Some of you may or may not know that I volunteer some of my time at the Irish Jewish Museum here in Dublin. I love spending time there, I get to meet a ton of very different people with their own histories, stories, faith (or lack off) and belief. All sections of society, religion and nationality. Introducing these people to Irelands Jewish history and, in some cases, to Judaism, is a privilege and a great honour and it can also bring on some interesting questions and discussion. One such question occurred this past week as I introduced some people to the Torah scrolls and explained what they were and how they are used.
‘Does Judaism have a process to explain what the words mean in today’s world?’
I’ll be honest, this wasn’t something that I was expecting and was a little above the usual stable of enquiry.
‘Great question!’, I said and explained a little about the Talmud, the sages and the various voices that make up the arguments throughout Jewish history. After this party of guests left I found myself pondering my answer. You see, I’m a guide at the Museum. The Museum is a cultural center, it doesn’t have an opinion or voice, so I have to be careful I don’t say something offensive and I try to reply in a safe and well walked way when it comes to answering questions about Judaism’s ritual and tradition but often when I leave for the day and walk home my mind will run to those safe areas of the field, to the sheep that are so nicely penned in their white picket holds and start to open the gates of those safe answers.. the sheep running wild.
In the Museum there is a map of Dublin that shows the (at that point) town and it’s surroundings in 1759. I can see my street on that map, which, given the tiny area Dublin covered back then and subsequent rebuilding, is no easy task. My street can be found at the very edge of Dublin’s boundaries. Any further out and you are in fields and march, farm land and forest.
Last week saw the opening, right next to my home, of a Park which contains a kids play area, walking loop, skatepark and some other community areas. Before this park was opened, it lay dormant for 5 years as a ruined patch of land, before that it was tenement building for the poor, before that.. and so on. All the way back to 1759 when it was a marsh.
‘Every week the Torah is removed from its container in front of the community and read to the Synagogue. Its content is divided into weekly portions and although some weeks might require 2 sections to be read, mostly one ‘parasha’ is read each week allowing the whole Torah to be read in one year. Observant Jews will study the Torah parasha during the week and it’s a nice thought that not only have the Jewish communities around the world all been reading the same chapters but they have been reading them in this way for at least 2000 years.’
‘Then they were reading them before the Talmud?’
‘So the content of the Talmud is the same as the teachings 2000 years ago?’
inside my head…”ahhhhh……” – time for the ‘museum’ answer.
‘To some degree yes, the Talmud is really a tool to help Jews today understand and expand the Torah to envelop our lives in this modern world’ – ‘moving on, this is a chuppah’…
But walking home, I pass the new skate park, this concrete and grass space and I think about the map of this area and the many lives that have passed through this square. On one corner I live. On another is the school that Ettie Steinberg, the only Irish Jew to die in the Holocaust, went to.. her feet ran down this street as a child and while she played her parents dealt with ideas like electricity and the internal combustion area. The sages didn’t help them here. The ‘map’ of Judaism didn’t have any signposts for this new world. It would be up to the scholars of the day to decide how ‘invention’ and ‘science’ as it was could be untangled and understood and what the response to these new illuminated areas Judaism would offer.
It’s a basic principle in Jewish thought that even after layers of thought, argument and disagreement. Even at the end of decades and even centuries of debate. The Torah has to at its core, at its base level, be reflected its observance.This means it should be clear in whatever ritual or tradition follows, what the Torah says. Any building of ideas and practice HAS to agree and honour the original text.
Travel around the world and you will find Torah’s of all shapes and sizes, their cover made of different forms and materials, from the fabric and silk and embroidery of Northern Europe to the rosewood, glass and silver of Africa. The words contained on the scrolls in these protective and beautiful cases are the same but the way in which they are presented is more of a reflection of the people and culture outside the words than that inside.
On any give Erev Shabbat at a large city centre Synagogue you might hear a group of visitors singing a slightly different tune to a traditional part of the service. Where they come from they are signing the right tune. Together they sound a little-mixed up.. but both groups, the local and the visitor are correct. The words are right.. the traditions change over time.
Judaism is great at adapting. It is what it does. It has to. The world is a constantly changing thing and Jew live in it, Judaism is a living and breathing thing and it’s not there to ‘do’ while you live, it’s there to ‘live’ while you ‘do’.
But how do you tell someone who is asking about it for the first time that all the voices over time were ‘right’ in how they understand and ‘live’ out their understanding of Judaism? It’s way too fluid. Way to open to misuse.
Today you will find some Jews who say, ‘these Jews aren’t Jews’.. and that status isn’t based on the person’s family history – only on the way they practice (or do not practice) their faith. Others will say ‘these Jews aren’t Jews’ because of their ancestry and nothing else. For some, the evolution of Judaism comes only when the driver of the bus, the keeper of the keys, agrees with the road map and the wants to open the door.
2000 years ago Jews around the world were readying for Shabbat and would within 24 hours now read the Torah portion. Every generation of these Jews, throughout time, until now, would have a different understanding of how the Torah portion should be used and understood regarding the world they lived in and how they could learn from it but they all knew the core meaning of the text also.. and every generation has been ‘right’ in their understanding.
Judaism is the practice of Righteousness based on the Torah. Life moves on. The old is built on. How people live changes. Needs develop. Judaism is as diverse as the people who practice it. Like the spectrum of light seen flooding like a rainbow from a prism is can all be traced back to the same source.
It’s that single source of light that connects everyone. Even the non-Jewish visitor to the Museum and the last person to hold aloft the Torah scrolls they were asking about. It’s shared by the Sages and the Student. The school child and the parks planner. Me and you. Regardless of how you do or do not express your faith when you dig down the core it the same, we are all the same creation. Just like the Torah that is read and loved by the many different types of Jew around the world is the same set of letters.
I couldn’t possibly give an answer like this to my guests.. at least not until I’ve figured it out myself. But I guess that’s why we continue to read and study, year on year the revolution of the parashas and the evolution of our faith.