The Word Made Animate

Seeking the living soul of our sacred texts.

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The doctrine of incarnation is not absent from the synagogue either. Prior to reading the Torah, the gabbai on the bimah (that is, the reader's assistant on the podium) in tones several verses on the virtues of the Torah and God. Not accidentally, they add up to 40 words, symbolizing the 40 days Moses spent atop Mount Sinai. Thereafter, the congregation responds with the verse from Deuteronomy 4:4 "Those of you who have held fast to the Lord your God are all alive today." In this scene of religious theater in the synagogue we are affirming that the text of the Torah is God. The final verse does not speak of cleaving to the Torah but to God. The scroll we are about to read effects the mystical union of God and Israel. Ritual transforms reality.

Stripping the Words of Spirit

To read the Torah without that faith is to strip the words of their animating spirit, leaving them like a golem [inanimate creature that becomes animate]. The Torah described the two tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai as "God's work and the writing as God's writing" (Exodus 32:16). According to the Zohar, it was the divine writing that rendered the stone tablets portable. But when confronted with the idolatry and debauchery of the golden calf, the letters fled, re-ascending to heaven.

Moses did not smash the lifeless tablets that remained; too heavy to handle, they simply slipped from his hands (Kasher, Torah Shlemah, v. 21, pp. 129-30). Such is the fate of a sacred text that has lost its soul. No longer the galvanizing force of a faith community, it is left only to scholars to decipher and fathom.

Yet like the Christian doctrine of incarnation, which since the fifth century posited a Christ of two natures--divine and human--the Jewish version also allows for a twofold nature. In this conception, the Torah is aroiling composite of divine presence and human reaction, a gripping record of the lived experience of the eternal in the midst of the ephemeral.

The Torah reports that after Adam and Eve had eaten of the forbidden tree "they heard the sound of the Lord God moving about in the garden" (Genesis 3:8). Despite its idyllic state, the garden was not all divine. But God was surely to be found in it. So too in the fertile and effervescent expanse of the Torah, the voice of God becomes audible if we canonly muster the patience to listen intently. Should we succeed, we join a biblical dialectic that spanned nearly two millennia and then spawned a dynamic that is still going strong two millennia later.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

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