Restoring my faith in the heart of Torah

But most importantly for this reader, in this work, Rabbi Shai Held has successfully restored my faith in the power of Torah study.

The Heart of Torah (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Heart of Torah
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I recently had the privilege of spending some time every Shabbat with Rabbi Shai Held, who is the president and dean at the Hadar Institute – a center for advanced Jewish learning that includes an egalitarian yeshiva and interdenominational adult education and continuing education for rabbis and educators. Hadar’s stated purpose is to create a Jewish community living an interpretation of Torah (in the broadest sense of the word) that reflects the traditional and modern worldview of its founders, of whom Held is one.
When I heard Held had published his own Torah commentaries, I decided to read his commentary on that week’s Torah portion every Shabbat. This is a two-volume set, and for each Torah portion, Held provides us with two short essays. Each essay is at most five or six pages. They are succinct yet full of rich material culled from a variety of sources, such as classical Jewish texts, modern Bible scholars, modern-day theologians (both Jewish and other than Jewish), and more.
But most importantly for this reader, in this work, Held has successfully restored my faith in the power of Torah study. When I say Torah study, I mean in the sense of “Turn it and turn it, because all is in it” (Avot, 5). Because, the truth is that I went into this project with skepticism.
I am a rabbi and an interfaith minister. I believe that there is much that is beautiful, uplifting and healing in living inspired by the wisdom of those who have been devoted throughout time to imagining what it means to live a life of spirit, service and surrender. Yet, I also find it difficult often to sit and listen to the Torah portion in synagogue. After almost fifty years of life, hearing the portion week after week, I find myself often being drawn to what I don’t like in the portion.
For example, living in Israel, I am especially perturbed by the passages that advocate for coming into Canaan and taking over the land through violent means, presenting this approach as the word of God. It is difficult for me as a woman to listen to a verse that says a man “takes” a woman, knowing full well that it is this verse that has kept countless women in bondage to their ex-husbands. And as a believer in LGBTQ rights, I cringe when I hear Leviticus 18:22 read aloud every year, even if it can be interpreted as not against modern-day homosexuality.
And, of course, there are the rules of slavery, the sotah (the wife accused of adultery), the chosen-ness of the Jewish people, killing someone who collects branches on Shabbat, all of which I find very problematic.
But this year, thanks to Rabbi Held, I was drawn to what can still be positive and nourishing in this ancient text. As the title of this work suggests, Held focuses on what he sees as the heart of Torah. But what he means by the heart of Torah is not just the essence of Torah, but the heart that is in Torah. Held highlights values like compassion, love, and gratitude – values that would not necessarily be attributed to the biblical period, nor even be associated especially with Judaism in general.
The values of love and compassion, for example, are popularly associated more with Christianity; and the efficacy of surrender is more usually associated with Islam or Buddhism. Gratitude, forgiveness, empathy, mindfulness, acceptance: these are all words that are very much in vogue today in spiritual circles – and I for one am glad they are! – but they are not words that necessarily come to mind when we think of the Five Books of Moses.
Held, however, finds all of these in the text – and not in a way that is at all forced. Of course, Held was able to choose what to highlight in the portion each week. Often, he leaves the difficult stuff to one side. But at times he confronts it, and somehow he still manages to leave this reader with hope for humanity: no small accomplishment.
Held also often surprises me with some small insights into the text that feel like true gems. For example, on the portion of Mattot-Masei, which can often feel like just a monotonous list of stops along the way to the true desired goal, he writes:
“Let me offer a different (admittedly homiletical) interpretation: The text serves to remind us that even seemingly inconsequential stops on our journey can be powerful opportunities for serving God… R. Kook insists that ‘the truth is that there is nothing in the world that is not for the honor for the Blessed Holy One…When one strives with all one’s intelligence and with all one’s abilities to carry out every action with the summit of perfect wholeness in all its dimensions – then one will know the Blessed Holy One in every way.’ We serve God, in other words, by being fully present wherever we are.”
Or on the Torah portion of Ekev and the commandment to circumcise our hearts:
“God desires the heart,” say the Talmudic sages (BT Sanhdedrin 106b). For all its insistent focus on the deed, and for all its impassioned commitment to the life of the mind, Judaism is also, profoundly, a religion of the heart. Deuteronomy repeatedly reminds Israel to love God and to hold God in awe; it calls upon the people to protect the vulnerable and to care about their fate. It asks Israel, in short, to serve God “with all of your heart, and with all of your being, and with all of your might” (Deut 6:5). Yet it also struggles with human stubbornness and recalcitrance. It challenges us to open our hearts even as it worries that our rebelliousness and obstinacy will prevent us from doing so… Bible scholar Moshe Weinfeld explains that “an uncircumcised heart, like an uncircumcised ear (Jer. 6:10) and uncircumcised lips (Exod. 6:12, 30), means that an organ is incapable of absorbing feelings and impressions from the outside.” To circumcise the heart thus symbolizes “achieving a condition of responsiveness open to God’s word.”
As someone who struggles with the ritual of circumcision, this interpretation of what it means gave me food for thought. Even if this was not Held’s intention, it made me wonder if circumcision was actually thought to make a man more, not less, sensitive sexually. I have often heard it described as a procedure meant to curb a man’s sexual arousal, not increase it. It also made me wonder if one could see it also, even if symbolically, as meant to make the male more open and receptive to his partner’s feelings. More “feminine,” in fact.
However, Held can be bitingly critical of modern-day corruption and warped ethics. For example, in his second essay on Korah, he writes:
“Why do the priests in particular need to be reminded about being givers rather than takers? Consider the realm of politics: Our culture is saturated with stories of people who start out genuinely wanting to serve, but quickly grow intoxicated by the power, privilege, and prestige of office. What begins as a yearning to give ends up as a sense of entitlement to take. Religious leaders are, sadly, not exempt from such temptations. A commitment to serve gives way to a compulsive pursuit of fame, or power, or adoration. So God reminds the priests – and by extension all of us: Genuine leadership is about serving, not grasping.”
And, of course, from all we have learned from the ongoing #Me Too campaign, this lesson can easily extend to “taking” and “grasping” sexually as well.
For those of you choosing a commentary to accompany your weekly Torah portion reading each week for the coming cycle, I highly recommend choosing Held’s “The Heart of Torah.” Because “The Heart of Torah” is really about getting in touch with what our own hearts are telling us – to choose love over fear and compassion over hate.
Kudos to you, Rabbi Shai Held!