Saturday, September 09, 2006

Torah: Walk or Fly?

I think one of the greatest problems with Orthodoxy is its inability to state the plain truth and just read the Torah without obscuring it with commentaries, suggestions, numerology, and exegesis that have no bearing whatsoever on the story being told. In fact, the plain Torah is chock full of riveting, full-bodied accounts of personal heroism and sacrifice that the Rabbis overlook completely or deliberately disguise in their quest to appear more learned; driven to outdo the previous commenter by creating a newer set of explanations even more convoluted than the last. If it weren’t so sad and misguided, it would almost be comical.

My father, though devout, was not a Torah scholar. It is probably he who is to blame for my unique outlook on Torah and how I interpret the various personalities and events that grace its long columns of precise calligraphic beauty. My father insisted that Torah ‘says what it means and means what it says’, adding that too much exegesis just plain confuses the hell out of the issue. The Rabbis tell us that the Torah is like an onion, and as you begin peeling off layers, there are new layers to be found beneath. My father commented once to me privately “That is the biggest onion I’ve ever seen!” He also wondered why it is we keep peeling the onions and never cooking them; the implication being whether or not the practical and profound details of the simple explanation have been lost in the rush to discover those ‘deeper’ meanings. I fully agree.

Torah scholars love to make things more complicated than they really ought to be. The Rabbi’s Sabbath sermon is replete with quotes from Talmud, other famous Rabbis, or stories of a famous rabbinic contemporary. The rabbi of the synagogue will perform all sorts theological acrobatics; performing syncretisms without end and reconciling all apparent contradictions with a few sprinkles of Hasidic lore to boot. It’s nothing short of magic unless, of course, you know how this slight of hand operates. These complicated sermons are nothing more than smoke and mirrors to make one believe there is a problem to be solved when, in fact, there never really was. I would watch those around me sit in awe of the speaker and would wonder if they even knew which Torah portion was being read.

I was a Torah reader for many years and the man who taught me how to read was a very skilled grammarian. His love for the art was evident in his mastery of the language and its usage. Though I could not possibly ever match his expertise, I did develop an appreciation for power of the simple word. This, coupled with my father’s blue collar approach to Torah, paved the way for the reading of Torah to become a living experience. The word itself contains all the passion and realism to convey a profound and full message. I would stay up all Friday night preparing for the Saturday morning; usually reviewing the Torah portion a dozen times or more, while reflecting each time on the simple beauty of the story being told. Read a good piece of literature aloud to yourself a dozen times or more and see how it comes alive on its own, bringing you along almost unwillingly into the drama. There is a magic present in that experience.

All this reminds me of a fairly rotten analogy comparing Torah learning to the various modes of travel. Two Torah students were debating the benefits of two schools of religious discipline designed to create lasting spiritual and behavioral changes in the individual. For the sake of brevity I will call them (A) and (B). School (A) takes an esoteric or mystical approach to behavior and School (B) uses a somewhat more practical and emotionally-charged methodology. In this analogy, the student of School (B) complains that when he studies the curriculum of School (A), he doesn’t feel spiritually or psychologically satisfied. The student of (A), in defense of his preferred teaching, tries to tries to convince his counterpart that the teachings of School (A) are much better than (B) with the following analogy:

“The learning of school (A) is like flying in an airplane and that of school (B) is like riding in an automobile. In a jet, one doesn’t feel as if they are traveling 500 mph, but one is. You also reach your destination much faster than if you were merely driving.”

Now, I have heard some stupid rationale in my day, but this one took the cake. How about we take this analogy a step further? First of all, in an airplane, you aren’t in control of where the plane is going. In an airplane, if it crashes, expect to die horribly. The landing, analogous to coming back to reality, is always the most dangerous part. Lastly, while flying, you can’t see anything that going on below on the ground below which, as fate would have it, is your final destination. The Student of (A) will tell nonetheless you not to worry because there is a Rabbi piloting the plane and everything will be alright. You just have to take his word for it. No one really knows what goes on in the cockpit.

I remain the sort of fellow, although raised in the philosophy of School (A), who believes one has to crawl before walking and walk before running with episodes of stumbling, falling, and crying along the way. The Ethics of the Fathers (5:25) clearly states that there is a hierarchy of understanding that flows in a particular progression of intellectual and physical development. Our common experience agrees, and the understanding of Torah doesn’t operate any differently. In fact, I honestly wonder if flying or driving is really necessary at all if one doesn’t force the need. Maybe it comes from that little ‘homebody’ inside me, but what’s the big rush to reach some far off destination? Isn’t ‘home’ the real destination anyhow? So, if I never leave home, then it follows that I would already be at my ‘destination’ without requiring myself to board a jetliner.

So again, why the rush to fly? What particular benefit do we imagine will be gained by traveling faster? The Chinese say that a happy man never leaves his village because his happiness prevents the sort of curiosity that leads men to wander off in search of happiness elsewhere. His realizes his grass is sufficiently green and each day he walks barefoot across it. He also finds inspiration walking the old familiar alleys and sidewalks. I think Torah is the same as that wonderful patch of lawn and the beaten path to a familiar place. It is totally unrecognizable from 35,000 feet above the Earth and yet, it becomes an intimate and sensational event each time you find yourself standing right smack in the middle of it; your toes and heels digging into the sod and the tops of the blades tickling your ankles. That’s why Torah is to be kept simple. It reflects the uncomplicated nature of a whole being having a seemingly simple but comprehensive sensory experience. You don’t get that kind of joy when flying, even in first class.

Call me prejudiced, but I happen to prefer walking to any other mode of conveyance. If it were possible I would not drive at all, but arrange my circumstances so that I could walk to anywhere I needed to be, and any destination within five miles is easily walk-able. The beauty of walking is that one can actually see and feel the world up close while moving with it. The rain, the sun, the wind, the noise, and the smells and sights all create a new experience each time they occur. Walking is up close and personal. When I walk, I can hear couples arguing or making love as I pass by their homes. I find interesting objects along the curbside or notice new framing on an old house. I can greet other passersby and maybe even stop to chat for a minute. If I were driving or flying, these experiences would be unknown to me. I would know it was raining. I would assume there were people getting wet and complaining to each other about the weather, but I’d never feel the rain of the day on my own face. It would remain for me an abstraction.

One other way that the innate richness of Torah is destroyed comes through the moralistic ranting and the hero-creation of the ‘frequent fliers’. For some reason, the ‘learned ones’ among us feel that they have to interject a high-browed moral lesson onto each event in Torah in order to prove that the characters depicted were undoubtedly behaving in a perfectly righteous and holy manner, even when it becomes required for them to ‘flip the script’ out of the realm common experience to support their wild hypotheses. The story was meaningful long before they got a hold of it, and I can’t see how creating saints and sinners out of common men makes the story any more believable or relevant to normal folks like us.

One should walk through the Torah and not fly over it. There are people to meet and things to touch inside of it; things that will forever alter your ideas about yourself and the world around you as they come up off the parchment into your understanding. This is truly ‘walking the walk’. As the Torah says in Deut. (6:7) “……talking…..sitting…..moving around…..laying down….getting up.” It’s within the familiarity of home and common every-day doings that Torah is found.

In walking this walk, we can climb to the highest branches of the tree of Knowledge and survey the Garden of Eden with Adam the First. We can make idle conversation with Abraham and comfort the bereaved Judah on the loss of his wife and two sons. We can pass by Sodom and pocket a few pieces of ash and crumbled stone. We can be the first to set our own feet in the waters of the Red Sea, or stand in the middle of the Sinai desert, feeling both helpless and awed by the expanse of its emptiness. Coincidentally, every one of these events our fore-bearers experienced while walking.

Let’s have a stroll. Shall we?

Kol Tuv


MJ said...

Great article. I enjoy all of your writing; it took me some time to find you after your old blog turned into Japanese gobbeldy-gook. I hope you'll follow this up with some specific examples.

Looking forward to strolling with you.

Stephanie said...

you are very deep indeed. I think I shall bookmark you since you have now become part of my journey.