Refining Torah In Our Time

Artwork by Camille Fox
Artwork by Camille Fox

As I contemplate generational lineage in the advent of Shavuot, when we relive the origin of our inheritance with the giving
of Torah at Sinai, I am drawn to the work of Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, who lived and wrote during the late 19th century, and was known as the S’fat Emet, the name of his most voluminous work. He teaches, in his commentary on the Torah portion Emor, that God’s acts of speech, which both brought the world into being through Creation and mandated our social structure through commandments, are, in the words of Psalm 12, “as pure as refined silver.” But what makes them even more precious, indeed seven times more precious in the eyes of God, is what we do with God’s words as we draw them through the refining fire of our humanity, discovering
the holy in creation and expressing God’s commandments as we are able, in our own ways, reflective of life in our own time. In other words, we further refine the pure silver of God’s word in every generation.

The Sfat Emet goes so far as to say that “not only did Adonai, The Blessed One, give Torah to the children of Israel, the Blessed One literally planted the power
of Torah within us, so that we can independently renew words of Torah and [re]configure the letters of the Torah!”*

The nature of the relationship between God and Israel is exemplified by verses the rabbis identify as marital vows: “You have declared Adonai to be your God,” and “Adonai has declared you to be God’s special people.” (Deuteronomy 26:17, 18) If God and Israel are lovers, our pillow talk is the exchange of Torah. At Sinai, God speaks Torah to us, and, in every generation, we return the flow of God’s love by listening actively and answering empathically, as any lover would. Our answer comes in the form of loving pushback as we consider how best to embrace and enhance our beloved’s vision of our bond, our life together, and the sort of family we’re going to be to one another.

L’dor v’dor can mean what we inherit from our parents and then transform and pass on to our children for their further refinement as they create and reconfigure — in the words of the Sfat Emet — new Torah. My grandparents lived lives of mitzvot according to the customs of their Orthodox German heritage, but they embraced Western garb, took advanced degrees in universities, and left the kippah at home when entering the workplace. And they taught their Torah to my mother, an American who became a devout Conservative Jew, who let go of various strictures while consciously enhancing the integral nature of Shabbat as an island in time.

Would my Judaism be recognizable to my grandparents? What would they think of the painted eggs on my seder table? Or my embrace of non-Jews coming forward for group aliyot in the spiritual community I lead? What would they think of my feminine rabbinate, altogether? So much appears different, but the thread that connects it all is that my children seek their Jewish authenticity with the same seriousness as their ancestors.

God gifted Torah to all generations at Sinai, l’dor v’dor. The power of Torah is
in us, and God is aroused and enlivened by our expression of it, not when we feed God’s words right back in blind obedience or when we dutifully repeat the words of our ancestors, but when we express our relationship with God
by speaking our own versions of Torah: Torah that we understand, live, and transmit. God doesn’t want a conversation frozen in the era of the great rabbis of the Sanhedrin; God wants the juiciness of a living love.

*Rebbe Nachman’s commentary on parashat Emor, Likkutei MoHaRan 5634/1874 p. 168b (author’s translation).

This story "Refining Torah In Our Time" was written by Hannah Dresner.


Hannah Dresner

Hannah Dresner

Rabbi Hannah Dresner received smikhah from ALEPH and serves as the spiritual leader of Or Shalom in Vancouver, BC. She is a fellow with Rabbis Without Borders and participates in the Clergy Leadership Program of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

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