This post is based on an essay by Joseph Gindi which is the first in a new series from American Jewish World Service (AJWS) entitled JustThought. This monthly publication will dive deeply into a key issue or question. For their inaugural post, AJWS examines the very basis of the ongoing dialogue between our globalized world and our ancient Torah.
How can an ancient book of myth and law have something to say about the challenges of the 21st century?
This week, we concluded a long season of Jewish holy days with the celebration of Simchat Torah. This is the week when we begin the cycle of Torah anew. We are empowered as we begin again ~ with all of the spiritual soul-searching and re-aiming of Elul and the Yamim Nora’im; with the abundance and experience of impermanence that Sukkot brings; with the prayers and ritual of welcoming the seasonal change of weather leading to the land’s rebirth in spring that come with Shmini Etzeret.
Many Jews identify the Torah as the scroll read weekly in synagogue. But in rabbinic tradition, “Torah” means much more than that. Torah began with written scripture, TaNaKh (an acronym), which includes the five books of Moses (the Torah), the works of the Prophets (Nevi’im), and other Writings (Ketuvim), such as Psalms and Proverbs. It later expanded to include the Mishnah and the Talmud—the voluminous works of “oral Torah” that serve as the foundation for Jewish law and practice. Over time, as Jewish sages produced more religious commentary and analysis, that too became Torah.
What makes Torah so powerful is that it is not a static book or ideology—it is a living thing that keeps changing and growing as each generation interprets and builds upon its wisdom. The layers of new insight and commentary added each year and in each age are like the rings of an enormous tree ~ appropriate metaphor for Torah which we call Eytz Chayim (a tree of life). In this way, the divine revelation on Mount Sinai, central to Torah’s story and a key theme of our wisdom tradition, reverberates through history and into our time.
How does an ancient text relate to modern-day life? The answer is within us. Each of us is an author of Torah as well as a student. We don’t take all the words of Torah literally or live by ancient doctrine alone. We don’t stand back and only derive meaning from what our rabbis and sages say. We turn to Torah again and again each year with novel questions and innovative interpretations. In this way, the topics contained within the ever-expanding Torah are a reflection of the conversations that we have with Torah itself, with one another, and with people in the many generation that came before us. This is our inheritance ~ to participate in an ongoing conversation with the divine echo from Sinai by interacting with Torah and applying the lessons derived from it to our daily lives.
To read the original essay in its original form and entirety, click here.