The subject was parshah Kedoshim, the Levitical holiness code, and I was attending my local egalitarian minyan, listening to a lay leader speak about the Torah reading. He was addressing the sensitive topic of the prohibition against male-male sexual relations, sharing a personal story about a gay friend's coming out.
"As a modern Conservative Jew," he said, "I didn't know what to think. After all, the Torah prohibits homosexuality — and the Torah was written by God." I heard this, and I wondered: Is this what modern Jews really believe? What about biblical criticism and historical scholarship and liberal theology? And then I looked into my own religious consciousness and realized: Part of me believes this, too.
While it may not appear at first to be a problem that perplexes the liberal Jewish community, this question of the literalism of Torah has always challenged me. As a student in Conservative and Orthodox day schools, I absorbed the concrete fundamentalism: Torah was written by God, and given to Moses, and all of the words are true.
Even now, when I have grown into a liberal rabbinical student, I wrestle with the dilemma of how Torah's truth can coexist with its holiness. How can I understand Torah to be holy if it was not given by God?
I know that this dilemma might sound simplistic. After all, biblical criticism is now taught in every university, and most liberal rabbis think of the Torah as holy, even if it was written by people.
Indeed, I have come to understand that holiness is not necessarily something imposed by an outside divine presence; the very fact that Jews, for millennia, have considered the Torah holy is what imbues it with power.
The question that follows, then, is the one my friend raised: Must the laws of the Torah be intrinsically moral to be holy? What do we do with laws that seem disconnected from our morality? It is hard to accept that man-made, primitive laws should still wield such power today.
I want to suggest two paradigms — other than holiness and morality — for viewing Torah today. In rabbinic parlance, Torah is described as having 70 faces, which allows for interpretive subjectivity.
For example, when the rabbis of the Talmud encounter biblical verses whose literalist meanings seem immoral or nonsensical, they reinterpret them. We can understand the Torah's multifaceted nature as a lesson, in which every person, in every generation, deserves to have her or his own perspective on religious truth. The Torah that we practice can be found inside each one of us; we interpret it through the many truths that we believe.
And yet, despite this utter subjectivity, I remain a Torah-observant Jew. I keep kashrut and Shabbat; I attend shul on Shabbat mornings to marvel in the power of the Torah's language. When Moses calls to God, "Show me your glory," I am drawn back to those days of childhood faith when I believed in the signs and wonders. Reveal yourself to me, God; show me your glory, I ache to say.
For me, Torah is a narrative of a more believing time, a hope that if I follow these incomprehensible rules, someday I will be rewarded, just like Moses. Someday, I'll see God's true self.
These two desires — to have Torah be both entirely subjective and entirely revelatory — exist; I wrestle with them each Shabbat morning, as I listen to the Torah reading. By embracing this paradox, I continue my generation's work of making the Torah holy.
Sara N. S. Meirowitz is a fourth year student at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Mass. Reprinted with permission from Sh'ma (shma.com).