Question: How can I feel touched by Jewish prayer services and Torah readings?
I have found little spiritual support in the Jewish liturgy or Torah readings. The service and the exaltation of God leaves me cold. Similarly the greatness of Torah when looking at the verse escapes me. How does one draw the love and elevated ethical standards from these seemingly sterile sources? I must be missing something. Can you recommend reading or study? I have a personal relationship with God that is strong, but I do not understand how to connect this with prayer and Torah.
Answer: Thank you for your letter and your thoughtful expression of spiritual searching.
I agree with you. God does not require our prayers. It is we who need to express ourselves to something outside and beyond ourselves to give our lives meaning. We don't worship God because God is an egomaniac who needs to hear our praises. Rather, we reach out to God as the source of all meaning because doing so affirms that the universe is not random and the trivial details our lives are not at its center.
However, I disagree with the impression you have about the Jewish relationship to Torah. You say that it seems to you that pious Jews have abandoned the Torah as sterile, and have instead turned toward "current wisdom." While it is true the the rabbinic tradition has in many ways transformed the Torah through interpretation, it has done so in order to make the Torah's teachings relevant to the world in which we live, not to abandon it.
On the surface, the Torah appears to give instruction about farming and raising cattle. It gives details about offering animal sacrifices upon an altar. It deals with issues of slavery and gruesome violence as if they were ordinary, unexceptional events. So, what's so holy about that?
The answer is that the Torah was written thousands of years ago for a community that is very different from our own. Slavery and animal sacrifices were unexceptional, accepted practices two and three thousand years ago. In almost every case, the Torah elevates the accepted practices of its day into the light of ethical and spiritual dimension. Torah demands recognition of the humanity of all people and the need to treat each person with dignity and moral standards.
The rabbis read the Torah as a divine call for them to do the same thing with the reality of their own time. Pious Jews do not abandon the Torah; they embrace it by observing its commandments and interpreting its values and core teachings to address the challenges of their own societies. Torah, as read by the rabbis, is at the center of Jewish thought and belief. With all of its contradictions, anachronisms and challenges, it provides the key to understanding the Jewish approach to ethics and relationship with God.
You mentioned, also, Jewish mystical teachings in which every individual letter of the Torah is seen as holy. This teaching is not meant to deflect attention away from the actual words of the Torah, as you have supposed. Rather, Jewish mystics see the Torah as a kind of blueprint for reality. It conveys not just specific meaning, but ultimate meaning that endows the universe with divinity and purpose.
You asked me to make some suggestions for books you could read to help you connect to Torah. I'll offer a few. How to Read the Bible by Marc Z. Brettler and The Way into Torah by my teacher Norman J. Cohen are both excellent introductions that provide insight into the way the Bible is read and understood in Jewish tradition. For a more scholarly analysis of the ways in which the rabbis re-shaped the Torah to meet the needs of their time, I would recommend The Rhetoric of Innovation: Self-Conscious Legal Change in Rabbinic Literature by my teacher, Aaron D. Panken.
I hope this is helpful to you.
Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser