I’ve just finished teaching a year of classes to rabbinic students. We’ve been learning about rabbinic literature – the thing that makes Judaism what it is today. Rabbinic literature is the response to the Bible in an uncertain world some 2000 years ago. It is an articulation of a world seeking to ask what it is that God wants of us, when God is all but silent. Discovering meaning in a universe from the ripples on the surface of our existence.
The rabbis saw in the seventy faces of Torah, the echo of God’s revelation on Mount Sinai. Yet they recognised within their incredible interpretative world there was a clear purpose. As a result, the Torah has been our source of values and ideas for millennia and, whilst it has been cracked open by the interpretations of the rabbis, it has also been constrained by the tradition of interpretation.
All well and good, but rabbi, what happens when a young woman comes to you and says, “Rabbi Neil, you know the Ten Commandments which I have to read from the siddur for my Bat Mitzvah?…Can I change the translation of the tenth one please because I mean it suggests you have to be a straight man coveting your neighbour’s wife.”
And in that moment, E, you cracked our Torah open in a way so breathtakingly audacious and yet so simply ‘true’ that I could not turn down the challenge. Your question in that moment worked on at least two levels.
The first was this – what do we do with our sacred texts when they feel a little less than holy because they seem outdated, immoral or prejudiced? The second was how a young person can engage in our sacred tradition in a genuine way that allows her inheritance to speak through time from the thousands of years ago when it was created to 2018, right here in West London Synagogue.
In our Bnei Mitzvah Friday Night Group we grappled with the question of the translation. And let me tell you that I never imagined in a million years that I would have a 12 year old boy, at a dinner, sit and relate to me with such eloquence about the way in which ‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife’ was an example of, and I quote, “the objectification and commodification of women.” The text suggests women are only thought of in relation to their husbands, it suggests that you must be a man legislating, that women are little more than the ox or ass of your neighbour and that you must be straight.
So we came up with our own translations – all provided by 12 year olds and their families:
“You get what you get and you don’t get upset”
“Be grateful for what you have, don’t be greedy of anyone’s objects or relationships”
“Be yourself but still worship God”
“Do not covet anything that is your neighbour’s, the beloved of your neighbour’s etc”
“Do not covet your neighbour”
“Do not desire significant objects or partners”
“Do not covet your neighbour’s possessions”
“Do not covet your neighbour’s life”
Yet E and I settled for this, “You shall not covet your neighbour or anything that is your neighbours”. It is not what the ‘original’ Bible says but this is liturgy not the Torah reading and the Torah was spoken in the language of humankind, mediated by our understanding anyway!
We wanted to express something about the way we view people – that they should not be objectified as if you could choose to have them as a possession but also that we do have strong feelings of desire which naturally we should reflect upon. Yet no person can be seen solely in the horizon of their relationship with a significant other. And we also wanted, just as E reflected in her davar Torah today, to reflect a sense of the problematics of desiring that which is not yours in terms of possessions. It’s imperfect but it came from a process of study of our sources and the meaning of the words and their interpretation.
The tenth commandment is hardly offensive but it points to a historical, theological and socio-cultural world in which the Torah was composed. One that is not ours. How we handle those sources which seem to be out of sync with our world is a recurring challenge. But I think that reading the sources, their interpretation by our tradition and passing all that through the filter of the story of our lives will allow us some kind of genuine response to the challenges they raise. And that may be as close as we get to figuring out what to do with texts that we do not agree with – occasionally we may reject them, sometimes reinterpret them and often appreciate their majestic intent.
But now, I want to come to the second aspect of why I loved your question. It’s not just how do we come to terms with problematic texts. But more – how do I understand my tradition as being meaningful to me? The Torah begins with the most awesome account of the creation of the world. It is a fundamentally radical idea because creation sets up a foundation for all of human existence and the value of all life on this ‘third rock from the sun’. From this our Torah emphasises over and over again – the significance of every human being, especially not to forget the most vulnerable, the poor, the widow and the orphan. The Torah demands that we make a choice for life and goodness – we have the capacity to make a choice for life and goodness. The Torah reminds us that this world is not ours but on loan and the interest payments will be deferred for only so long. The Torah shapes the world it inhabits and sets a vision for the future where we should be heading. It is a radically aspirational and ancient constitution.
The Rabbis that come along later inherit this radical vision and enter a dialogue with it for their time. Sometimes they make even bolder claims than we might have thought possible and sometimes they are more conservative than we might wish. But they continue the radical demand to protect the vulnerable, to maintain justice and peace, to be accountable for our actions and the wellbeing of all around us.
Today E it is our turn. In fact it is your turn – the next generation. We must put everything on the table about the problems of the world and ask how does Judaism provide both a part of the conversation and how does it also provide a vision of the future.
Our world is already fast changing and occasionally unstable. Yet we must always, always, always allow our tradition to be part of the conversation because the Torah, for all its flaws, has a vision of equality, justice, peace and truth. And we must all, every single one of us, like our Bat Mitzvah today, never stop asking those questions which say ‘How can I make this something meaningful to me and my world?’ For its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace…It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it.