Back and forth the polemics fly, across the reaches of cyberspace.
We debate everything, from gay rights to Israeli politics. But for the most part, we deconstruct the Bible.
Our differences in perspective could not have been starker. For one, I believe that the Torah is the absolute word of G‑d, and an instructor and guide for everyday life. My friend Carol believes that it is an eclectic collection of wisdom and fanciful legends, penned by many diverse individuals over time. I believe that the characters in the Bible are real people, my ancestors, in fact. She insists that most are mythical heroes, and the events described mainly metaphorical.
I question why she takes the word of an archeologist at face value, while rejecting the historic testimony of an entire nation. For her part, she can’t comprehend how this ancient document filled with puzzling statements serves as my guide for 21st-century living. She does not understand my gullibility—how I credulously accept Bible stories as perfect truth. I try to explain the need to study the oral Torah—the interpretations handed down to Moses on Sinai, passed from one generation of sages to the next. Carol doesn’t understand why the group decisions of men who lived centuries ago should be followed with such scrupulousness today.
As we play round after round, I think bemusedly of how easily our roles could have been reversed. The divergence of the Jewish nation into separate paths is a relatively recent historical phenomenon. My great-grandparents, as well as hers, were devout Jews; our grandparents had lost their Jewish observance somewhere in the immigration shuffle; my baby-boomer parents reclaimed theirs in their teens. The awareness that I am where I am only due to a quirk of history leads me to tone down my rhetoric, to think before I speak. I imagine us doing a role swap, with Carol patiently teaching me the Torah that my parents never knew. The switch seems so natural, in my imagination. It reminds me that I do not speak for Torah; the Torah speaks for us.
Slowly, we find common ground. I accept some of her metaphorical interpretations of the Torah’s stories, although I still insist that the events described in the Torah did in fact take place. She begins to incorporate more mitzvot in her personal life, lighting Shabbat candles, performing a havdalah ceremony. Her children learn about their Judaism, and are proud of it.
Eventually the battle winds down; we both tire. When I sense an edge to our conversations, I back off, sometimes for months. I don’t want to push too hard; I value our friendship too highly. Our dialogues turn to more mundane topics. Our kids. Trips to the zoo.
After some months, she hesitantly admits that she misses our discussions. Somewhere inside, she tells me, through all our exchanges, she felt something come alive. I think I know what she means. Her challenges had ignited that very same passion in me, and sent me diving into books for hours deep into the night. It’s our stubborn Jewish soul asserting itself, screaming for expression. We debate, we grope, and we struggle to define the eternally relevant message of Torah. Beneath the surface disagreements we share a deeply embedded, unbreakable bond with the Book that made our nation famous.
It is Simchat Torah. In the synagogue, we take out the Torah scroll, unopened, wrapped in its mantle. Holding it aloft, we hug it close to our hearts and dance. We embrace its totality, as we celebrate our unique relationship with this scroll that has kept us and molded us into the people we are today. Reaching back through history, forward for eternity, the Torah is ours, and we are hers.