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People of the Book

People of the Book


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.

Chaya Shuchat is the author of A Diamond a Day, an adaptation of the chassidic classic Hayom Yom for children, as well as many articles on the interface between Chassidism and contemporary life. She is a pediatric nurse practitioner with a master’s degree in nursing from Columbia University.
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ruth housman marshfield, ma September 26, 2013

A year of apples, honey and the sting I come back to this, and see my post, a year old. These stories recycle, and perhaps, all stories recylce to be seen in a different light. Maybe that is why, we go back to the ancient scroll and find again, something within. I believe it's not one thing or, the other. I see that both metaphor, deep and ongoing metaphor, and a need to parse text to be part of the Story so incredibly crafted for us all. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma October 9, 2012

Be Leaf Autumn leaves, the burning bush and I I have been writing for a long time on Chabad, because I am passionate, and I think those who come, do it for the same reason: to learn, to debate, and to share.

A long time ago, I was in the parking lot of the place I was working, and remember writing in the dust of a particular car, and I think the car belonged to someone religious, but my memory is not clear. But I wrote, Shekina, and I wondered, Ruth why are you writing this. I was thinking of the female indwelling presence of G_d and for me, it was so palpable, I was impelled to write the word.

I wonder what this person felt, to see this on his or her, car? Sometimes you do things, because the awe of the moment impels it, and others might think you totally out of your mind.

I have been so overwhelmed, to tears, by the beauty of a perception I have, that I have often written to rabbis and others, and I bet they thought, This woman is deranged, because I never heard back.

I see in words, a story, and that story will go, Global Reply

JackClark LA October 4, 2012

Your Friend Carol Your friend Carol sounds like a wonderful woman.

I have similar discussions with an archeologist friend of mine who continues to insist, despite my protestations to the contrary, that the world is round. Reply

James cooley Leawood, Kansas-usa October 4, 2012

proper book Or like my mother would say, why do you belive it or not , but not beliveing the word?
Good writing!! Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma October 4, 2012

as we play round after round This statement reminds me of the Tzvi Freeman article in this series, about circling.
Surely we draw circles around everything, too, and we include and exclude in our thinking, what we accept, and what we reject. I noticed recently, in a seminar about step parenting, that two intersecting circles form a heart. Try it and you will see. I find this beautiful, a kind of metaphor that applies to this story about two friends striving to come to terms with different perceptions of Torah.
I believe the playground of the soul is about diverse interpretations, and the genius of Torah is that it allows for this. There are layers of interpretation called Pardes, the Orchard, and if we didn't have this ability to go deep, we would not have these marvelous articles that do make us, think. Someone wrote the word Think in big letters on a bridge that I pass on route 128, and sometimes the letters fade to INK, and then some unknown person returns and writes THINK in big white letters again. Reply


Simchat Torah And when, in EVERY congregation in which there are women, we are able to hold and dance with the Holy Sifrei Torah (which do not, contrary to what some of us are told, accrue tumat niddah), and sing and dance like Mriam ha Neviah and all the women of Bnei Yisrael, we will know that our people are REALLY reading and UNDERSTANDING the Torah. Until then, the Shechina will remain in exile. Reply

Jeff Carpenter Chicago, IL/USA September 29, 2010

Dance with the Word May we all dance with God's Word daily, wherever we encounter it. May He find us faithful, loving Him, loving our neighbor (and enemy).
Blessings, hope, and peace to all--- Reply

Karen Joyce Bell (Chaya Fradle) Riverside, CA via August 4, 2008

On one hand, on the other hand This brings to mind "Fiddler on the Roof". When deciding something, he goes through the left and right hands with various options. I see our Jewish law in that way. On the one hand, it is law. On the other hand, we must use wisdom. On one hand, there are 10 commandments set in stone. On the other hand, the others weren't put on stone. On one hand, the Holy Scriptures are God's. On the other hand, they are ours to study.
"My people die for lack of knowledge" doesn't specifically refer to the Holy Scriptures; it could also refer to science. That's why Jewish people love to be educated. Reply

Eli Federman Milwaukee, WI September 28, 2004

RE: Clarification of my earlier post To Anonymous: You're definitely right -- individuals shouldnt contort the meaning of the Book to suite their predetermined subjective opinions. That was precisely my point when I stated, mince and dice it the way youd like but THE MESSAGE REMAINS THE SAME. Namely, the original message needs to remain the same, irrespective of how one reaches that conclusion. Moreover, Chassdis teaches that every person has their own personalized approach of living Jewishly. Obviously, and ideally, this individualized approach should fit into the parameters set forth by Halacha (Code of Jewish Law).
I'll stop ranting, but thanks for helping me clarify my point! Reply

Anonymous September 28, 2004

To Eli One does not " mice and dice " to one's liking what was given by G-d at Sinai. G-d didn't give the Book, saying: " Edit it and -or view it however you like, as long as you do good deeds. " Reply

Anonymous September 28, 2004

A love story Thank you for writing this, Mrs. Shuchat. You wrote about the love Jews have for Jews, about the love ( even if not quite awake ) that Jews have for Torah. And you wrote about the love within friendship. All combined in one story. Reply

Eli Milwaukee, WI September 26, 2004

Its the message that counts Great read!
The fact is that many historians have agreed on the Torah/Pentateuch's historicity as fitting the objective standards needed for proving its authenticity. But the less complicated credo to follow is: what messages are these aphorisms, stories, poems, perceptively impossible events etc. trying to convey? Ascribe to the ridiculous outdated JDEP hypothesis or, call the TaNaK a treatise written by folklorists, mythologists, romanticists. But ultimately what matters most is the positive message it sends of behooving individuals/societies towards improving the world around them. Why debate it? Mice it and dice it the way you'd like but the message remains the same!
Some might call this an oversimplification, however. Reply

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