This series of posts is dedicated to the Reconstructionist rabbis who served or visited the then small, now large, Congregation Darchei Noam of Toronto of my youth (Rabbis Joy Levitt, Allan Lehmann, Richard Hirsh, David Teucsh, Barry Blum, Deborah Brin, Larry Pinsker and several more student rabbis). With a special shout out to Rabbi Richard Hirsh who inspired the whole series with his dvar Torah on Shabbat Shuvah in memory of Rabbi Ira Eisenstein z”l . It is about how my deep and long exposure to a “traditional” Reconstuctionist service has made it hard for me to feel at home in other styles of worship. See Part 1: Liturgy and Part 3: The Style. (This is Part 2: Dvar Torah/Sermon).
Part 2: Dvar Torah
The deevrai Torah I grew up with were on the sermon-dialogue model, meaning there was a thought-provoking sermon by the rabbi (or whoever was offering the dvar Torah), followed by comments, questions and discussion from the congregation and usually a summary by the leader.
As these were in English and often began with storytelling and were valued by the adults, so from an early age I listened. Decades later, I remember specific sermons delivered by most of the rabbis who served after I was about 10.
What I absorbed is that there are multiple ways to approach the texts and that engaging with these different ways and their interactions is fruitful and meaningful.
These are the types of questions I heard answered:
1)What is the story? — first without the layers of interpretive Midrash and commentary. Often this makes us notice how much we incorporate Midrash (or even movies) into our views of the text.
2) What did this story mean to the people who first heard it? (which often requires some historical, sociological, anthropological context about who they were, what they believed, which is quite different than our modern beliefs, and what their day-to-day reality was like). What purpose did it serve for them? What questions did it answer for them?
3) How did the traditional commentators throughout our history view the text? What questions did they try to answer and what did the text mean to them? What aspects of the story resonated with them and the issues of their time? Is the text used as a proof text for a particular law or ritual?Is there a mystical interpretation? What stories or midrashim did they add to the text?
4) The story of the text itself: From a textual criticism point of view, who wrote what part and when? How the meaning of the text or its representation change over time, including how it fared in other religious traditions. Is the text part of the liturgy and how did that influence how we think about it? Were their voices or parts of the story that were there initially that have been excluded?
5) How do modern commentators respond to the text and the story? This can refer to rabbis, bible scholars and moral teachers (Jewish and from other traditions), creative artists, writers, and psychologists or sociologists.
6) What does it mean to us today? What is it trying to teach us? Is there a personal, political or moral message we can learn from or apply in our daily lives? Is there something we should do or learn?
While no dvar Torah touches on all these approaches, over the course of many weeks and months hearing the variety is important as a whole. While more traditional shuls tend to focus on 3 and to some extent 6 and so do not to fulfil my desire for looking at all these approaches (over time), more modern shuls often also fail to meet my desire for a multifaceted approach by focusing mainly on 5 and 6.
And note that one of the best melders of approaches 2, 3 and 4 is Orthodox (James Kugel, especially in the book How to Read the Bible).
Another Orthodox friend (Rabbi Eric Grossman) reminded me of how easy it is to get caught up in 3 without spending time on 1. His example was the verse (Deuteronomy 34:7)
.וּמֹשֶׁה, בֶּן-מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה–בְּמֹתוֹ; לֹא-כָהֲתָה עֵינוֹ, וְלֹא-נָס לֵחֹה
And Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.
While the traditional commentaries spend much time proposing a great radiance that shone out of Moshe’s eyes after interacting directly with God, which is what did not dim in this verse. The basic story interpretation is that unlike most very old people ( which Moshe was) until very recently, Moshe did not develop cataracts and could still see well – a miracle in itself..
For me it is not just looking at the text from all these perspectives, but how skillfully they are joined that is important as well. The dvar torah should be like a journey, where we start with some view of the text and are taken somewhere else with it, learn something, and are able to ground that learning back in the text.