Torah and its story of the Israelite nation, a nation we define as “our people,” is a fascinating document. As a history book, it could never withstand the rigors of serious historical inquiry. It’s veracity is only documented by it’s own narrative.
From the very start, in the first chapters of Bereshit, of Genesis, contradictions arise that can only be explained by conjecture and imagination (or what we Jews call midrash). Even the “Big Ten,” as I like to call them, The Ten Commandments that we read each year, as our students did tonight, to mark Shavuot and the commemoration of the giving of Torah at Sinai, has two different versions expressed in the Torah. And, despite claims of some travel companies in the region, we don’t know where this defining event took place. Even Mount Sinai remains firm entirely in our imagination.
So, why do we elevate this narrative as our own sacred history when the events contained therein are inexact at best? Isn’t that exactly what you are taught not to do throughout most of your schooling? Perhaps though, as taught by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, a prominent, local rabbi known for her work on environmental issues, “in codifying the imprecision, [the Torah] is striving to tell us that the pursuit of an accurate historical account is quite beside the point.” (Tapestry, 170)
Religious memory is not the same as history, and to hold it to the standards of scientific inquiry defeats the entire purpose of religious memory. History seeks data and explanation. Memory seeks meaning. Memory is spun, not from factual information, but from the soul and the heart. History is a record of events. Memory is a recollection that forms and informs identity.
Whoever is responsible for the final redaction of the bible – whether you believe that work was done by a Divine power, or like myself believe it was done by the scholarly human hands of that generation, the ability to provide a more factual account must have been possible if indeed providing such a history was the agenda at hand. I believe the discrepancies and contradictions were purposely retained in the text. Those final editors knew what they were doing. They were not working to document history. They were working to create memory, a narrative that could serve to define a people while at the same time demanding our involvement in it. The lack of clarity in the text leaves the critical and necessary process of interpretation open to us. Moreover, it allows for multiple explanations and understandings of the past and of God.
This uncertainty can leave us unsettled. Many find it too unsettling and either reject Torah (and religion generally) out of hand or seek comfort in a fundamentalist view that doesn’t allow for individual inquiry. I hope that your education here at Temple Emanuel has provided you the ability to embrace this lack of certainty. I hope we have provided you the tools to create your own midrashim, you own interpretations and stories that expand on the text and that ultimately enrich your lives.
Judaism, even in its ancient expression, was meant to be fluid and open to human engagement. As a Reform Jew, I believe it is my mandate to ensure that Judaism remains an open and responsive vehicle for the expression of Jewish law and custom. My sincere hope is that as you move forward from today, that you too, shoulder that mandate. Progressive – Reform Judaism remains so only if we as a people continue to engage with the tradition keeping it relevant for the future.
You – the class of 5776 - are the last Confirmation class of Temple Emanuel. Imagine if you had to document the values and customs of your entire experience at Temple Emanuel, what would you write? Imagine how you would expand on your identity statements that you presented tonight. I expect there would be contradictions and inconsistencies among your varied voices; and yet, just as your short reflections offered tonight were each as valid as they were varied, so too each and every reflection would be an accurate source of memory that would inspire those who later read it.
So, seize the uncertainty. Don’t look for absolute truth in the text. It isn’t there. Recognize the history, however, that surrounds the text – that contextualizes the narrative, so that you can understand where it came from and perhaps what the authors were trying to tell us about their worldview. And then, don’t stop there! Add your own reflections. Continue to connect to tradition by making it yours and adding your voice to leave as part of the legacy we call Torah.