In response to my column on the new chumash, Etz Hayyim, I received a note from a long-time member of the congregation. His relevant concerns are printed below, with his permission.
This letter concerns your column in The Bulletin dated May 3, 2002. . . . when I read the text and commentary in the Etz Hayim chumash, I was shocked and deeply saddened.
What disturbed me on reading the material on the parasha was the unmistakable impression that the story, as related by the “Narrator,” was something other than the Word of G-d.
I know that the Reform Movement and perhaps other elements in the Jewish community believe that, in the words of Gershwin, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” I also understand that Etz Hayim does not categorically reject the divine origin of every word in Torah. However, for Jews who accept the religious authority of halakah, it is not sufficient that the concept of G-d is the author of the Torah of Truth is presented – as appears to be the case in Etz Hayim – as one of a number of options. That would be like converting the Ten Commandments into the Ten Suggestions.
At the end of your column, you correctly observe that we should each continually affirm Torah’s “sacred origins.” I strongly urge that, as the Congregation uses Etz Hayim as its basic text, you take every opportunity to ensure that congregants are not misled or confused by its content. I urge you teach over and over again without equivocation that the Torah is the holy Word of G-d and that contrary suggestions by some of the contributors to the chumash are just plain wrong.
Of course, Torah is a Living Tree, and over the millennia, scholars who cleave to Torah have brought to it “new fountains of wisdom.” Since Torah was first given, there has been and continues to be vigorous debate over its correct contemporary application. But “fountains” that reject the Divine origin and therefore the truth of Torah do not run with wisdom. On the contrary, without the Divine source, they will eventually leave us dry.
Jerome I. Chapman
I find myself in substantial agreement with Jerome’s perspective, though not as concerned that we hold to any one ideological standard of interpretation. Doing God’s will, as best we understand it, remains more important than affirming a particular pattern of belief. It is one of the distinguishing aspects of Conservative Judaism, both among the family of interpretations of Judaism and the plethora of religious systems we encounter.
Mordecai Kaplan, while still firmly ensconced on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary, observed that the study of Torah, though central to Jewish life, was not primarily an intellectual exercise, but a spiritual experience. The introduction of other forms of encountering the text, such as textual analysis, is a modern phenomenon. Intellectually, we ask different questions than spiritually. The same question in different contexts can produce very unlike answers, though all paradoxically true.
Still, if I gave short shrift to my belief in the sacredness of Torah, or of my faith in the holiness of the mandates therein, let me clear about it now. Torah is my life and the length of my days.