Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Boring Parts of Torah

My synagogue, Temple B'nai Brith of Somerville, once had a Sunday morning discussion on "The Difficult Parts of Torah." Stories about rape, war and conquest, and God blasting people for violating ritual commandments that (gulp!) we completely ignore most of the time--what do we make of those, and how do we tell the kids?

Not just that once but every year, as summer approaches, our weekly readings during Saturday morning services bring us around to what you might call the boring parts of Torah. Those can be even more challenging. No juicy stories about family feuds, no moments of divine revelation. Instead, over the last month we've been reading regulations for priests--and Jews have not had priests for 2000 years. Yesterday, in Bamidbar (the first portion of what is called in English the book of Numbers), we spent most of the Torah service looking at the census of the Israelites wandering in the desert, broken down by tribe and family. Not exactly summer blockbuster material. What's wonderful is that the Jewish tradition of interpreting the text can make even the census into a love story between God and the Jewish people.

Midrash (as I once wrote in my book Political Discourse in Exile) "means the creative style of textual interpretation developed by the rabbis of Palestine and Babylonia in the third to sixth centuries C.E. At least, that is one of its meanings." It can also mean the body of interpretations about a biblical book. As we have reached the point in the year when we read Bamidbar/ Numbers over the past few years, I have reached for Bamidbar Rabbah, the anthology of midrash about that book--and what I have found is amazing. Just from the first sentence of the Torah portion alone, the performance artists we call "rabbis" have piled on one demonstration after another that the period in the wilderness was the young, heated, passionate period of the Jewish love affair with God.

I'll explain about this in the next few posts.

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