Saturday, September 18, 2004

Words of Torah

Before beginning, I'd like to request forgiveness from any of my readers whom I've hurt, offended, mislead, misrepresented, etc. I will try to use this medium responsibly in the future. I wish everyone a sweet new year and a gmar chatima tova.* To all who will be observing Tsom Gedalia tomorrow, I wish an easy fast.

Now, to the point: I'm not very good at giving divrei torah (sermons, essentially). Shiurim (study sessions), I can do. I am always pleased to be asked to teach a mishna on Shabbat morning. But ten-minute speeches on the Torah portion can be really tough. How am I supposed to engage the text and make a point that's religiously meaningful to contemporary Jews in that amount of time?

My particular problem is that I feel the need to present the peshat, or plain meaning, of the text as I understand it. I have no problem with midrash, medieval exegesis, or modern Jewish philosophy. The Torah can be interpreted in many different, interesting, and (I concede) legitimate ways.** But my way is to start with peshat, which for me means interpreting the Torah as an ancient Near Eastern document. Other approaches make me uncomfortable, at least when I'm the one speaking.

I do believe that studying the Bible in its original context can yield insights that are meaningful to contemporary Jews and Christians. However, this approach is not conducive to producing sound bites. Speaking on the High Holy Days is particularly challenging, since I am not addressing the usual Jewishly literate crowd. No, I'm addressing the usual Jewishly literate crowd plus about 100 others. Their conception of Judaism may actually be affected by what I say. To make matters worse, these people are smart. I can't talk down to them. They won't tolerate logical leaps. It's horrible.

I shared these concerns with a friend, after having written a speech for the second day of Rosh Hashanah with at least two glaring logical disjunctions. She said, people will have other things on their minds. They won't be worrying about whether the d'var torah hangs together. I should be thinking about keeping their attention, making a point, and wrapping it up before they drift off.

So that's what I tried to do. I made a few jokes, glossed over the leaps of logic, and escaped the bima as soon as possible. My basic point (in case you're curious) was that the story of the binding of Isaac isn't fundamentally about obeying God even if it seems immoral, but about obeying Him even if it hurts terribly. There were a few references to Levenson's Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, and I managed to stuff in a quote from Micah and a few lines about gemilut chassadim, "sacrifices" that benefit our fellow human beings. A few Jewish education types seem to have genuinely liked it, and I didn't notice anyone averting their eyes from me afterward, so I guess it went okay. I got some practice speaking before a large audience, and discovered (yet again) that I could use a lot more practice. I also learned (yet again) the Number One Rule of d'var torah delivery: keep it short, and people with thank you.

* I don't know how to translate this phrase. It expresses the wish that God evaluate the listener (or reader) positively and reward him or her with a happy year. The theory behind the saying is that God issues something along the lines of mid-term evaluations on Rosh Hashanah and determines our final grades on Yom Kippur. I guess I don't mean it literally.

** See the VR's sermon on the Binding of Isaac (which is much more polished than mine).

(I hope Naomi Chana doesn't mind that I've been using her footnoting technique.)

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