(By Dr. Melissa Weininger, Ph.D. Congregation Beth Israel Scholar-in-Residence)
The Jewish maskilim, or enlighteners, of the nineteenth century were focused on the goal of modernizing the Jewish communities of Europe so that they might achieve national citizenship in their lands of residence and successfully participate in European life and culture. In a seeming paradox, they turned back toward the Torah for support in their task. They saw the Torah as the foundational text of Jewish history and culture, the document that chronicled the constitution of the Jewish people as a national entity and had ensured its survival into modernity. For these modernizers, the Torah served less as a religious text than a historical, national, and cultural touchstone that could help usher the Jews of Europe and Russia into a new era.
At the same time, the originators of what we now call Reform Judaism drew on the Torah as a symbol not of national and historical belonging, but of religious affiliation. They, too, were interested in promoting the integration and even assimilation of Jews into the national cultures of the lands in which they were now citizens. To do this, they reconceptualized Judaism as a religion devoid of national content, in order to avoid any suggestion of dual loyalty. But, like their fellow modernizers, they returned to the Torah as a fundamental text, eschewing many Talmudic interpretations of the law.
Thus, our most ancient document has also been the impetus for the change and modernization that has brought the Jewish community into the 21st century in all its many forms. Perhaps paradoxically, the Torah forms a link between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular, the Zionist and the diasporist, the national and the religious. Many have claimed to have divined the authentic meaning of Torah, but in its inherent heterogeneity Torah defies any monolithic interpretation. Perhaps this is why it has endured for thousands of years as the touchstone of Jewish life: it has always contained within its letters, words, and books something for everyone.
Join me during Beth Israel’s 160th Anniversary year to discover Torah for yourself. Upcoming opportunities include the Sisterhood’s Exploring Judaism lecture series on Israel—Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow as well as the Adult Education Committee’s three part series on Christianity in the Jewish Imagination. Of course, you may become an indelible part of the Beth Israel People’s Torah by registering for the Be a Blessing Torah Project.