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First Words of Torah

10/05/2009
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I love Torah. Yes, that Torah, the 5 books of Moses, that frequently exasperating, sexist, xenophobic, cryptic, and frequently lyrical collection of instructions that form the basis of all things Jewish. One can believe in it 150% as the word of God or reject it as old-fashioned bullying nonsense – but if you’re a member of the tribe, there’s no real escape. Acceptance, rejection, or temporary truce: the Torah is always in the background, goading, inspiring, and guilt-tripping.

That’s my take, anyway. I can’t tell you definitively what I think about the existence of God, but I can tell you that Torah has made a sizable difference in my life, even as I want to set my head on fire over large tracts of it.

I knew, for instance, that I was going to spend the rest of my life with my partner Bruce when he sent me up for an aliyah the week that the daughters of Zelophechad challenged the patriarchal rules of property inheritance.

Justice, justice, you shall pursue has formed the backbone of my life. CEOs living high on the hog while unemployment skyrockets? I think of Joseph, thrown into a pit, and his brothers, sitting close by with nary a care, breaking bread. Torah calls me to account.

Torah is also what I push up against when I consider modern Israel and my co-religionists (whose Judaism, by the way, I barely recognize) who claim that “we” have a right to all the land we can get our hands on. Torah is also what I push up against when I dress immodestly and swear in public. I no more believe that God gave us a particular parcel of property than I believe my uncovered head is an affront.

Torah is the best and worst of us: creation myth, family history, liberation theology, and guide to rightful living; also exclusionary rant, violent apology, and nightmare vision. It’s all in there, the magnificent as well as the terrifying.

Environmental catastrophe? See Noah. Behavior during wartime? See Deuteronomy. Wonder how bad things can get? The binding of Issac. Whether freedom is worth any price? Look under slaying of the firstborn (Egyptians).

Torah is soap opera and, the sages say, love story between us and God. I say it’s more of an endurance race, a long-standing and unresolved debate. In any event, it’s a great read, even if it wasn’t recorded by the hand of Moses on top of a mountain. Even if you can open up to every page and shake your head.

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