September 18, 2018

A Modern Journey to ‘Heart of Torah’

We live in “the golden age of the parashat ha-shavua,” according to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, who is referring to the formal study of the weekly Torah portion, a practice that may take place in the synagogue, around a dining room table, on the internet, or by reference to published essays. For some Jews, observes Rabbi Ruth Adar, parashat ha-shavua is “their primary form of worship.”

A lustrous example of the genre can be found in “The Heart of Torah: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion” by Rabbi Shai Held (Jewish Publication Society), a two-volume collection of short essays on readings from all five books of the Torah. “When the history of rabbinic literature of this era is written, R. Held’s contributions will be acknowledged as the brightest stars in this new galaxy of Torah teaching,” Greenberg affirms in the foreword that he contributed to “The Heart of Torah.” 

Held is the president, dean and chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar, a center for study, practice and community-building in egalitarian Judaism in New York City, and director of its Center for Jewish Leadership and Ideas. His previous book was a celebration of the theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel, and it is on Heschel’s path — from “self-centeredness to God-centeredness” — Held himself walks in “The Heart of Torah.”

Held is not concerned with the question of divine authorship of the Bible. He affirms Heschel’s admonition that “more decisive than the origin of the Bible in God is the presence of God in the Bible,” and Held’s stated aspiration is that his readers “may now and again catch a glimpse of heaven as they read, as I was blessed to catch them as I wrote.”

At the same time, Held insists on confronting his readers with the hard edges and the dark corners of the biblical text. “From its very beginning, the Torah subtly warns us against Pollyannish notions of moral progress,” he writes in reference to the story of Cain in the Book of Genesis. “The same man who invented cities, we learn, also invented murder.” And Lemekh, the descendant of Cain, is even more bloodthirsty than his notorious ancestor: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lemekh seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:24).

Each entry in “The Heart of Torah” is rooted in a specific weekly Torah portion, and that’s why it is best read with an open Bible at hand. Indeed, the real glory of Held’s book is that he shines a bright light on the ancient text, and he brings out the nuances, interconnections and interpretations that make the Bible come fully alive for the modern reader. Held may want us to glimpse heaven in the Torah, but what we also glimpse in “The Heart of Torah” is a rich and provocative human mind at work.

A good example is Held’s entry on the second parsha in Genesis, which focuses on the mind-bending proposition that human beings are made in the image of an imageless God. Held’s sources include such revered medieval figures as Maimonides and Saadia Gaon, but also more recent rabbinical authorities like Rabbi Meir Simha of Dvinsk and Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, both born in the 19th century, and even a contemporary German Protestant theologian, Michael Welker. Held points out the “ancient Near Eastern context” of the original text, but he also ponders how modern environmentalists have criticized the “arrogance toward nature” that they detect in the biblical notion that human stewardship over creation is mandated by God.

Held may want us to glimpse heaven in the Torah, but we also glimpse a rich and provocative human mind at work.

“In modern times, amid an almost manic need to produce and consume more and more, we have all too often lost sight of what has been entrusted to us,” Held concludes. “What we need is not to abandon Genesis 1 but to return to it and to rediscover there what we have forgotten or failed to see altogether.” So, he rejects the “anthrocentrism” that can be seen at the surface of the text and looks instead for deeper meanings: “This is another way to understand the democratization of the image of God: Every human being, each and every one of us, is responsible for his or her actions.” If God has given us power over creation, we are called upon to exercise that power as God would.

When his eye falls on parashat Ki Tetse’ in the Book of Deuteronomy, as another example, Held’s first thought is to remind us that slavery is not merely a dusty historical relic. “[S]hocking as it is, more than twenty million people around the world are enslaved to this day,” he writes.  And he argues that “a stunningly revolutionary passage” from Deuteronomy “can help us formulate a response to this appalling phenomenon.” Contrary to the prevailing laws of the ancient Near East, the Torah commands, “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master” (Deuteronomy 23:16). And, quoting Bible scholar Christopher Wright, Held points out that the duty to shelter a runaway slave is only one clause of the “social legislation on behalf of the poor and the weak” that fills the pages of Deuteronomy.

“The Heart of Torah,” then, is a spirited call to moral action and social justice. “In any age when Jews have access to political and economic power in ways our ancestors could scarcely have dreamed of, surely we ought to be at the forefront of contemporary movements for abolition and liberation,” Held writes. “Where slavery was concerned, Deuteronomy was enormously radical in its time; to take its message seriously is to be enormously radical in our own.”

Exactly here is the notion that makes Held’s commentaries so compelling. Relatively few Jews study the Torah at all, and those who do are not likely to penetrate to the remarkable inner meanings that he discerns in the text. But Held is not content with learning Torah. He insists that we must not only study the word of God; rather, we must both “hear and do.” n

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.