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Wisdom by the Week

The Weekly Torah Portion as Inspiration for Thought and Creativity

Edited by Naftali Rothenberg

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The content of the weekly Torah portion
inspired philosophers, writers, poets,
composers, and artists in an epitome of
creative culture. The creation of culture is a
creation of a world. When we speak of the
Torah as a source of inspiration for thinkers,
writers, and artists, we are in fact recapitulating
the words of the Sages, who said
that the Torah preceded the world and was
the inspiration for all creation
Men and women who have wished to
resemble God have looked into the Torah
and built their own creative worlds. That is
what the Rabbis of the Talmud and the Midrash,
Saadiah Gaon, Judah Halevi, Maimonides,
Hume, Spinoza, Kierkegaard,
Rembrandt and many others have done.
Philosophers, writers, painters, composers
and poets, thinkers and artists have all
looked into the Torah and created worlds.
The idea of reversing the sequence of
events, of the Torah having preceded the
world, has deep dialogical roots. The Torah
was given at Sinai, but Sinai, according
to this approach, is not a one time historical
event"sublime and momentous, but
nonetheless a part of the past. It is rather, a
source of hope for the future."
Review by Dr. Richard Wagner, Head of School, Striar Hebrew.Academy, Sharon, MA.
Wisdom by the Week: The Weekly Torah Portion as an Inspiration for Thought and Creativity, edited by Naftali Rothenberg, Yeshiva University Press and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, New York and Jerusalem: 2011
Since the return of the Jewish people to Israel following the Babylonian Exile (c. 537 BCE) regular reading of the Torah has been a central focal point of religious life. Early on, the rationale for this activity was not merely as a listening exercise. Ezra and Nehemiah "read from the scroll of the Teaching of God, translating it and giving the sense, so they understood the reading." (Neh. 8:8)
The importance of this experience is not only congregational but also personal. Hearing the words of Torah together with other people has significance; imbuing the Torah with sechel (sense) so that the words are understood becomes a deeply personal moment. A teacher of mine framed this ultimate question as: "What are the consequences for you of taking this passage seriously?"
The rabbis of antiquity and the codifiers of Halakha realized that this is no simple task; it calls for constant repetition. So a road sign along the Jewish annual cycle became the mitzvah requirement of reading the weekly Torah portion twice in the original and once in the targum (Aramaic translation).(BT Berakhot 8a,b; Maimonides, Hilkhot T'fila 13:25, et al.) It is hard to verify the degree to which this ever became a widespread Jewish practice. The parallel personages of the darshan and the maggid (scholarly expositor and popular preacher) throughout Jewish history seem to support the view that on differentiated levels, people needed and wanted to hear the eternal verities of the Torah expressed in ways that were authentic and accessible.
Fast forward several centuries. One search engine located more than 400 weekly Torah portion explanations"in of a second -- distributed on paper, over the internet and via MP3, by rabbis, teachers and lay people, with a wide range of quality control. For many people, these are a self-help device in delving into the weekly reading. For others, they are part of the induction process of becoming traditionally observant. For other still, they are part of the encounter with a particular rabbi or school of thought.
"Wisdom by the Week:The Weekly Torah Portion as an Inspiration for Thought and Creativity," raises the bar of this genre to a new level. As the classical Midrash itself, this volume began as spoken presentations under the auspices of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute more than a dozen years ago. "Opening the Week" evolved into a much anticipated Sunday evening series at which scholars, academics, rabbis, educators, politicians, literary figures, artists and philosophers from every ideological band along the spectrum, delivered a lecture on aspects on that week's Torah reading.
Two developments emerged from the initial project: After three years of addresses,a selection of lectures was edited and published (Pot'him Shavua (Hebrew), Opening the Week: Israeli Intellectuals Write about the Weekly Reading of the Torah, edited by Naftali Rothenberg, Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, Jerusalem: 2001) so that a broader audience could partake of these riches. As well, the organizers broadened the scope by inviting speakers from particular disciplines: Music, film, studio and plastic arts. These became the lenses through which different perspectives on Torah were offered.
In the present volume, yet another dimension is added to the reader's encounter with the Torah portion of the week. Lessons are offered by an outstanding cadre of Israeli and American writers reflected and refracted through their understanding of a significant thinker, spanning 1,300 years. For example Dr. Hagai Dagan, writer and lecturer at Sapir College and Ben Gurion University (Ph.D. in Jewish thought and philosophy, Tel Aviv University) examines themes in Vayera (Gen. 18-22) based on the thought of S?ren Kierkegaard, Danish father of religious existentialism. As we marvel at Abraham's religious audacity in arguing with God over the fate of Sodom's inhabitants, and tremble as the father raises the slaughtering knife over his son Isaac, we are given a multi-hued and multi-textured explication of the text through an understanding of the teleological suspension of the ethical as presented in Dagan's poetic words. We hear the words of the Torah, the thoughts of the contemporary speakers, as they reflect on the ideas that have inspired them. "Wisdom by the Week" is as much a kaleidoscope as it is a telescope or microscope.
Another example will not suffice to give the full flavor of the volume; that can only be achieved by making it a companion for a year or so. However, the essay by Dr. Shmuel Wygoda (lecturer at the Yaacov Herzog Institute) on Vayikra (Lev. 1-5) brings us into the world of French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (d. 1995) in which holiness is ethics. Beginning Leviticus, the book on Korbanot (sacrifices) - the spirituality story of ancient Israel drawing close to God - with the images of Levinas, casts this portion into an entirely heretofore unimagined light. He writes: "The circumstances that bring God to mind are neither miracles, nor the contemplation of the mystery of creation the order that I can grasp in my mind is the face of the other." (Wygoda's translation, p.299) Through his careful reading of both Levinas and Jewish classics, Wygoda theorizes that Levinas's source for his approach to holiness may be Rashi's comments on Genesis 2 or Nahamanides's explanation of Leviticus 19. Both feature God as the other that is not only different, but, in a sense, a "constant surprise." Wygoda also makes sure that we are aware that for Levinas, holiness is identified with social justice; "God, the Holy One is sanctified through righteousness." (Is. 5:16)
Naftali Rothenberg, editor, presents the tapestry of ideas which is the backdrop for this book. His own training in Jewish classics and modern philosophy is evident as he artfully introduces the shiurim with an essay entitled "Culture Creates Culture." Our ancient/new connection to Torah takes on revitalized meaning when "We learn that the Sinai of the past is not enough; we must claim and aspire to the Sinai of the future, the Sinai that we will hear from our grandchildren." Rothenberg's invitation should not be ignored.

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