The Unavoidable Centrality of the Torah

The Torah has been the center of Jewish life for at least 2,000 years. All of modern Judaism, its holidays, rituals, and customs, can be traced back to a passage of the Torah or an interpretation of a passage. Any movement or group which wishes to claim the label Judaism must acknowledge the Torah as the foundation of Jewish culture and acknowledge it as the central and most important text of the Jewish people. This poses a special challenge for Humanistic Judaism which rejects the claim that the Torah is the revealed word of God and a record of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. How can a movement which rejects the divine revelation at Sinai still acknowledge the Torah as the basis of Jewish living? In order for Humanistic Judaism to claim legitimacy as a denomination of Judaism it must address the problem of the Torah and the role it should fill in the practice of Humanistic Judaism.

The Humanist approach to the Torah will necessarily make naturalist assumptions. Academic biblical criticism and scholarship will form the basis of a Humanistic approach to the texts. Rather than the divine word of God, the Torah will be seen as a product of the Jewish people. As a social product of the ancient Jews and due to its central role in the life of Jewish communities over the millennia, Humanistic Judaism should treat the Torah with great respect, if not reverence. However, this does not mean that Humanistic Jews should blindly accept the dictates of the Torah. Indeed this would be contradictory to the basic assumptions of the Movement. Rather, the Torah should be studied by Humanistic Jews within a secular framework as a cultural product. Traditional commentaries, including but not limited to the Talmud, should be consulted and studied as well as contemporary interpretations. The full depth and breadth of Jewish culture, values, and philosophy cannot be appreciated without a study of the Torah and its many interpretations. Humanistic Jews need not believe that the Torah is divinely revealed in order to study and appreciate it as the foundation of Jewish culture and practice as we know it. The Roman playwright Terence once quipped, “I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.” Humanistic Jews should take a similar attitude to Jewish history, texts, and practices.

This may mean that the Torah should play a greater role in the communal life of Humanistic Judaism. During Shabbat and holiday services, it may become good practice to read from the Torah. This need not be done from the traditional scroll in Hebrew; a good translation will work fine for our purposes. Nor does it mean that a full Torah service needs to be done with a complete reading of the week’s parsha. A relevant passage, informed by traditional commentary and academic scholarship, can be read and discussed by the rabbi or a lector within the regular course of the Shabbat or holiday service. Through engaging with the Torah on Humanistic terms, Humanistic Jews can maintain a connection to Jewish tradition while still adhering to their values as Humanists and naturalists. Education and study are central values among Jews everywhere, in large part because of the traditional emphasis placed on the study of Torah over the millennia. These values are central to Humanistic Judaism as well, and the Torah is the perfect Jewish symbol to represent these commitments within the community, despite its traditional theistic baggage.

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