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RJ Guide: Reform Judaism - 30 Stories
Section VII. Reinterpreting Torah

Discuss with Your Family and Congregation with this Guide

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RJ: Was the Bible written by God?

Jennifer Warriner: I believe the Bible was conceived, written, and edited by incredibly intelligent, insightful humans who wanted to develop a set of rules to facilitate the existence of a just society. While they were inspired by their notion of God and their desire to be God-like, I do not believe God gave them input, ideas, or rules.

That said, I nevertheless believe the Bible is holy. I recognize the inconsistency in my believing Torah is holy when I do not believe it came from God. I have not yet managed to resolve that inconsistency; my beliefs are just my beliefs and I am comfortable with them.

John Planer: For me, the Tanach is a human document—a wonderful, eclectic mix of redacted compilations by men and women, often transmitted in ambig­uous form. It depicts noble and venial behavior, and shows complex human beings—not idealized goody-goodies—seeking God and meaning, offering us models to emulate and to shun amidst diverse paradigms of human experience.

Photo by Michael Reitman

Dawn Mollenkopf
: I believe that the Torah reflects the story of the interactions between God and human beings. Written from the human point of view, it necessarily reflects the cultural context of its times. The Torah is holy nonetheless because its authors were inspired by their interactions with God, and it is timeless because the human struggles and dilemmas it addresses are universal to every age.

Because I do not take the Torah literally, I tend to read it for its social, historical, and spiritual content and to let its principles, rather than specific words, guide my life. Such an approach is more challenging than orthodoxy because it forces me to constantly reevaluate how a principle might apply to a given situation as I gain new perspectives from my life’s experiences.

Steve Arnold: The Bible is the product of human minds, inspired by God. It is “holy” in the sense that it lays out the terms of the covenant by which people can live “holy” lives.

Laurence Kaufman: At first I saw the Torah as a work of literature. Now I understand that the reverence accorded to it through the millennia imbues it with its own mystique. The Torah is sacred not because God made it sacred but because we have made it sacred. In its broadest sense, Torah is what binds the Jewish people through both time and space, making me responsible for maintaining continuity with the past, assuring continuity into the future, and assuring the welfare of Jews wherever in the world they may be.

RJ: How do you reconcile Torah teachings that may be inconsistent with your beliefs today?

Steve Arnold: I do not believe the Bible is literal truth. It is a set of stories illustrating moral and ethical principles. Much of it has modern application, and much of it does not, such as the mitzvot pertaining to animal sacrifice and other duties surrounding the Temple in Jerusalem. And since the Torah was written by humans, it reflects their understanding of their times. Torah, for example, speaks approvingly of slavery, which today we find repulsive and have replaced with the idea of personal freedom and fair treatment for all. Illness, too, is biblically deemed the direct action of God, when we now understand it to be biologically and/or environmentally determined. So rather than read the Bible literally, I attempt to govern myself by the spirit of Torah. Torah, for example, challenges us to give to the poor. My ego bristles at knowing that some of the money I give for charity in Israel is going to a country where a tiny religious minority has declared I am not a Jew because I didn’t enter the faith through its narrow doorway. If I am true to my intention to live a life governed by Torah, then I must continue this financial support, despite the “insult” hurled at me by the Israeli Orthodox establishment. I struggle with this with every appeal to support Israel.

Jennifer Warriner: The Torah was written by humans, and therefore is limited by its authors’ understanding of their universe. To understand its teachings, I believe we must consider the cultural norms of the times in which it was written and apply only those passages that make sense today. Thus I simply ignore Torah teachings which treat women and children as property, condone slavery, or reflect bias against homosexuals.

Barbara D. Holender: I find it wonderful that the most precious of the Jews’ possessions is a Torah scroll. Words. Words began the world, and words hold it together. Still, the text often reflects attitudes I find repugnant. I bridge the gap by recognizing that Reform Judaism rejects the unacceptable in practice while retaining and cherishing the source.

Barbara K. Shuman: I don’t spend much time wrestling with words in the Torah that may be inconsistent with our modern understanding of Judaism. I know that these words were recorded in a different time and place, and cannot fully address every circumstance I encounter. Perhaps that is why I prefer to study Jewish philosophical, mystical, and spiritual literature.

Joan Pines: Contemporary scientific knowledge is absent from Torah. Some teachings must be evaluated with a critical eye. I also have difficulty with certain theological concepts, such as the Torah teaching that suffering is a result of sin. How could a million-plus innocent children die during the Holocaust because of sin? To me the Torah, at its best, is a series of allegories and metaphors, most of which—though not all—teach ethics and work to establish a just society.

John Planer: I don’t study these texts to discover God’s overt or hidden messages, or to discover history in the form of documented fact. Rather, I study these human documents to discover the plain meanings of the words, the problems inherent in discerning these meanings, and, most important, the insights into human behavior—then and now—which underlie the words.

For example, there is great wisdom in the Joseph story. We learn that suffering can teach us wisdom if we choose to learn, as did Joseph. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, carried to Egypt, accused of attempted rape by Potiphar, and imprisoned. Jacob’s spoiled, arrogant, favored son became a slave, then master of Potiphar’s household, then again a prisoner. But Joseph chose not to become cruel, cynical, or vengeful; instead, when he confronts his brothers, he weeps and forgives them. Stated differently: in adversity we have a choice—to become bitter or to become better. We learn that disaster ensues when we treat our children unequally—think of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. We learn that sowing hatred often reaps evil, and that compassion delayed invites tragedy—as when Reuben delays in returning Joseph to his father and in the interim Joseph is sold into slavery. We learn that we should forgive the truly penitent, as did Joseph his brothers. And perhaps most important: we learn from Torah that beneath seemingly random events may well lie an order, logic, and justice that we cannot fully perceive. For example, Joseph’s arrogance and mistreatment leads to the salvation of his family (as well as the Egyptian populace) during the famine. Thus the meaning of our lives may become evident only in retrospect, or viewed from a vantage far beyond our own.

The Rabbis Speak

“We are called by Torah to lifelong study in the home, in the synagogue and in every place where Jews gather to learn and teach. Through Torah study we are called to mitzvot, the means by which we make our lives holy.”

—A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, CCAR, 1999

To Learn More...

about Torah on our terms, visit the Union’s “Reform Voices of Torah” page; you’ll find Torah portion schedules, Torah commentary archives, “10 Minutes of Torah,” Family Shabbat Table Talk, and more.


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