Parashat Toldot by R. Shai Held
For many of us in the Eshel world, remaining connected to a Torah that seems to erase, banish or incriminate our ordinary human desire for intimacy and companionship is an enormous challenge. In my own life and in the stories that many have shared with me I have discovered that faith in God can be independent of the troubles we may have with the Torah as a text. Many queer people say: Hashem knows and embraces me as I am. Others have felt that their faith in God was lost when they came out. However, their love of Torah, their appreciation of its richness and the sweetness that can be discovered simply living in the frum community is enough to keep them connected. Rabbi Shai Held addresses in this thoughtful piece the tension between these two paths of connection and how they can work in complementary ways to ground our connection to transcendence.
Rabbi Shai Held is an accomplished theologian and an esteemed educator. His collected divrei Torah can be found in his book, The Heart of Torah and is available at https://jps.org/books/the-heart-of-torah/. His other divrei Torah can also be found on Hadar’s website at: https://www.hadar.org/torah-collection/shai-helds-divrei-torah.
Between God and Torah: Judaism’s Gambles
During much of the biblical period, Tanakh tells us, people spoke to God, and God spoke back. More, God actively sought people out and communicated God’s will to them. But by the end of the biblical period, the line of direct divine communication had largely dried up. Instead of seeking direct dialogue with God, people began to seek guidance and inspiration in God’s teachings—that is, in Torah. Insisting that God’s will and presence could be found in Torah was one of Judaism’s greatest innovations and achievements. It was also one of its greatest gambles.
Suffering terribly as a result of her children “crushing one another in her womb,” Rebekah “went to inquire of the Lord” (lidrosh et Hashem) (Genesis 25:22). Scholars struggle to explain just what inquiring of the Lord consists of, and where Rebekah goes to do it. Most assume that Rebekah must have gone to consult with an oracle or a diviner; as one scholar explains it, Rebekah “traveled to either a prophet, a priest, or a special shrine where she might receive a word from God.”1John A. Hartley, Genesis (1983), p. 184, cited in Erin E. Fleming, “‘She Went to Inquire of the Lord’: Independent Divination in Genesis 25”22,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 60 no 3-4 2007, pp 1-10; cited on p. 1. In a similar vein, Terence Fretheim asserts that the language of Genesis 25:22 “suggests a trip to a sanctuary.” Cf. also Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1 (1994), p. 521. But others see no reason to imagine the involvement of an intermediary; as Bible scholar Tamara Eskenazi notes, “The text pointedly omits any mention of mediated communication, which suggests that Rebekah addresses God directly, and that God responds to her with equal directness.”2Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Torah: A Women’s Commentary (2008), p. 136. For a similar insistence that Rebekah consults God “directly, not through an intermediary,” cf. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50 (1995), p. 177. Bible scholar Gordon Wenham takes a third path, suggesting that the text is simply not interested in the details of how Rebekah communicates with God; what matters, Wenham avers, is only that “the prophetic message is given.” Gordon J, Wenham, Genesis 16-50 (1994), p. 175. In general, Erin Fleming observes, the events described in Genesis take place in “a time generally without prophets, when the characters have more direct access to [God]… Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Jacob all definitely experience direct communication with [God] without an intermediary.” So it is quite likely, Fleming suggests, that Rebekah had the same direct access to God. If anything, she argues, the example of Rebekah indicates that “women, as well as men, could have direct recourse to the deity through divination.”3Fleming, “‘She Went to Inquire,’” pp. 5, 3.
In general, though, to inquire of God was “to seek divine guidance in a moment of great perplexity and anguish. Generally one would go to a specific sanctuary or to some charismatic personage of recognized authority.”4Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis (1989), p. 179. But cf. Fleming, “Independent Divination,” who argues that independent divination was not as rare in the Bible and the ancient Near East as many scholars suggest. But the term eventually acquires “a legal nuance with the sense of ‘seeking a judgment or decision,’ ‘making a judicial inquiry.’”5Nahum M. Sarna. Exodus (1991), p. 100. To take the best-known example, Moses explains to his skeptical father-in-law why “the people stand about [him] from morning until evening”: “It is because the people come to me to inquire of (lidrosh) God” (Exodus 18:14-15). The people come to Moses, Bible scholar John Durham explains when they have a question (or a dispute) about what God requires of them. “God is the origin of the requirements and instructions, so God must give the explanatory application of them, and Moses is the medium of access by whom the people may approach God with problems of this kind.” At this moment in Israel’s history, Durham adds, “no one but Moses has had the privilege of such consultation.”6John I. Durham, Exodus (1987), p. 250.
In Genesis and Exodus, then, Rebekah and her descendants “inquire of the Lord”—and God responds, either directly or by an intermediary. By the time of Ezra the Scribe, however, something dramatic has changed. Describing Ezra’s qualifications to lead the people, the book that bears his name tells us that he “had dedicated himself to study [lidrosh, the same Hebrew word rendered as “inquired” above—S.H.] the Teaching of the Lord (Torat Hashem) so as to observe it, and to teach laws and rules to Israel” (Ezra 7:10).7Bible scholar Joseph Blenkinsopp notes that “these three activities—study, observance, instruction… lay the basis, first adumbrated in Deuteronomy, of the kind of religion Judaism was to remain thereafter. Joseph Blenkinsopp, Ezra-Nehemiah (1988), p. 139. A remarkable transformation thus takes place over the course of biblical history. Whereas in earlier books, “the root [d-r-sh] is used to refer to the act of seeking out God’s will, particularly through consulting a figure like Moses or a prophet or another type of oracular authority, by the end of the biblical period, the locus for that search appears to have settled on the text of the Torah, where, it was now believed, God’s will for the present moment was to be found.”8David Stern, “Midrash and Midrashic Interpretation,” in Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., Jewish Study Bible (2004), p. 1863. Cf. also David Weiss Halivni, who writes that “Drash in the Bible does not, as a rule, mean exegesis, exposition of a text. Rather, it means seeking information—theological or otherwise—without reference to a text. However, the combination of drash and torah [in Ezra 7:10] connotes an exegetical activity similar to that engaged in by the rabbis of the Talmud.” David Weiss Halivni, Midrash, Mishnah, and Gemara: The Jewish Predilection for Justified Law (1986), p. 15. Instead of inquiring of God directly, people now seek guidance through studying God’s Torah.
Psalm 119 speaks of the immense delight that can be found in engaging with God’s Torah.9In the present context, I leave aside the question of precisely what the psalmist has in mind when he speaks of Torah—whether a canonized text or, more generally, the teachings of the wise. For two very different approaches to this question, cf. Yehoshua Amir, “The Place of Psalm 119 in the History of the Religion of Israel” (Hebrew), Te’udah 2 (Iyunim BaMikra) (1982), pp. 57-81, and Jon D. Levenson, “The Sources of Torah: Psalm 119 and the Modes of Revelation in Second Temple Judaism,” in Patrick D. Miller et al., eds., Ancient Israelite Religion: Essays in Honor of Frank Moore Cross (1987), pp. 559-574. Cf. also the brief but judicious comments of Adele Berlin and Marc Brettler, “Psalms,” in Berlin and Brettler, eds., Jewish Study Bible (2004), introductory comment to Psalm 119 (p. 1414).
So powerful is the psalmist’s connection to Torah that he uses expressions ordinarily reserved for faithfulness to God to express his passion for God’s teaching.10All of the examples that follow are discussed in Moshe Greenberg,” Three Conceptions of the Torah in Hebrew Scriptures,” in Studies in the Bible and Jewish Thought (1995), pp. 11-24; the relevant passage is on pp. 21-222. For more extensive cataloging and analysis of such expressions in the psalm, cf. Amir, “Psalm 119,” pp. 60-64. The psalmist laments that he is “a sojourner in the land” and implores God, “Do not hide Your commandments from me” (119:19). Alienation from God is usually expressed as God’s hiding God’s face; here God’s commandments (mitzvot) have taken the place of God’s face. Describing the path he has taken in life, the psalmist declares: “I have chosen the way of faithfulness; I have set (shiviti) Your rules before me” (119:30). Elsewhere, in a verse which has had deep impact on the history of Jewish spirituality, the psalmist says that he “has set (shiviti) the Lord before [him] always” (16:8). Where we would expect to find God, we now find God’s rules (mishpatim). The psalmist continues, affirming that “I cleave to Your decrees (davakti ve- eidotekha), O Lord” (119:31) The notion of cleaving to decrees is found nowhere else in Tanakh; what we do find is that a person cleaves to God (63:9); indeed, Deuteronomy commands Israel to do just that (Deuteronomy 10:20). Undoubtedly the most “astonishing”11Greenberg, “Three Conception of the Torah,” p. 21. move in this psalm, though, placing God’s commands where we would expect to find God is this one: “I raise my palms (esa kapai) to Your commandments, which I love; I study Your laws” (Psalm 119:48). To raise one’s palms—or, as some prefer to render the Hebrew, to stretch out one’s hands—is to engage in a gesture of prayer!12Understandably nervous about this bold image, traditional commentators tend to offer “softer” interpretations. To take but two examples: R. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) takes raising one’s palms here to suggest not a prayer but a display of honor and a willingness to obey. R. Isaiah Di Trani (13th-14th c.), for his part, sees raising one’s palms as symbolizing one’s commitment to fulfilling the commandments. Some modern scholars find this image so disconcerting that they emend the text to “I raise my palms to You (eilekha).” Hermann Gunkel, Die Psalmen (1926), p. 512, cited in Amir, “Psalm 119,” p. 60. Even Amir, who clearly finds the psalm extremely compelling, worries that this expression “goes too far.” Amir, “Psalm 119,” p. 66. 1 In this stunning verse, the psalmist seems to pray to God’s commandments rather than to God! In every other instance where we encounter the raising of palms, the gesture suggests a moment of prayer addressed to God.13In Psalm 63:5, raising one’s palms is part of a song of praise; in Lamentations 2:19, it is a part of a petition and a cry. What is going on here?
Bible scholar Moshe Greenberg observes that “there is a new religiosity in this psalm. Religious sentiment, religious emotion—love, delight, clinging to—are now focused on the Torah, the Teaching.” But does this not open the door to a kind of idolatry—to worshiping Torah instead of God? Greenberg notes that God is in no way “displaced” in the psalm; “on the contrary, the entire psalm is addressed to God. ‘You’ in the psalm is God, and ‘Your Torah,’ ‘Your precepts,’ ‘Your commandments.’ are praised. The Torah does not come between the psalmist and God; it serves to link them.” So far from exiling God, Greenberg argues, Torah makes a deep and abiding connection between God and Israel possible: “God’s Torah, [God’s] commandments, rules, precepts, testimonies, words—all these are available on earth to the… Israelites, enabling them at all times to feel contact with God. God’s presence is assured within the human community through [God’s] Torah that [God] has bestowed on Israel.”14Greenberg,”Three Conceptions of the Torah,” pp. 21-22. I agree with Jeffrey Tigay that David Noel Freedman’s suggestion that in Psalm 119 we encounter a “apotheosis of Torah” is an “overstatement”– and, I would add, a very misleading one at that. Cf. David Noel Freedman with Jeffrey C. Geoghegan and Andrew Welch, Psalm 119: The Exaltation of Torah (1999), p. 88; and Jeffrey H. Tigay, “The Torah Scroll and God’s Presence,” in Maxine L. Grossman, ed., Built By Wisdom, Established By Understanding: Essays on Biblical and Near Eastern Literature in Honor of Adele Berlin (2013), pp. 323-340; relevant passage is on p. 330.
Standing in the presence of Torah, we sense—and when we do not quite sense, we nevertheless affirm and yearn to sense—that we are standing in the presence of God. Consider the mottoes often inscribed above Torah arks, or on their curtains. “Know before
Whom you stand” (BT, Berakhot 28b) we read, or “I have set the Lord before me always” (Psalm 16:8). “These mottoes imply,” Bible scholar Jeffrey Tigay notes, “that when participants in worship face the Ark, they are in the presence of God.”15Tigay, “The Torah Scroll,” p. 333.
There is something enormously compelling about all this: So deep is the Jewish people’s love of Torah16To be clear, I use “Torah” here not to refer not merely to the Five Books of Moses but also to the sum total of God’s teachings and the Jewish people’s ever-growing discussion and interpretation thereof. and so confident are we that Torah mediates both God’s will and God’s presence, that even in the darkest moments in Jewish history, when God seems entirely absent, God’s presence can nevertheless be found in Torah. There have been times in my own life—and the older I get, the more frequent they are—when the world seems utterly devoid of God’s presence. But in learning Torah, I still sense a hint of a glimmer of a presence, and I discern a small, subtle voice. To a Jew in search of God, that textual cord uniting heaven and earth can be the most precious thing in the world.
But the Torah’s standing between God and Israel can also be dangerous: whatever mediates God can also come to displace God. We can become so focused on Torah that we lose any sense of the reality of God, let alone of God’s commanding presence. And then we run the risk of being text-worshipers rather than God-worshipers.
A midrash teaches: “They asked wisdom: What should be the punishment of a sinner? And wisdom said: ‘Misfortune pursues sinners’ (Proverbs 13:21). They asked prophecy: What should be the punishment of a sinner? And prophecy said: ‘The person that sins shall
To be clear, I use “Torah” here not to refer not merely to the Five Books of Moses but also to the sum total of God’s teachings and the Jewish people’s ever-growing discussion and interpretation thereof.
‘Let him repent and he will be atoned for” (PT, Makkot 2:6). Commenting on the midrash, R. Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907- 1972) writes, “Prophecy is superior to wisdom, and God’s love is superior to prophesy… God is infinitely more sublime than what the prophets were able to comprehend, and the heavenly wisdom is more profound than what the Torah contains in its present form.”17Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (1955), pp. 261, 262. Cf. also p. 268. Heschel implicitly ties God’s sublimity to God’s mercy; God’s love is so vast that not even the books of prophecy can fully comprehend or contain it. If we interpret Torah without a sense that we are serving a God of love and kindness, our Torah may become stale at best and cruel at worst. Torah is (supposed to be) a bridge connecting us to a compassionate God, but we can become so focused on the bridge itself that we simply forget about what (or Who) stands on the other side.
The author of Psalm 63 declares, “I call You to mind upon my bed… I think of You in the watches of the night (ashmurot)” (Psalm 63:7). But the author of Psalm 119 spends his nights somewhat differently: “My eyes greet each watch of the night (ashmurot), as I meditate upon Your word” (119:148). Between Psalm 63 and Psalm 119 a distance has been traveled—from thinking about God to contemplating God’s teachings. This shift is, in some sense, the beginning of Rabbinic Judaism—finding God through attending to God’s word. Every student of Torah has moments of wanting to proclaim with every fiber of her being, “How I love Your Torah, it is my meditation all day long!… Were not Your Torah, my delight, I would have perished in my affliction” (119:97,92). But this is also Judaism’s gamble. When it works, Judaism’s text-centeredness renders our connection to God portable; we can have access to God in every conceivable circumstance. When it doesn’t, it makes God marginal. We can forget whom we serve because we love the Torah more than God. The Talmudic Sage R. Hiyya b. Abba imagines God saying of the Jewish people: “If they forsook Me, I would forgive them, because they might yet keep My Torah. If they forsook Me but kept My Torah, the light that is in it would bring them close to Me” (PT, Hagigah 1:7). R. Hiyya’s point is both clear and powerful: Even in moments when we lose God, we still have Torah. But Torah is not an end in itself; the purpose of Torah is to bring us (back) to God. Rebekah seeks out God, and we study the Torah’s report of that seeking. In both cases, though, it is God’s closeness and God’s guidance for which we yearn.