish book this Saturday night as the holiday begins, even if we fall asleep before sunrise on Sunday morning.

 1. The Story
Unfortunately for Rabbi Isaac, but fortunately for us, the Torah doesn’t start in the middle of Exodus. It starts with Genesis, a book of stories about a family. That family is our family, and in many ways we are continuing that story today. There’s a famous rabbinic adage – maaseh avot siman l’banim – that roughly translates to: “the actions of our ancestors are a sign for the children.” The Torah preceded the industrial revolution, the internet, and snapchat. But in many ways, the human truths behind these ancient stories continue to manifest today and can help guide us as we write our chapter.
2. The Paint
Just as an artist needs paint in order to create a drawing, the Jewish people need images, ideas, and myths to create a rich and vibrant culture. The Torah is the most riffed on story in history, yet many Jews today completely miss the references, despite identifying as cultural Jews. Jewish art is not art made by someone who happens to have a Jewish parent. It’s art that is influenced by Jewish culture, which finds its roots in the Torah. The Torah is our primary colors, and the future of our culture is dependent on our ability to play with it.
3. The Glue
When I ask Jews for their definition of Judaism, the answer I hear most often is: Judaism is whatever any individual Jew wants it to be. This sounds like a riff on a 30 Rock joke by the farcical Dr. Spaceman, but in this case the joke is on us. Without a single unifying element to us, there is nothing that actually binds us. Perhaps the Torah can be the glue that binds us. Not because we all follow its laws or believe it is from God, but because we need to share something if we’re going to share an identity. Perhaps the Torah is our shared language that allows us to connect without agreeing.
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  1. […] But this is a lazy approach to Judaism, and living a thoughtful Jewish life requires more thoughtful answers to basic questions like “Why care about the Torah?” “God said so” is not a full answer. (It begs the follow-up question: “But why would God say so?”) And it’s only one answer. There are many other compelling answers that aren’t rooted in God at all. (I shared 3 last year.) […]

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