Judaism is Something I Do
Sarah Dentan's Adult Bat Mitzvah Talk • June 18, 2016
Sarah Dentan is the Acting Deputy Library Director at the Berkeley Public Library, and lives in Berkeley with her husband David and their daughter Stella.
I was born to Jewish parents in the early 1970s, and before I had learned to read, marital estrangement, divorce and remarriage meant I was raised in a nominally Christian household.
As a kid, there were things I liked about church, mostly the singing and the formality of the Sunday services. They felt serious, and important, but they never really fit. By the time I was in college, I had drifted away from religious observance of any sort. I had a sort of half-remembered connection to Judaism; I ate matzoh and had a vague knowledge of the seder; when I traveled, especially in Europe, I looked for remnants of Jewish history.
After my daughter was born I was casting about for a spiritual system that would provide some framework for sharing the ineffable truths I believe in -- how could I talk about there being something larger than all of us while not making any one of us small? Or how we have a responsibility to make the world better, because it’s the right thing to do?
There are many traditions that provide language and metaphors for talking about those concepts. So why Judaism? I think because of the books.
I wasn’t raised in a Jewish household, but I was raised in a house of books. My parents were both educators; my husband is a professor. I’m a librarian, mostly because I can’t limit myself to one area of study, I dabble in it all. I’m a learner, by profession and by vocation.
When I found out one could actually choose Judaism, I was intrigued. I started attending services, going to Torah study, taking “Introduction to Judaism” classes, and the further I went the better it got. First, the books. There are SO MANY BOOKS!
One of my first teachers waxed lyrical about the importance of a home Jewish library, so there’s that. But there’s also the relationship to the books. There are different schools of thought related to how much divine inspiration went into the writing of the Torah, but there’s no expectation that we hold to the Torah’s literal meaning. On the contrary, between the Talmud -- an enormous collection of ancient conversations about how to live following Jewish teachings -- and the commentary provided by our sages, there is a whole library interpreting the Torah, and sometimes filling in the blanks!
And the structure of commentary is genius. Because it’s not just smart people writing about Torah, it’s smart people arguing about Torah. Not only do we have texts that build on other texts, we have a model of analyzing texts that requires discussion. And it gets even better. Because we have the sages’ commentaries, but we also have contemporary commentaries. And some of that commentary is feminist. And some of it is queer. And some takes a social justice angle, and some takes a business ethics angle. And some of it is poetry, or drama, or song. And because we study, and we argue, and we create new meaning when we study Torah, we are creating our own commentary.
We have deep respect for our foundational text. We have celebrations commemorating receiving the Torah; in our prayer service today we talk about the revelation of Gd’s love through the gift of Torah. Think about a Torah scroll. They are written to exacting standards. We speak about them like they are people -- when we put the cover back on a Torah we are dressing it. If we must dispose of one, we bury it. Everything we do with, around, and to a Torah communicates its importance.
But we are not literalists; we hold to Torah as our “Tree of Life,” but we are also called to use it, to interpret it, to comment on it. Living a Jewish life is not following a list mindlessly, but committing to a course of study and bringing what we learn into our daily lives. In addition to being something I am, Judaism is something I do.
One of the things I am called to do, as a parent, it to teach Torah to my daughter. In today’s prayer service, in the V’ahavta prayer, we say, “take to heart these instructions with which I charge you,” meaning Torah, “impress them upon your children.” In other parts of the service, we talk about Judaism being passed “l’dor vador,” from generation to generation. Clearly, this is a core responsibility for Jewish adults. I study for me, but I also study because I want to teach my child about the depth and beauty and the diversity of Jewish thought and culture and practice and argument, so she can find a space in Judaism to make her own.
This has been a difficult week. There are bad things happening, and it can be easy to slip in to despair or cynicism, but despite its reputation, Judaism is an incredibly optimistic belief system.
I want to close with you a teaching I hang on to in weeks like this last one. It’s from a work that’s known in English as Ethics of our Fathers. As recorded in Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Tarfon said “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it, either.”
I’m not responsible for the whole thing, but I don’t get to quit trying. For me that’s both the what and the why of Judaism.