Finding Joy in Studying Torah
Hannah Healy's Adult Bat Mitzvah Talk • June 23, 2018
I wanted to become a bat mitzvah with Jewish Gateways to connect with the core of Jewish learning that I had missed out on. I craved connection with Judaism, but I felt that there was a disconnect for me between secular cultural Jewishness and Jewish spiritual practice. It felt like it had to be one way or the other--not both. I wanted to bridge that gap.
In our class, Rabbi Wynne created a safe space to learn and to negotiate Jewish life as an adult. I’ve become even more comfortable with finding my own traditions and spiritual practices that fit with my ideals and values. This journey has set me on a path to discover a Jewish practice that nurtures my intellect and nourishes my soul.
My journey towards becoming a bat mitzvah has led me to find joy in studying Torah.
The Torah is a cornerstone of Jewish tradition. However, I felt challenged by it. The portrayal of a vengeful, punitive, violent God and the inequality of women within the Torah never sat well with me. I also couldn’t get past the fantastical stories that contradict current scientific knowledge.
I thought, what is the point of studying Torah or having it be part of our religion if all this inaccurate and awful stuff is in it?
Now I have a better appreciation for the Torah, warts and all.
I remember being fascinated by Greek and American Indian myths when I studied them in school. I didn’t worry about whether they were “true,” but enjoyed the magical stories and the lessons within them.
I’ve come to see the Torah similarly, as our origin myth rather than a historical document. I appreciate that it bonds us as a people, teaches us lessons about justice, and challenges us to think about ethical issues.
Although some laws and mitzvot (or commandments) in the Torah seem strange, the ideas they presented were radical for their time and their intention is still valuable. One law states that you must not use a big ox and a small donkey together to pull a plow because the donkey as the weaker one will suffer. I won’t be plowing a field any time soon, but it’s clear here that the Torah is presenting ideas about fairness and mitigating the suffering of living creatures. The literal laws may not be useful to us now, but their legacy in the pursuit of justice still echoes today.
Judaism has gone through many changes over 5,000 years. With each challenge our ancestors adapted to make Judaism better for future generations.
In the year 70, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, which was the center of the Jewish religion, was destroyed by the Roman Empire. The Jews of those days didn’t let our religion perish along with the Temple. They started a new type of tradition, called rabbinic Judaism, that can be practiced anywhere without the need for one central Temple.
Later on, rather than abandoning our tradition, Jewish women advocated for gender equality and paved the way for the amazing female rabbis who have brought so much to our community. Same goes for LGBT Jews.
Today we enjoy a more inclusive Judaism thanks to those who have confronted the challenging parts of our tradition.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are wandering in the desert after escaping slavery in Egypt and snakes begin to bite people. Their leader Moses asks God for help, and God commands them to build a giant bronze snake. Anyone who has been bitten is instructed to look upon the bronze snake to be healed. They literally have to confront the very thing that they fear in order to recover.
So, too, we have to confront our fears and traumas to be freed of them.
Much of the Torah is problematic, but it is part of us as Jews. Just as the Israelites had to look upon the bronze snake to be healed, it is important for us to look at the Torah and make sense of it.
The Torah says that after Moses received the tablets with the Ten Commandments on them on Mount Sinai, he came down the mountain and saw the Israelites worshipping a Golden Calf, so he smashed the tablets in rage. Moses later received a new unbroken set of tablets to store in the Ark, the holy container for the commandments that the Israelites carried with them throughout their journeys.
There is a saying, “Both the whole tablets and the shattered tablets lie in the Ark.” Even the flawed parts of our tradition receive a holy space.
Torah is contradictory, confusing, violent, and unfair. But it’s also beautiful, meaningful, inspiring, touching, entertaining, and mystical.
We can’t remove the parts of the Torah that make us cringe, just like we can’t remove the parts of ourselves we are ashamed of or the mistakes we’ve made in the past. That is part of what makes us who we are…and the whole Torah is part of us as Jews.