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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Models of Torah I - The Torah as a Song

What is the Torah? Indeed it is the revelation of Hashem's wisdom and will, but what that means and how the system of Torah works is still in question. Why is revelation even necessary? What makes it into the written or oral Torah? What does the structure of the Torah teach us? How do derashot work, and what is the role of p'shat? What is the goal of halakha and does it develop? What is the relationship between Biblical and Rabbinic law? How are Jews today bound by the same covenant forged 3,000 years ago? And so on...

The Torah, like the world, is too big to be captured by one description, and thus requires models or metaphors to get a glimpse of its essence. The models that we will explore are found in the Tanakh itself, Chazal, Rishonim, and Achronim, but are often by own elaborations or meditations. Thus "kol hamarbeh harei ze meshubach!" - your comments are welcome.

The first model comes from this weeks parsha (a Dvar Torah I wrote about six years ago).

The Torah as a Song
“Now, write this Song for yourselves and teach it” (Deuteronomy 31:19)

Among the central issues confronting Judaism throughout the generations, from Paul to Spinoza and until this very day, is to create an alive and unique religious personality within the confines of the law. The Torah is referred to in the above verse as a song1 and this is true in several ways. Two perspectives of how this is true give us a radical shift in our perspective on the conflict between law and spirit.
The mark of the greatest musicians, painters and geniuses of other creative fields is first and foremost their technical mastery over their art. Although this is a very important requirement it is only the first step to authentic creativity. The key to creativity is the ability to work within a given set of rules or an emotion controlled by an idea.2 Many people can play basketball like Michael Jordan, doing amazing feats on the court, but few have the self-control to exhibit them while keeping the rules. Likewise many people can paint like Jackson Pollock or play drums like Ringo Starr but few can do it while maintaining precision and never overstepping their boundaries.
There is a very deep relationship between the Torah and the arts: they both require authentic creativity. In order to properly live Torah, and create art, the first step is to become intimately involved in mastering its world. We must remember though that it is not in “novelty that one reaches the deepest of all human creative experiences, but in the capacity to descend to the depths of what is already given.”3
The plight of modern America is our “existential vacuum”4, which is resolved through various techniques such as adventure (reality television) or through numbing one’s boredom with distractions (regular television). All of these forms of entertainment are merely an imitation of real amazement. However everybody has experienced real amazement one time or another, either in hearing a song or seeing beautiful artwork. Therefore authentic creativity is amazement and transcendence contracted into this world. For example, musicians are clearly not satisfied with the abstraction of music because without the notes the music has no reality and can not be experienced. Judaism is not opposed to transcendence but rather is not satisfied with the vagueness and transience of the subjective religious experience5, Judaism rather opts for “the appearance of transcendence within empirical reality and the act of objectification and qualification of that religious subjectivity that flows from hidden sources.”6
This comparison between Torah and art also helps us understand the apparent conformity that is a result of Jewish law. Does G-d really want all of us to be the same? Why can we not express ourselves spontaneously and with our unique strengths? Each time a song is played the musician can put different emotions into it, so much so that it sounds like a different song. This is even more apparent when different musicians are playing the same song. Just as when playing or hearing a song numerous times there are different emotions, so too with Torah: each act of learning and doing give us the unique opportunity to deepen our religious experience and make Torah into a song for ourselves.
1 Sanhedrin 21b, Menachot 30a
2 G-d in Search of Man, by R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, page 300
3 Halacha as Symphony, by R. Nathan Lopez Cardozo, page 30
4 Mans Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, pages 128-130
5 Worship of the Heart, by R. Joseph ber Soloveitchik, page 16-17
6 Halakhic Man, by R. Joseph ber Soloveitchik, page 108

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