(Proverbs 3:5) ?בְּטַ֣ח אֶל־יְ֭הֹוָה בְּכָל־לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְאֶל־בִּ֥֝ינָֽתְךָ֗ אַל־תִּשָּׁעֵֽן

Sometime in the late’50's, when I was a rabbinic student in Cincinnati, I read The Realities of Religion, a short book by Abraham Cronbach, who had been my father’s teacher at the same school. Cronbach, who had taught, so I was told, every subject at Hebrew Union College, had retired to retelling Bible stories with a humanist twist, to writing books, and to leading a pacifist discussion group which I attended. He was a thoroughgoing rationalist -- as was my father, Rabbi Alexander S. Kline, HUC 1933 (Born, Budapest, 1902, died Lubbock, Tex, 1982). I hoped to be a rationalist as well.
The book shaped my thinking.
Cronbach wrote about language. Three points stand out in my memory, having shaped my thinking for 45 years. First: religion is a value system. “Religionize” and “dereligionize” describes what we do when we raise a value to central importance or lower the value to the periphery. For example, in the ancient farming culture, our ancestors religionized fertility. They celebrated harvest festivals and gratefully offered animal and vegetable sacrifices in their Holy Temple. In a later development, in a more urban context, Amos religionized fairness towards the poor and powerless and attempted to dereligionize the sacrificial cult. Today, we Reform Jews follow Amos, and, in place of the ancient cult, we have religionized a long list of moral and ritual practices.
Second, Cronbach conceived God to personify the ultimate in virtue: love, mercy, wisdom, strength, sympathy, imagination. Associating the word “God” with an idea or a value asserts the importance of that idea or value.
Third, believing, as intellectual activity, is but a weak reflection of knowing, far less secure.
One more point. I forget whether Cronbach wrote this or said it in my hearing (claiming to have learned it from another): “The same man may philosophize, theologize, or pray, but he should not attempt them at the same time.” Which is to say, the God we discuss in philosophy class is not the same as the God we have in mind when we pray. This escape – from rationality – clause amounts to bifurcating the mind but has frequently comforted me and others. Irony.
My work and thinking as a rabbi has led me to simplicity (in the sense of Occam’s razor), what I take to be minimal belief. In years of sermons I repeated what I considered a comforting thought: you don’t have to believe in God to function as a Jew. I follow the arguments of the atheists but never really joined them, for two reasons: first, they are strong believers while I am a non believer. Their argument depends on the absence of deity while mine allows for scepticism. Second: I have experienced God – see below. I remain not quite agnostic.
I religionize actions – both ethical and ritual – over ideas. The early years of my career I devoted to two movements, racial integration and ending the war in Viet Nam. Once our children were born, I turned to experiential practice – spirituality in doing things. Eventually my interest focused on God. (My beloved wife, Barbara, patiently put up with the shifts.) Perhaps my father’s teacher still reaches me. I name this essay with Cronbach and my father in mind. It is a personal statement. Come to think of it, Cronbach may have written his Realities as a brief, personal, statement. Mine is briefer, with far less claim to scholarly standing.
Note the Hebrew verse from Proverbs that serves as part of the title. Its translation: “Trust in Yah (Adonai, frequently rendered “The Lord) with all your heart (i.e. “mind”) and rely not on your understanding?” The question mark is, of course, not there in the original. I supplied it. Perhaps there once prevailed an anti intellectual attitude which valued trust over thinking. Read as advice, Proverbs 3:5 would be one more of the obsolete prescriptions found in ancient writings. On the other hand, as a rhetorical question, the words point to the contrast between thinking and believing.
Theorem: there is no data about God. We have no testable and repeatable observations that would satisfy our scientific way of thinking. Vast libraries of reasoning and personal stories fall short of the simplest test. Personal history leads me to accept the validity of religious experience mine and others’, through which a person may claim to “know God.” A similar event seems to affect everyone who cares to talk about it: for a moment a person feels with certainty the presence of God. The knowledge is absolute if subjective, less than scientific but sufficiently empirical to impact a lifetime. Surprising, but real enough.1 Absent such an experience, believing (or not believing) in God must be our sole standard. Once we have had the experience, we can say we know, though not much! Still, there is a big difference between knowing and believing, i.e., receiving/accepting stories and credos regarding God. Epistemology counts.
I can tell you about my two religious experiences and in one respect, mine will, I’m certain, resemble anyone’s. The flash of awareness leaves us momentarily reassured, strengthened, and at peace.
The first stunned me at age twenty, towards the end of junior year abroad at Hebrew University. On a holiday I hitched a ride with a trucker headed south from Beer Sheva. The road was long, narrow, twisting, and mostly free of traffic. In 1956, from time to time, fedayeen attackers from the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza strip struck. One traveled armed through the Negev on the way to Eilat. The driver asked if I had a pistol so that I could ride “shotgun.” He told me he would take me anyway, just for conversation. He reached over to the glove compartment to show me his armament, a hand grenade. In his military experience, he told me, hand grenades were more reliable than guns for personal protection. About halfway into the six hour drive, we saw another big truck pulled over to the side of the road, apparently abandoned. A bad sign. My instinct was to step on the gas and get as far away as quickly as possible from this scene. Instead, the driver stopped on the road, looked around, and spoke softly and tensely: “You stay here. I know the driver of that truck and I’m going to look for him.” He took his grenade and went where I could not see him or he me. Nightmare conditions. The driver and I were exposed and vulnerable. He was courageous and seemed to know what he was doing. I was alone and unprotected, feeling totally helpless. I have never before or since been frozen in such threat. I remember thinking snatches of prayer for my life, but I was not among those of great faith. Then it happened. I became aware of a Presence. No visuals, no sound, or any other sense contact. But I experienced God being there as clearly and surely as anything you can see, hear, feel, smell, or taste. The awareness lasted for maybe a second. I felt linked, at one, with the Other. The effect was instantaneous: I was no longer alone. That made a world of difference. Terror vanished, replaced not by terror of attack, or a feeling of being protected, but by the immense comfort of Company. Had I been attacked, which I wasn’t, I think I might have responded with courage and intelligence. The author of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd. . .” may have had an experience similar to mine in the Negev, and felt security in “Thou art with me.” The theological imagery and hyperbole of protector/provider is a matter of poetic license, the warm feeling is real.
The second encounter, 13 years later, happened a week after our first child was born. Fears of unknown genetic threats had been just below the surface during the previous nine months. Now that Avi was here and healthy I felt weighted with a responsibility for his care and education that seemed too great for any one or two people to bear. His bassinet was by the table at the first Shabbat dinner of his life and he was crying. Barbara lit the candles. I had read in Heschel about the practice of fathers blessing their children at the Shabbat table and we had decided to reclaim the ritual. I picked him up and held him at eye level so that we looked at one another. He quieted down as the words began. At some point during that blessing it happened again: the Presence was there. The oneness with humanity, the world. This time the resulting feeling was of supportive backup, replacing the terror of inadequacy. The moment energized me for the task ahead.
That’s it for me. Two brilliant flashes. Since then there have been hints and reminders (twice while meditating) but no further revelations, much as I have yearned for and sought after the powerful endorphin-like dose of reassurance. I think that at the heart of the mystic tradition is a similar search. Once you experience God, you may well spend the rest of your days craving more and writing poetry about the craving, as for example: “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after Thee.” (Psalm 42:1)
Not everybody has had such a revelation to point to, to remember. Scriptures are packed with stories of communications from God, most all of which, in my reading, are literary devices, conceived by authors who spoke of the distant past to lend importance to ideas and events. They don’t remotely resemble my experience. On the other hand, here are two classic descriptions of revelation that ring realistic, one from Hebrew Scriptures, the other from rabbinic/ philosophic treatment of a Scriptural passage. The first, despite its being undoubtedly a legend, is the most sensitive description of spiritual experience I have encountered in literature. The second astounds me in its comprehensive effect.
Elijah the prophet (I Kings 17- II Kings 2) in the days of King Ahab in Samaria, must have been a spirited and unpredictable, rather wild type. The stories about him amaze with miracles and strange deeds. The king calls him “troublemaker.” The queen, Jezebel, seeks to have him killed. At one point, Elijah runs away, from the northern kingdom, Israel, all the way to Mt. Sinai, called Horeb here, a forty day wondrous journey on the strength of one preparatory meal. Once there he holes up in a cave to meditate about his life. The question, from God, is: what is he doing here? He answers with a complaint: “I have been a zealot for Yah2 while the nation has broken their Divine covenant, torn down their altars, killed their prophets, and now they’re after me.” What better place, Moses like, to be in the presence of God? First comes a mighty wind, powerful enough to split mountains and fracture stones. Yah was not in that wind. Next came an earthquake but Yah was not there either. Following the earthquake a fire, and Yah was still not there. Finally, the sound of silence.3 Having “heard” the non verbal, non objective (sound of one hand clapping?), Elijah rises, wraps himself in his mantle, and heads back home, knowing exactly what to do. The awesome immediacy of God returns him to task. The specifics follow secondarily, listed in pedestrian Biblical terms as instructions from above – political acts in Damascus and Samaria, and naming a successor among his acolytes. (II Kings 19:8-17)
In Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 we read the fundamental story of Moses and the Decalogue on Mt. Sinai: the entire nation gathered at the foot of the mountain, while Moses stands, in the clouds and smoke at the top, with God. “Face to face Yah spoke with you on the mountain from the midst of the fire. I stood between Yah and you at that time to relay to you the word of Yah, for you were afraid of the fire and would not ascend the mountain.”(Deuteronomy 5:4f) An early rabbinic interpretation has it that Israel heard distinctly from God only the first two commandments: I am Yah. . . and You shall have no other gods. . ., before they chose to let Moses listen to the rest, trusting his word. (Makkot 24a, Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 33:7, among others) Another early source has all the laws conveyed in a single utterance (dibur echad, Mechilta Bachodesh 4). And the Zohar (13th century or earlier kabalist text) holds that the opening Divine utterance of I (anochi) contained all commandments of the Torah. (Zohar Book 2 85b) I first heard this midrash from my teacher Jacob Petuchowski and he added that all the Israelites had to hear from God at Sinai was the first letter of the first word, the silent alef of anochi. The rest of Torah devolves to us via human agency. This classic rabbinic source offers the thought that what we call “revealed law” is in reality an ongoing response to experiencing God. My take on this: human experience of God is universal; creative individuals within diverse cultures develop beliefs and practices always to suit their own time, place, and character. I address the Jewish character in the sections on Torah and Israel.
Revelation itself contains no data. No commandments. No details or descriptions. “God is source of strength” describes how an event makes me feel, not a quality I observed in God. God-talk, and its associated ethical and ritual prescriptions, comes from the peculiar genius of some individual or individuals.
Jews attribute our religion to the patriarchs, to Moses, to the prophets of antiquity. We hold our ancestors to have been closer to God and hence more deserving than we. The greater the distance in generations, the higher we hold them. In reality, we know little or nothing about those characters. Scriptures may be said to be stories told by our ancestors about their ancestors. They wrote because their subjects were worthy of saga.4 The story tellers and law codifiers may have preserved words they heard or read. To me it seems more likely that they authored the narrative and dialogue and collected from contemporary usage lists of laws and regulations. The 8th century BCE prophets Amos and Isaiah couched their pioneering moral thought in memorable verse. (E.g. “Let justice roll down as water and righteousness as a mighty stream,” Amos 5:24. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” Isaiah 2:4.)
I have come to empathize with the prophets. It may be that where they took their revelation as a command to speak out I took mine as a personal discovery that affected only me. I certainly would never argue that God granted me any extra insight or knowledge. I doubt that Isaiah, who felt a Devine demand for justice, ever meant to convey that God spoke the lines, ventriloquist like, that he, Isaiah, composed.5 We rabbis, like those ancient preachers, attempt to interpret life in ways that make sense and that help people move in the direction of health and peace. Some of us get quoted in the media. Once in a great while a phrase enters common vocabulary, as A. J. Heschel (1965): “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”
What is remarkable here is, I think, that Divine encounter can not be said to confirm the theology of this or that religion, nor is spiritual experience required for one to be religious or to preach sermons.
Five years following my initial God encounter I found myself studying in Mir Yeshivah in Jerusalem. A kolel scholar (sort of a graduate student) gave me private lessons every morning because I could not have kept up with the teenage students, all accomplished in Talmud. After a few weeks I told my instructor about the day in the Negev. He declared that this was surely no divine revelation because it did not affect my observance of Jewish law. He also assured me that he had never had anything he would call an encounter with God but that did not prevent him from an exemplary dedication to Torah study and practice. He knew what he had to do because he had learned it and he believed he was commanded by God to observe the law.
A common usage in Koran is the distinction between believers and non believers (more accurately, “deniers”). In Islam – and in Christianity – correct belief is primary and essential. You might expect the same in Judaism, but you’d search the classic sources in vain for references. In Torah, deeds, moral and ritual, constitute the primary and essential, with not much talk about belief. Belief seems to be assumed, but absent belief, the act, counts just the same. For us a parallel to the encomium “believing Christian” is “practicing Jew.”
I have met religious people who make a virtue of believing – the more there is to believe, the better they like it. They are the ones who take pride in accepting that Jonah lived three days in a big fish. Some religions start with Bible and add more scriptures and their adherents have no problem believing it all. Believing is a facility that, like muscle strength, becomes stronger with practice. I have met skeptics who admire such strength. Some say they wish they could have faith like so-and-so. Such incongruity, I think, comes from living as a minority among satisfied believers in creationism and the supernatural. It resembles yearning for childish innocence.
Belief has its function. "I know that water is H2O" can be said by someone who has done the laboratory test where you separate water into its elements. One who has not had this experience can accept the witness of a teacher or a book or what we like to call "common knowledge." Realistically, this would be better described as a "belief." Most of us, most of the time, get along perfectly well basing decisions on such beliefs. Saves time, effort, and thinking. Besides, we want to believe what authorities tell us – parents, teachers, presidents. When reality offers evidence in conflict with belief, we are apt to question our beliefs but we do not give them up lightly. Beliefs that motivate us to action we call “faith,” synonymous in popular usage, with “religion.” Patriotism too raises belief to a virtue. We want to believe our leaders act in the best interests of the country and the people.
Belief is a choice. We choose to believe that God is great, good, loving, that God wants us to be fair and honest, etc. Belief may in itself be a good thing for society. Consider the commonplace: “God rewards the good and punishes the bad.” As troublesome as the statement is for thinkers, just so useful it is for rulers.6 For some people, believing signifies confidence, trust, and so stands equal or even superior to knowing, but not for me.
So, philosophically, we can know God but nothing about God. I use here “know” as a relationship term, as I would say “I know” a person after a brief meeting. Knowing God results only from such an encounter. That’s the real “revelation.” Encountering God changes your life in a crisis and the memory persists, but the encounter teaches you no theology. You may be strengthened, encouraged, or validated by the experience but you remain in the dark as to God’s nature (substance or incorporeal, wise, good, or loving). Seek as you may, you have no way back to the encounter. Knowing God, unlike scientific knowledge, is subjective, idiosyncratic, and without intellectual content.
Religion stems from real encounters with that which is beyond us, what we might call spiritual experiences. This tells us about people, not about God. Believing is a secondary, a derivative phenomenon. Still, believing comes to be the essence of religion for followers, adherents, and even non believers who reject religion. What we believe about God depends on who we are, what we have been taught, what we have seen. Established religions suggest to their populations that prophecy, i.e. Devine communication to humanity, was vouchsafed only to long ago, selected individuals, and we have no need for additional revelation, only study and interpretation of what we have received.5
I would like to think that emphasis on believing is less risky in religion than in politics and physics. But the world is now all too aware of suicide bombers motivated by belief who see themselves as virtuous martyrs bound for heaven. Leaders long ago learned to blend religion with politics to influence a population, to agitate for change. Preachers helped bring down Jim Crow in the U.S. The difference between the bombers and the marchers, I think, is the element of nonviolence as value and strategy. (We see little of nonviolence in the west prior to the mid 20th century when Mahatma Gandhi convinced an occupied population of its effectiveness in the struggle for independence.) Violence seems primordial. The stories make us see the Israelites as fearsome warriors. Nonviolence must be taught and learned. Humanity created “in the image of God suggests the value of life. In Leviticus we find: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Isaiah and Micah both speak of peace as a goal.6 Nonviolence in the political sense is not there. It is new Torah, the result of fresh thinking inspired by our forebears thinking. Contemporary interpreters seek and find foreshadows, hints in the ancient writings (as they do for feminism and environmentalism) but these contemporary understandings are our generation’s effort to make sense of the world. It is not that God has had a change of heart and reordered priorities.
When it comes to theology – talk about God’s nature, attributes, and relation to the world – those who know God from experience and those who do not are in the same boat: logic.7 We study and internalize received teachings (i.e. Torah) about God. We reason our own way to concepts, thoughts, and attitudes that make sense. (When our son, Avi, was four, he figured that God kept an eye on whomever He wished simply by changing the channel on His TV.) It would seem that the basic issue of “the existence of God” should be resolved for those who experience God, and perhaps it is, to some degree. The resolution, however, does not turn a non believer into a believer or confirm the veracity of Torah. The knowledge is limited to a moment, and does not include anything about: creation, power, love, justice, mercy, etc.
Judaism, like other religions, is a human effort to deal with existence. The big question is not about God but about the world. What we know about the early ideas and practices of the people known as the Children of Israel (B’nai Yisrael) comes to us from Hebrew Scriptures, a collection of documents reflecting the course of a millennium that began roughly 1,000 BCE.8 In that literature of family archives we find ancient wonderings about the world, and, perhaps, responses to religious experiences.
For example, in Exodus we find the story of God as lawgiver at Mt. Sinai. God speaks in thunder and smoke. The whole nation shares the exalting experience though only Moses is called to the top of the mountain to be close to God. The moment results in lists of laws for an orderly society with regulated worship suitable for the world of the time and place. Every list is preceded by “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying. . .,” or a variant. The idea was to religionize these teachings. The repeated phrase is a literary device. We might call it “homiletic license,” a subset of poetic license. The phrase signifies God as the source of the words in a way similar to a poet invoking the muse but with added weight. In addition to religionizing the practices, it is theologizing, characterizing the figure of God. Lawgiver becomes part of the definition of God.9
To my ear, the motif, “And God spoke. . .” invites us to associate with our ancestors and participate in the process of Torah. We should keep listening. Perhaps we will hear God
Exodus – along with Genesis – contains the foundation myth of Israel. There is no extra biblical document that corroborates the Egyptian sojourn or Mt. Sinai, or the forty years in the wilderness so the narrative can not be called history, but no matter. (“It may not be history but it’s our story,” said one of my teachers.) We recall and celebrate Mt. Sinai to this day seeing ourselves as having been present there in the person, as it were, of our DNA. We plug ourselves into the image. Some resort to belief, that is we believe that our ancestors stood at the mountain and shared a group religious experience. I prefer skepticism, reading the vivid account as imaginative, insightful and valuable, offering a string of shared “memories,” a common vocabulary of moral concepts. That’s the way myth works. Myth is fiction that we take to heart.

Hebrew Scriptures stories about the world mostly feature God as leading character. (Esther is my favorite exception to the rule.) Who wrote the stories? With the possible exception of the literary prophets, we find no names – authors had no reason, commercial or egotistic, to sign their work. On the contrary, they preferred attributing their work to prominent predecessors. Scholars point to critical details – vocabulary, ideas, attitudes – that might identify a writer’s time and place. These authors may or may not have had religious experiences like yours and mine but some redactor10 appreciated the value of their writing and collected it into the library we call Torah.
Torah11 amounts to the Jews' received teaching. Primarily, we accept (vŠkŠC©e kabalah refers to that which is “received” or “accepted”) Hebrew Scriptures plus the accretion of ongoing intellectual efforts, featuring those of the rabbis12. Time honored belief holds Torah to be divine revelation, all of it. With God as source, stories become trustworthy accounts of history. Laws and regulations become authoritative expressions of divine will. To this day some Jews accept the teachings as revealed, rejecting several centuries of critical studies and theorizing. This is idealistic, not realistic, mythological, not epistemological. With human beings as source, which is to say, realistically, Torah is the Jewish cultural, intellectual response to existence, to questions of values, to religious experience. And every chapter reflects historical and geographical conditions. Torah study is a course in intellectual history.
Theological diversity in Torah makes the point. My favorite illustration:
Two distinct and opposing concepts of God present in the opening chapters of Genesis when we read with eyes opened by literary criticism. Classic interpretation sees a unified narrative: first a general account of step by step creating, followed by a more detailed, human interest illuminating of the sixth day episode.13 Critical reading, on the other hand, finds two distinct accounts of creation, one that might be named: "The First Week," the other: "The Garden."
Cosmogony is an attempt to explain how the world as we know it came to be. Authors of Hebrew Scriptures pointed to God as the key to understanding existence and this is nowhere more obvious than these two stories where God is the main character. The stories, however, reflect widely divergent understandings of the world and hence alternate God concepts.
We look first at the "Garden" story, most likely the earlier of the two compositions – possibly from the 10th century BCE.14 The story opens with a dry, desolate vista, unpopulated by vegetable or animal because there is no moisture. Then God, named Yah in this story, brings forth water, and from the mix of earth and water -- clay, forms the man, ha’adam. Next, Yah plants a garden and puts the man there as caretaker. The garden exists for the Owner's pleasure but the gardener may enjoy most of its fruits. Then Yah observes: "It is not good that the man be alone." He Who formed ha’adam from earthy (adamah) raw materials shall correct the defect, the mistake. He forms animal companions, one by one, anticipating a reaction that will indicate which one is the helpmeet, the suitable companion. The man only calls out names: Yah's efforts have failed. Eventually, Yah takes a fresh approach, constructive surgery, and the man awakes to find his female counterpart. Yah is pleased (and relieved?) to hear the words: "Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!"
The world of "The Garden" is chaotic but intriguing. Events proceed unpredictably, because the Deity works by trial and error to achieve whatever notion may occur to Him. Human missteps, in the world as we know it, mirror divine missteps in the building process. Yah is well meaning but not always successful, as witness the attempt, several chapters later, to improve the world by flooding it and hoping for better results through selective breeding. The imperfect world reflects its Maker. Rather than perfect, Yah is immanent, sympathetic and approachable, intimately involved in changes that can go in any direction.
"The First Week"15 – the likely later, 6th century BCE story – opens on a fluid scene: a shapeless blob of liquid and solid matter. In the first creative act, God (unnamed in this story) speaks light onto the scene. God observes that light is good, names it, and we have day one. Then continuing, in orderly fashion, day by day: space/sky; dry land and plants; sun, moon, and stars; fish and birds; land animals last of which is human, male and female, in the divine image. Each but one step is good, and in the end, all is very good. The seventh day is off, restful, and God blesses it and makes it special. Propagation is the first order of business: plants bear species specific seeds. “Be fruitful and multiply,” God blesses birds, fish, animals, and human beings. People are not only to fill up the earth but to dominate all the rest of creation.
"The First Week" propounds a world of order, purpose, balance. God’s work leaves room for no mistakes, no unintended consequences. All follows a plan, to good effect. Sexual reproduction is natural and desirable in human beings as in other creatures – even plants do seeds. Life and death, good and evil, light and dark, hot and cold, are all cycles in a cause and effect string. The cosmos works perfectly because it was made that way by a perfect God.16 Natural law is God’s will. God is transcendent, praiseworthy but remote.
The redactor of these stories, possibly P himself, set "The First Week" before "The Garden," allowing, thereby, readers who wanted to, to understand the latter as a footnote to the former and to conflate the God concepts. The order of creation in the two accounts differs. Humanity comes last in “The First Week,” and first in “The Garden.”17 As for the distinct world views and characterizations of God, the rabbis avoided analyzing either of the two, as if they placed little importance on literary and philosophic aspects. They determined to read the stories as one, allowing for no contradictions, let alone separate human sources. Instead they overlaid the ancient narratives and concepts with their own postbiblical theology: God is omnipotent, omniscient, just, loving, merciful, etc.
For the reader prepared to see the text as it is, the two ways of looking at the world, with their consequent theologies, are, for two reasons, a wonderful opening for Torah. First, the viability of both ideas, order and chaos, determinism and existentialism. Each can effectively describe the world. Sometimes we favor one and sometimes the other. Perhaps we need both (and other ideas, as well) to make sense of what goes on in the world. Second, the fact that religious perspective builds on two, not one (authoritative answer), but two widely divergent God concepts, points in the direction of thinking rather than submissive acceptance.
No Hebrew term comes even near rendering the Greek derived “theology,” suggesting to me that theology is not really a normative Jewish pursuit. In my years at Hebrew Union College, the 1950's, there was no course labeled “Jewish theology.” Under “Jewish Religious Thought” we first studied Midrash – stories and principles derived from Hebrew Scriptures, continuing what might be called “narrative theology.” We turned to systematic philosophers, the first of whom were influenced by Moslem teachers of Aristotle and Plato. Maimonides (12th century Spain and North Africa) wrote a lot about God, even listing a set of principles which some accept as “articles of faith.”18 I am fascinated by the God concepts of our biblical ancestors. Later theology is of lesser interest to me except for its appearance in the Sidur (“Order [of worship],” prayer book).
Jewish public worship as we know it today follows Sidur compiled by the rabbis. In the context of interfaith actions in Monroe, Louisiana, (where I held a pulpit for 15 years) on numerous occasions I shared a religious service with members of Church of God in Christ, a Black Pentecostal denomination. One woman, bright and enthusiastic, undertook to teach me how to pray as they did, “from the heart,” and, over the course of a few years, with her encouragement, I developed a small facility at speaking extemporary words of thanks, praise, and petition. I attempted it at those small gatherings that opened and closed with prayer (the norm in Louisiana). For Jewish meetings, I sought classical liturgical material for the given situation, with perhaps a few lines of carefully prepared words to bridge from antiquity to the present. I printed out these invocations and read them, as if from my own prayer book. I would still avoid extemporizing.
To the unaccustomed, reading prayer from a book seems an oxymoron, no matter the literary and spiritual quality of the writing. Jews may express ourselves simply and directly in private devotions but personal words are generally not spoken aloud, by one on behalf of others. In the group activity, t’filah b’tsibur, “prayer in public,” we approach God in recognized order and support one another with familiar words and melodies.
Basic form and content in our liturgy have survived two millennia of editing, translating, additions and subtractions, so that prayer style remains one of the distinguishing characteristics of Jews in all cultural and spiritual diversity. Sidur has become Torah and praying blends study and thought with reaching outward, beyond ourselves.20 Sometimes the printed words speak meaningfully for us and sometimes we pay no attention to the meaning – whether out of ignorance or due to rote recitation – and sometimes the words contradict our thinking. Despite judicious deleting on the part of modern editors, a book simply can not continuously speak for a group of individuals nor even for a single individual at different turns of life. Still, we are people of the Sidur, even when worshiping in Hebrew which most of us do not understand. By way of illustration, a memoir:
From Clarksdale, Mississippi, where the Jewish community was grounded in Reform Judaism with its Union Prayerbook, I went to Brandeis University. Hillel, the national organization, provided for two styles of services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipur, one with the UPB, the other with the old Rabbinic Assembly prayer book. Another rabbi’s kid (RK) and I volunteered to help organize the Reform services and a hundred or so of us attended. The two of us thought to try for weekly Shabbat morning services. We made the announcements and posted the signs and nobody showed up. Meanwhile, those from Conservative congregations, particularly those from Camp Ramah, had a dozen regulars every week. OK, I thought, they must be doing something right. At lunch following my first two-hour-plus Shabbat service, I asked the others what kind of praying they were doing when none understood the Hebrew they were singing or rushing through? They agreed that it would be better if they knew the language and understood the words. They were praying by rote the way they had been taught and this troubled them just a bit. Still they felt it proper to pray in Hebrew and every one of them was comfortable with the words, the tunes, the choreography. What’s more, they came back over and over again. I craved what they had, the enthusiasm and sense of community. I was determined to learn and do.
First year Hebrew class was hard for me – grammar mostly, with slow reading and slower writing, no help at all with praying. At summer camp Tel Yehudah when I was fifteen, I had witnessed this style of praying, this “davenen.21 As a child in Mississippi, I sat in awe as Orthodox worship, led by a guest cantor, alternated with Reform, conducted by my father, on Yom Kipur. A few of the melodies have stayed with me. At Brandeis, I continued to attend the Conservative service and by the end of my freshman year, I could keep up with the rest in singing or murmuring on the right page, though, much as I pushed myself, I never learned to read as fast as the leader or those around me. I still can’t.22
I discovered, that year, classic Jewish prayer. With but minimal comprehension I could still daven and come back for more. Dissolved was disconnect between davenen and what I had thought of as prayer. Not only that, but, where a Reform service seemed overly long at an hour, I remained engaged for as much as two and a half hours when I participated actively. I joined the regulars, and as a sophomore, took my turn leading the service. I began junior year at Hebrew University with an intensive language course. Learning the language was like turning on a new light to words of prayer. Shabbat mornings at different types of synagogues became a highlight of that year in Jerusalem. Even the single, small Reform congregation davened. Over the course of forty plus years in the pulpit, I ceaselessly attempted to reintroduce davenen (including in English) to Jews, who resisted just as I had at Brandeis. Today’s Reform Jews are more likely to enjoy davenen, given summers at camp, given rabbis and cantors who have studied in Israel, given greater comfort in peculiar Jewish ways. When my children were young, I served a congregation that followed Reform practice on Friday evenings and Conservative on Saturday mornings, so all three of them became Sidur adepts.
So, what does the Sidur mean to say about us and our world? The morning liturgy contains a rabbinic list of ten important mitsvot, the eighth of which is וְעִיוּן תְּפִלָּה, v’iyun t’filah, “concentrating in prayer.” “Mindful praying,” is the way I understand it, using the terminology of meditation and Yoga. Praying is largely a thought process but it can work, endorphin like, for good feelings and comfort, and it can be theatrical. In order to have their full effect, Sidur prayers are intended to be repeated, daily, weekly, seasonally, or annually. I’ve selected three lines out of a library of statements to illustrate these three realities in our way of prayer: Sh’ma, Hashkiveynu, and L’chah Dodi.
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, יְיָ אֱלהֵינוּ, יְיָ אֶחָד
Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad. “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”23 We recite this best known – to Jews – of prayers as a declaration of unity framed in theological terms. It is not as if we are arguing with believers in two gods or six or sixteen. We proclaim one God as a way of saying that a single source lies behind all else. Monotheism reflects a one world perspective, universalism. All too commonly, people call themselves monotheists and allege that everyone with a different religion is wrong. They miss the point and venture into absurdity and danger. Realistically, if there is One God, then all of us human beings are family, including monotheists, polytheists, and atheists. Strictly speaking a monotheist is unconcerned about other religions’ claims. Sh’ma is a principle. In Reform synagogues a generation back, the reader would lead in with: “Let us rise to recite the watchword of our faith.” We rose where others sat because we wanted to emphasize an idea.
Monotheism was not at issue in late 7th century BCE Jerusalem where the Book of Deuteronomy seems first to have appeared. Hebrew Scriptures offer a confusing picture of accepted religious practices and beliefs in the days of the kings. King David is praised for his single minded devotion to Yah, but his son, Solomon, who built a fine temple to Yah, continued building temples, to every other god that the people were accustomed to worshiping in those days. Elijah is said, in the 9th century BCE, to have demanded the Israelites cease contact with Ba’al, god of fertility. Hosea, in the 8th century, preaches that Yah feels like a rejected husband when the Children Of Israel consort with other deities. II Kings 22 contains the story of the appearance of what is probably Deuteronomy, or a substantial part of it. We get the impression from the story that prior to discovering this text, people knew of no prohibition against worshiping others along with Yah. Precisely that prohibition is one of several dominant themes running through Deuteronomy, backed up by dire threats for non compliance.24 In this context, Sh’ma reads like an instruction: the people must worship only Yah – our God. Neither this line nor the second commandment, “You shall have no other gods beside Me”(Deut 5:7), implies that none other are available.
By the time of the rabbis monotheism had become a central and unchallenged teaching and that is what they had in mind when they designated Sh’ma as a key prayer. The Mishnah tractate B’rachot records the early prayers and discussions about their meanings and functions. There, regarding the order of paragraphs, we find the following: “Rabbi Y’hoshua ben Korchah said: ‘Why does Sh’ma precede V’hayah im shamoa. . .(“And if you will carefully obey. . .”)? Just so that one accept for oneself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven first and then the yoke of commandments.” (M Ber 2:2) First comes the principle, then the consequent actions, in this line of thought. The V’hayah im shamoa paragraph speaks of rewards that come from obedience and punishments for disobedience. The lines are Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and they contain no list of commandments (mitsvot). Rabbi Y’hoshua was thinking of principles, one that must precede another. “Yoke” implies a burden to bear, an obvious metaphor for a list of obligations. But in what sense is the primary principle, one God, “Kingdom of Heaven,” a burden, absent the commandments?
Monotheism is not an easy theology to hold and teach. Polytheism and paganism have colorful stories and facile explanations for life’s questions. Theodicy, for example, bad things happening to good people, is not a problem when there are two or more gods. For many believers God the good has an opponent in Satan the evil. In effect this is dualism. Nationalism goes well with henotheism – one nation, one god. Religions differ so dramatically that they might as well be relating to different gods. Indeed, Judaism’s own mystical trend hints at an aspect of dualism in God’s male and female manifestations.25 Theological universalism offers few simple answers on issues of human rights or bioethics. Monotheism demands maturity and intellectual discipline and offers, in return, a thought provoking way of finding meaning in existence.
This sense of meaning underlining existence is, I think, what the rabbis valued and enshrined in God (i.e. they religionized unity). Liturgists commonly used “King” as metaphor for God. (E.g. the repeated: . . .Eloheynu melech ha’olam. . ., “. . .our God, King of the world. . .”) A king governs alone. And, what is more,“yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven” suggests that, despite conflicting evidence, there is order, purpose, and meaning in all that happens to a person or to a nation. We might get closer to the rabbis’ thinking were we to render for the common phrase, rather than “ruler of the world:” “rule of the world.”
For me, the first and foremost principle is positing/accepting/believing that there is meaning in the universe, that our lives make a difference, that there is right and wrong. Belief in monotheism derives from belief in meaning in the world. “There is one God (– corollary meaningful existence)” is a credo that satisfies my desire for minimal believing. All else follows. A classic practice in reciting Sh’ma is closing and covering the eyes, the better to concentrate and focus on this most abstract and yet critical of visions. Unity frames decision making. Without the demands of monotheism, how to argue whose needs and desires should prevail? In a meaningless existence there is nothing wrong with selfishness there is no standard. Might makes right. It is not that morality proceeds from God (by revelation or by logic), but that morality depends upon: what ultimate difference does it make? No need to belittle or reject non theistic moral thinking in favor of the Jewish approach. On the contrary, when monotheism is real, it is universally humanistic. I think it would be a good idea to return to the “watchword of our faith” idea. Maybe rephrased as: “critical creed.”
In Ma’ariv (“evening service”) is a prayer for a good night’s sleep: Hashkiveynu Adonai Eloheynu l’shalom v’ha’amidenu malkeynu l’chayim. . . “Lay us down, Yah our God, in peace, and stand us, our King, to life...”24 It has something in common with the 18th century child’s prayer that many of us were taught: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep; And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” When we go to sleep we give up control, we loose consciousness, we leave ourselves vulnerable. Going to bed should be relaxing but sometimes it is not. “To die: to sleep; No more,” Hamlet muses. And our liturgy includes a morning wake up line that implies we have been virtually dead in bed: “Modeh ani. . . I am thankful before You, living and existing King, for Your having returned to me my breath (life, soul – nishmati). . .”
Insomnia, however, for most of us, has a more proximate cause: worry. Unfinished tasks, guilty memories, ongoing threats, burdensome responsibilities, fear of bad dreams (Hamlet, again), stress over our exhaustion – the list could go on and on. If only we had some mental/spiritual technique to turn off our insecurities, to relax our worry muscles. Actually Sidur has a remarkably specific bed time prayer, called Kriat Sh’ma al Hamitah (“Sh’ma reading on the bed”) because it features that line. The four page sleep preparation includes Hashkiveinu along with selected Psalms and references to guardian angels and ends with the familiar hymn, Adon Olam.
Sometimes, in leading prayer, I would read aloud a paragraph in Hebrew (different from singing a passage or reading in English). Hashkiveinu became Barbara’s favorite reading as she faithfully attended services as my steadfast supporter and severest critic. The sound of the words in this composition, along with minimal comprehension, affects us like music. (Another example of this is Mourners’ Kaddish, where the cadence and the vibrations, along with our associations, reach beyond the cognitive, into the soul.) You don’t need to be able to parse hashkiveynu to appreciate its poetic sound. Barbara told me that the sound “hahsh” comes to her comfortingly like “sh, be quiet.” And the familiar words l’shalom and l’chayim add to the feeling. Sukat sh’lomecha (“Your sukah shelter of peace”) adds a metaphor. On Shabbat the prayer concludes with Yah spreading the sukah over us, over the people of Israel, and over Jerusalem. This nearly palpable picture reminds me of the scene in “Fantasia” where, to the Beethoven “Pastoral Symphony,” Hesperus and his assistants gently draw the blanket of night over the sleepy inhabitants of earth, assuring them good, untroubled, sleep.
No realist would embrace the thought that God will miraculously shelter us from war or any of the other threats mentioned in Hashkiveinu: plague, famine, grief. That would exemplify wishful thinking, i.e. prayer is petition for an impossible or unlikely boon. We could classify the prayer as a faith statement: we place faith in peace. Contrary to evidence in history books and newspapers, peace is real and vital to our sleep and to the wellbeing of all and especially to Jerusalem. This would be plausible and a useful for teaching about the world. I see a third possibility: reciting/hearing Hashkiveinu is in itself, with its sounds and one of the real rewards of public worship. We need such healthful moments for strength to meet the onslaughts we face. The words themselves are good for us.
A bridal march for Shabbat. Emotive, not philosophical. A sensual image to enhance our week. In 16th century Ts’fat (Safed) there flourished a culture of scholarship and mysticism with big name contributors: Joseph Karo, Shulchan Aruch (“set table”), a four volume compendium of instructions for how to practice Judaism, and Isaac Luria, called “Ari” (“lion”), the Kabalist master. One of the circle of scholars was the poet Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz who wrote the happy words to accompany his group’s weekly practice – walking at Friday sunset to the western side of the mountain, there to greet Shabbat, personified as a bride come for a visit. I have sung a lot of different melodies for this prayer and they are all dance tunes.
L’chah dodi likrat kalah, p’ney shabbat n’kab’lah. “Go, my friend, to meet a bride, let us receive the presence of Shabbat.” The metaphor first appears in Talmud25 and develops in mystical writings.26 The Ts’fat school enlivened the imagery into a weekly wedding between Israel and Shabbat, and they sang nine verses filled with scholarly tidbits and cheerful messianic promises. My favorite of the former, verse two, contains this about Shabbat: sof ma’aseh, b’machashavah t’chilah, “end of the act (of creation), in thought the beginning,” or in the felicitous translation of Gates of Prayer, “the last of days for which the first was made.” With “The First Week” story of creation in mind, the poet sees Shabbat as the goal of existence, God’s aim in creating the world. Workdays are the lead up to Shabbat.
But the high point comes at the closing verse: Bo’i v’shalom. . . Bo’i kalah, when we invite the bride to come in. Congregations rise to their feet and turn to face the door at the rear to watch the procession down the aisle! This is theater. Everybody stands, even for an imaginary bride!
Our granddaughter, Ela, age three, who lives upstairs, attended when she was two the wedding of her mother’s dear friend. She was swept away by the bride in her glorious white and thrilled at dancing with her. For weeks afterwards she spoke of little else. And then she learned that her aunt Shira’s recorded song, Bo’i Kalah, that we sing at the table at Friday dinner, was about a bride coming in. And now, she dresses from her costume box in a half slip from her grandmother. It’s her bridal gown. Following the candle lighting, she dashes to the kitchen calling out, Wait! Wait! We start singing Bo’i Kalah “Come on in bride,” and she enters and dances around the table to oohs and aahs.
Ela and her family are acting out the words of the prayer. Bowing when we recite Aleynu, kissing the Torah when it passes by, putting on t’filin are classic examples of theater in the order of worship, Sidur.
A few more brief comments on my experience of prayer:
I incline towards literalism, being moved by words in their simple and compound meanings, so praying the Sidur always stimulates thinking. Worship does not follow from belief, so much as the reverse: worship shapes beliefs. Sidur serves as textbook for Torah teachings and prayer educates. I am not among those committed to frequent and regular synagogue worship but every attendance whets my appetite. The words intrigue and frequently amaze me even with long familiarity. Reciting a prayer, the words, the thoughts, the motions, the music has its effect on me to some degree, every time I do it.
Jogging first thing in the morning six days a week became for me an essential routine when I was 36 years old. Years later, serving a Conservative congregation, I found myself attending Shacharit (“morning”) services, for a half hour davenen with t’filin. This was only for a few days at a time, the course of someone’s shiva (seven day mourning period). Praying that way was a good experience and I considered giving up my morning run permanently. Then, realizing that through repetition, I had learned by heart a significant number of passages, I began reciting them as I jogged each morning. Unquestionably a lesser spiritual moment than the formal service but gratifying enough to continue the practice till this day. Halfway through the run the morning blessings, with their melodies, flow through my consciousness and continue through Sh’ma.27
When I theologize, the order, perfection, and transcendent imagery of “The First Week” creation story appeals to me. When I pray, the personable imagery of “The Garden of Eden” creation story comes to mind more so than the other.
Among the morning prayers is one that opens with the soul coming pure from God and proceeds to one day having it taken away and still later returned. I don’t recite this every day, but when I do (likely close after a funeral) I find comfort in the concept of bodily resurrection. This, despite the strangeness to my thinking of the notion. Similar incongruities occur for me on most pages of the Sidur. This is what Cronbach meant by not attempting to philosophize and theologize while praying. Generally, I can’t turn off the first two processes, and irony strikes me over and over.
I think I heard somewhere that the melody ascends to heaven quicker and more directly than the words of a prayer. Music adds wings to the words. That works for me.
Meditation was a novelty to me when the Transcendental Meditation folks brought it over from India back in the 1960's. It was nice to learn that Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav had a version of meditation that we Jews could feel good about but I am grateful to the Hindus for this particular spiritual effort. A sometimes meditator, I have attempted to introduce meditation, guided and unguided, to adults, to teens, and even to elementary school children in my congregations. I consider it a powerful form of prayer.
Music meditation, that is a worship service consisting mostly, if not entirely, in mantra melodies, with druming and dance, is a new and wondrous experience for me. I have long loved inserting nigunim (wordless melodies) into the services, Hassidic style. At B’nei Jeshurun in NYC, the crowd dances the eighth verse of L’chah Dodi. Irresistible. Recently my wife and I, along with our children and grandchildren, were present at a Storahtelling© Shabbat service. The music meditation and the dramatic rendition of the Torah portion convinced us to travel to New York for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipur, conducted in part by our daughter, Shira. I am not ready to give up the intellectual and spiritual activity of davenen but I am drawn to this new direction.
The headings, God, Torah, and Israel, that outline this essay are the three categories of sermons we were taught at HUC to preach. Thus far is God talk, to borrow an expression from the Christian evangelicals who sprinkle their every conversation with piety. The reality of God talk lies not in theological speculation or argument but in making sense of the world. For our earliest writers, God was key to understanding life, existence, and all the good and bad that we encounter. We moderns rely on science for most such explaining, though we sometimes resort to God in cases of mystery. Einstein liked to say: “God doesn’t throw dice,” (though I don’t see why not) his way of saying that physics is wondrously purposeful. God talk is mostly evaluative, not informational. When we discuss this or that belief about God, we are mostly judging the believers. “An act of God” refers to an event terrible beyond human comprehension. “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, was our nation’s claim to superiority over the godless Communists. In petitionary prayer God is grantor of favors. In other prayers God symbolizes, dramatizes, or focuses thought. Materialism is everything to do with physics and biology. Spirituality is everything beyond the material – feelings, passions, beauty. Spirit is where God comes in. I follow our Biblical ancestors in finding order and purpose in life. I too think of the world and God.
PART TWO: TORAH (Highlights of Torah I have learned)
PART THREE: ISRAEL (Varieties of Jewish experience I have enjoyed)

1 I wonder if this is what Shakespeare had in mind in the matter of ghosts (Hamlet I,5):
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
2. The Hebrew here is YHVH, the Tetragrammaton, the unpronounced name for God, specific to Bible and Jewish usage. Since at least the third century BCE, readers of Hebrew Scriptures have substituted “Lord” every time the four letters appear. As evidence we have the Septuagint, the translation into Greek by Jews living in Alexandria. For the Name they wrote κύριος, rendered into Latin as Dominus. Hebrew for “Lord” is Adonai, (literally, the plural form “my lords”). When vowel marks were introduced to the text, in the 9th century CE, the vowels for Adonai were superimposed on the Tetragrammaton as an aid to readers. (The uninitiated read it incorrectly as “Jehovah.”) I am indebted to Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shlomi for suggesting “Yah” in place of the forbidden whole name and in place of “Lord,” which suggests both royal domination and machismo. Michael Kagan, introducing his “Holistic Hagadah,” explains Reb Zalman’s usage: People are familiar with “Yah” since it appears in “HalleluYAH – Praise God. “Furthermore, YAH is the name associated with the Godly attribute of Hokhmah, which is the level of greatest expansion and is thus fitting for the Pesah theme of ‘from the narrow straits I cried to YAH, from the great expansion YAH answered.’ (Psalm 118). To support this the Talmud states (Eruvin 18b) that: Since the Sanctuary was destroyed it is enough for the world to use only two letters [of the Tetragrammaton].
3.This translation gets closer to the Hebrew than the traditional “still small voice.” I wonder how much Hebrew Simon and Garfunkel knew and took into account when they sang the phrase in 1964.
4 My teacher, Cyrus Gordon, introduced to me “worthy of saga,” as a literary value.
5 See, for example: “Give ear to the word of Yah, commanders of Sodom, Hear the Torah of our God, people of Gomorrah . . . cease doing evil, learn doing good; seek justice . . . judge the orphan, defend the widow.” Isaiah 1:10-17.
6 Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, in a campaign speech, quoted John Adams: “Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people,” presumably in support of his, Romney’s: “Freedom requires religion.”
5 “Since the last prophets, Hagi, Z’charyah, and Mal’achi, died, the ruach hakodesh (“holy spirit,” i.e. “prophecy”) was withdrawn from Israel. But still, they had used of the bat kol (“little voice,” literally, “daughter of voice,” i.e. restricted word from God). (T Sanhedrin 11a, et al.) Talmud adds that certain individuals were worthy of being prophets but that their generation was unworthy of receiving prophecy.
6 “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks...” Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3.
7 In a freshman modern philosophy survey I learned that philosophy/science (natural philosophy) emerged as a subset of theology. We moderns place science first and then, maybe, philosophy, and then, maybe theology. From that same class I remember the term “epistemology” and that is my interest in this essay: how we come by what we say we know or believe in religion.
8 .References to Hebrew Scriptures will take into account the critical understanding of this text, including the documentary hypothesis, which holds that the earliest documents in Genesis date from the days of Solomon, tenth century BCE and the latest writing was in the fourth century BCE. Deuteronomy, dating apparently from the seventh century BCE, is the earliest “published” section of the Pentateuch. See note 23.
9 Ctr.“When Marduk commissioned me to guide the people aright, to direct the land, I established law and justice in the language of the land, thereby promoting the welfare of the people.” (Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, p 163, translation by Meek) So ends the prologue of the Code of Hammurabi, from Babylonia, 18th century BCE. Nowhere does the text say that Marduk spoke the words for Hammurabi to transcribe. The well known stele on which the code appears shows Hammurabi standing, gesturing obeisance to the seated Shamash, god of justice. The prologue is a long list of acknowledgments to the deities, establishing the king’s piety and divine right to legislate. The gods are interested in orderly society but they are not lawgivers.
10 “Redactor” is the technical term used in Bible studies to refer to the person or persons who collected and edited the documents and set them in the order we find them in Hebrew Scriptures. We have no data about how this process occurred but literary considerations suggest that care went into the redaction. One likely redactor would be the priest, Ezra, in the fifth century, post Babylonian exile period. He is described as “a quick scribe of the Torah of Moses,” (Ezra 7:6) and it was he who brought the scroll before the public and read it aloud (Nechemiah 8:2f).
11 I shall be using the word “Torah” in different contexts, each of which influences the specific reference. The word “Torah” has no simple meaning. Its root, ירה yud-resh-heh, means “shoot” or “throw” and also “instruct” or “decide (a case)”. The word commonly appears in Scriptures with a meaning of “law code” or “instructions.” We find the expression “Torah of Moses” and also “Torah of God.” In one instance the word is in plural. We are used to referring to Pentateuch as Torah, as in ספר תורהSefer Torah.” There is the distinction of “written Torah” from “oral Torah,” the latter referring to rabbinic teachings. The idea here is that Moses received all of Torah from God at Sinai with instructions to write down part and pass the rest orally to Joshua who would pass it to the elders and so on (cf. Pirkey Avot 1:1). In practice, Oral Torah amounts to rabbinic innovations, eventually written down in Mishnah, Talmud, etc. The Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 5a, attempts to shed light on the problematic word. Commenting on Exodus 24:12: Yah said to Moses, “Ascend the mountain to Me and be there, and I shall give you the stone tablets and the torah and the mitsvah which I have written to instruct (l’horot) them.” THE TABLETS, those are the Decalogue; TORAH, that’s Scriptures (מִקְרָא mikra – Rashi explains this as ‘Pentateuch, for it is a commandment to read קרא in the Torah’); THE MITSVAH, that’s the Mishnah; WHICH I HAVE WRITTEN, those are Prophets and Writings (the second and third sections of Hebrew Scriptures, following Torah); TO INSTRUCT THEM, this is Talmud: teaching that all of them were given to Moses from Sinai.
12 The term “the rabbis” refers to the scholar class who assumed leadership, especially once the Holy Temple was destroyed in 70 CE and the priests’ function ended. Prior to 70, they are referred to as “sages,” “scribes,” and “Pharasees”(by their opponents, the Saducees.) The rabbis left us the early postbiblical literature, notably the Talmud (instruction on how to act and think like a Jew, from דמל lamad, “study, learn”) and Midrash (seeking meaning and law in scriptural verses, from darash, “examine, question”). They argued with the fundamentalists of the times, the Saducees, that Hebrew Scriptures were not the totality of revelation, but that their teachings were also Torah, Oral Torah (Torah Sheb’al Peh, see footnote 5). By this concept of dual Torah they kept alive the tradition of thinking about God and of innovating practices. Today’s rabbis are their distant heirs.
13 Over the course of many years teaching Bible at a university, I found that this hard to support single story reading is never-the-less all but universally accepted. I attribute this uncritical approach to Genesis being treated as Bible tales for children. Any gain in children’s literature is overwhelmed by loss to mature thinking. Primary education wins out over secondary education, to the detriment both of the text and of our ideas.
14 Scholars have long called Genesis 2:4b through several following chapters the “J” story, short for “Jahwist,” because of the regular use of JHVH, see note 1, above. Possibly a court chronicler for King Solomon in Jerusalem was the author. Passions and conflict, drama and character development characterize J writings.
15 Scholars call Genesis 1-2:4a the “P”, short for “Priestly,” story. Following the return from Babylonian exile, in the absence of local monarchy, priests dominated the nation in a sort of limited autonomy permitted by the Persians and later the Greeks. The Priestly literature emphasizes regulations and genealogy. Grandeur and formality (and genealogy) characterize the style. The P cosmogony justifies the seven day week culminating in Shabbat.
16 As I was writing this I came across a column in the New York Times, 8/7/07, by Dennis Overbye, called “The God Particle,” with the following: “With Einstein, we always knew where he stood in relation to “God” — it was shorthand for the mystery and rationality of nature, the touchstones of the scientific experience. Cosmic mystery, Einstein said, is the most beautiful experience we can have, “the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”
17.The rabbis found ingenious explanations for the apparent contradiction, e.g. plants were created only in potential on the third day. On the sixth day, in the Garden, it rained and the plants sprouted and grew. The rabbis also had a peculiar principle by which to resolve this and other details, a Midrashic declaration: "There is no earlier or later in Torah," (P’sachim 6a) but I can’t find any use of the phrase to deal with the obvious inconsistency in the first two chapters of Genesis.
18.Ani ma’amin . . . “I believe. . .” recited by some Jews in morning devotions and poetically in the familiar hymn Yigdal. 1) There is a Creator 2) His Oneness is absolute 3) He is without material form 4) He is eternal 5) He alone may be worshiped 6) The prophets are true 7) Moses was the greatest of all prophets 8) The entire Torah was divinely given to Moses 9) The Torah is immutable 10) God knows all the acts and thoughts of man 11) He rewards and punishes 12) messiah will come 13) There will be resurrection.
19.The English word “prayer,” serves to translate the Hebrew “t’filah.” “Prayer,” derives from the Latin prex, “ask, petition,” and “pray” has something of that denotation. The root for “t’filah” is palal, meaning “intercede, mediate, judge.” The two terms suggest differing concepts and actions, but in practice both include petition, praise, and thanking. And both refer equally to private devotions and public worship.
20 I learned that prayer is “reaching out beyond ourselves” from Rabbi Shlomo Twersky, of Denver. In a lecture in the early 80's, he contrasted the act of praying with the narrow world of solipsism. In many a sermon I quoted the explanation of this modern Chasid, scion of a line of scholars going back to the days of the Besht.
21 Yiddish word with unknown but much debated etymology. It refers to reading or chanting the liturgy, and is frequently accompanied by shoklen, rhythmic back and forward, side to side, or twisting movements, another Yiddish word. Davenen is never totally silent. The words must be vocalized, even if softly, which sounds like continuous mumbling.
22 Only in the Mir Yeshivah, where they took their time at davenen could I really keep up. The Rosh Yeshivah, the principal rabbi, was always the last standing for the “silent” section. By that time I understood the Hebrew and could savor the words.
23 As translated in Birnbaum: Daily Prayer Book, 1949; also in Gates of Prayer, 1975. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” Union Prayerbook, 1940; also Sim Shalom, 1985.
The line is: Deuteronomy 6:4, and the older Reform and newer Conservative translators followed the 1917 JPS translation. The 1985 JPS has “. . . the Lord alone. The generally excellent vernacular rendition, Good News Bible, 1976, reads: “Israel, remember this! The Lord – and the Lord alone – is our God.” The differences signify unclear syntax in the original.
24 Scholars following the Documentary Hypothesis deduce from this Yah exclusive theme that the “discovered” scroll was actually composed by a priestly descendent from the officiants at the shrines in Israel, the northern kingdom, destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 BCE. The Torah Scroll would serve as a warning to Judah, the southern kingdom, not to continue the sins that had led to such punishment in the north. Deuteronomy appears to have been the earliest “published” text of the Torah.
25 See Sidur Minhag S’fard, favored by Chassidim: לְשֵם יִחוּד קֻדְשָא בְּרִיךְ הוּא וּשְׁכִינְתֵּהּ Lshem yichud Kudsha Brich Hu u'shechintei, “In order to unite the Holy One Blessed be He with His Sh’chinah.(i.e. the masculine and feminine in God)” This is a כַּוָנָה kavanah, an “aim,” that focuses the mind on the meaning of what one is about to do, declaring the function/purpose of a mitzvah act. The mystics insert the line prior to the mitzvah b’rachah (asher kidshanu b’mitsvotav…) which is itself a sort of kavanah aligning hand and heart. The idea is that every mitzvah performed is a small tikun, repairing, just a bit, the fracture in the unity of God.
24 My literal translation. The Hebrew is rabbinic style at its poetic best. The prayer is not found in Mishnah but in Gemara of the Babylonian – and not the Palestinian – Talmud.
25. “Rabbi Chanina, robed and standing, before the entrance of Shabbat would say, 'Come and let us go out to meet Sabbath the queen. Rabbi Yanai would dress himself in his garment at the entrance of Shabbat and say, 'Come, O bride, Come, O bride!'” (B. Shab 119a) Chanina was a student of Rabbi Judah Hanasi, the compiler of the Mishnah (200 CE), and Yanai was a student of Chanina. Chayim Nachman Bialik quoted Chanina in his poem, “Shabbat Hamalkah.” In his poem that is one of the latest additions to the classic Sidur, Alkabetz closed L’chah Dodi with Yanai’s words.
26. “Regarding Shabbat it is written, ‘L’dorotam’ (“throughout their generations,” with word play on dirotam, “their dwellings.” Ex 31:16). What does it mean? Just as He sanctified (with word play on meaning “wedded”) the day, the dwellings of Israel must be with candles lit and table set and the apartment prepared as a groom’s room, suitable to receive the bride. . . And should this bride arrive and not find the dwelling prepared, with set table and candles lit, this bride will say, ‘This is no dwelling of Israel.’” (Zohar, Tosefet, part 3, p 301a) A.J. Heschel discusses the theme and cites more sources in The Sabbath, p 54f. The Mystical Meaning of Lekhah Dodi and Kabbalat Shabbat, by Dr. Reuven Kimelman. discloses the poem’s kabbalistic meaning and its function within the Sabbath evening service. It explains how the ceremony for the welcoming of the Sabbath developed in Safed as a wedding and coronation ceremony in which the Sabbath was personified as bride and queen. The song merges erotic, mystical, and historical images into a kabbalistic vision of redemption. It urges one to join the divine Lover in greeting the weekly Sabbath to get to experience the cosmic Sabbath. (From publisher’s description. 2003, in Hebrew.)
27. Modeh Ani (thanks for restoring my breath), Asher yatsar (Thanks for health and healing), . . .la’asok b’divrey Torah (Torah study is a mitsvah, pleasant in our mouths) followed by the list of five and the list of ten mitsvot, fifteen b’rachot about getting going in the morning, ashreynu (we are happy to be Jews who recite, twice a day the), Sh’ma. These passages flow breath by breath, to the rhythm of my strides. Some of them tend to repeat as much as a mile.