Cantor’s Column – May 2020

Z’man Matan Torah, The Gift of Interpreting Torah

Cantor Ilan Davidson

In ancient, more orthodox days of Judaism, when somebody wanted to understand what the Torah was teaching, they would ask the Rabbi.  The Rabbi would then provide them “the” answer, and they would go home, satisfied (or perhaps not) that they were “told” what the Torah was teaching. This month, on Shavuot, we celebrate the holiday of Matan Torah, the giving of Torah. This is said to be the wedding between God and the Jewish people. As we know, a marriage is solidified in Jewish tradition with the exchange of a gift of value (the ring), along with the vows. Torah was God’s gift of value, and our vow was to teach it to our children and our children’s children. While Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher, was there to teach and share God’s meaning with us, the gift was not given to Moses, it was given to ALL of us. So why were the ancient Rabbis (and sometimes current orthodox Rabbis) seen to have “the” interpretations, when obviously God meant this gift for all of us?

I was once taught that the great philosopher, Martin Buber, felt that not all people can think for themselves, and that is why they hold onto strict rabbinic interpretations of Torah. Indeed, sometimes it’s nice to have a question and get an answer, but this is not always the best interpretation, rather it is that person’s interpretation or just the interpretation of somebody who may not even have a sense of life today. Please understand that I am not, in any way, disregarding millennia of traditional interpretations of Torah and Tanah, but rather creating an argument for what we Reform Jews do, all the time, modern interpretation of text to speak to us, today.

Some of my favorite moments of teaching begin with me saying, “please understand that I am about to share the world according to Cantor Ilan, not necessarily a traditional interpretation.” In fact, every Sunday of Torah School, when I have the opportunity to interpret the weekly Torah portion for our 3–8 year-olds, is some of the most difficult and rewarding teaching, is when we all put on our radio voices and announce, “this weeeek iiiiiin the Toraaaaaaaah!” Finding the kernels of teaching appropriate for these young minds and then hearing their reactions and responses to questions like, “how do you make things clean,” or “has your house ever been filled with tzoraat (the term used in Torah for leprosy-see the problem?),” is truly priceless, and some of the best Torah teaching I receive. Likewise, when I am able to guide our meditation service through our Torah portion of the week and tie it to their spiritual and sometimes non-spiritual needs, is a gift that I receive and am able to give.

In short, Shavuot is a very personal holiday to me, and should be to all Jews. How we embrace and interpret the gift of Torah, in many ways can help define our very relationship with God. May we all embrace the Torah of our lives, as we celebrate our wedding with the Holy One, and may we all know deeper lessons and interpretations of our Jewish teachings, rituals, and values, in the year ahead. Oh, and, by the way, please don’t ever feel like you can’t ask the Rabbi or me about your questions of Torah, but know that we might not just give a simple answer.