Torah Like Water

A creative interpretation yields a valuable lesson about the vital importance of Torah to the Jewish people.

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Torah: The Centerpiece of Synagogue Service

No less important, the midrash justified making thefoundation text of Judaism the centerpiece of the synagogue service. Reading it publicly every three days assured that its contents would become common knowledge. The ritual marked a total departure from ancient Near Eastern practice (or that of the medieval church) which consigned sacred texts to temple precincts as esoteric literature for priests. Like the original revelation at Sinai witnessed by all the people, reading the Torah in the synagogue was intended as a reenactment for public consumption. Jews became what the Koran called "people of the book."

As the world's first book-based religion, Judaism gained three advantages. First, the move from sacred land to sacred text made it portable. Had Judaism not effected that radical shift, it is unlikely that it would have survived the fate of exile. Our midrash may have in mind the Babylonian exile after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E.. At that time it is not inconceivable that religious leaders encouraged the public reading of sacred texts to fortify the faith and memory of their deported flock.

The Torah is Portable

The portability of a sacred book raised Judaism to a universal religion. God's presence was no longer restricted to the sanctity of a single sanctuary. Through the portal of Torah, Jews could access God everywhere. This is the force of R. Shimon ben Yohai's famous second-century affirmation "that wherever Israel wandered in exile, God's presence (the Shekhinah) went with them" (BT Megillah 29a).

Second, a book is far less vulnerable than a temple. By taking refuge in a book, Judaism greatly enhanced its chances of survival. To be sure, books could be burned, as they often were by the church in the Middle Ages, but that destroyed only the medium--not its message. As. R. Hananyah ben Teradyon expired on a Roman pyre wrapped in a Torah scroll for mock effect, he comforted his students that "the parchment burns but the letters ascend" (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 8a). Books could always be reproduced. The format was more impregnable then a fortress.

Third, Judaism in book form became democratic. While the Temple was off limits for many Jews and sacrifices the preserve of the priests, the synagogue expected of each Jew to approach God individually and directly.The primacy of the Torah required literacy and learning of everyone. Henceforth, leadership would be determined by study rather than birth.

Education is Essential

But these advantages came at a price. The effects of Torah worked only as long as people could read it. If its language became as impenetrable as hieroglyphics, it risked turning the synagogue into a museum and its rabbis into intermediaries. Serious education and lifelong study are what vivify inert letters into life giving water. The greatest danger toJudaism has always been illiteracy, which is why the Rabbis insisted that "The world itself rests on the breath of children in school"(Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119b).

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.