The Life of Torah: Readings in the Jewish Religious Experience

The Life of Torah: Readings in the Jewish Religious Experience

The Life of Torah: Readings in the Jewish Religious Experience

The Life of Torah: Readings in the Jewish Religious Experience

Excerpt

The Life of Torah is a source book intended to convey, so far as it is possible through the experience of merely reading a book, some of the meanings contained within the Jewish religious tradition. I believe that classical Judaism is accessible through three sources, of which we shall draw on two: first, the pages of Jewish liturgy, second, the classical literature of the rabbinic sages of all times, and third, the reflections of living men and women whose lives are shaped by, and in response to, the tradition. In the readings that follow are the first and the third sorts of evidence. The second is omitted because of the difficulty of gaining immediate access to, and accurately interpreting, the writings of premodern men and women. To approach the classic literature in its own setting and not mediated through the mind and expression of twentieth-century men and women is exceedingly difficult, for one has to know a great deal about the cultural and philosophical context in which that literature was created. A surer path into the classical tradition is through the ways in which it is described by contemporary writers for contemporary readers, particularly by those writers who also are scholars and are able to express in a clear and authentic way what the classical literature has to say. The liturgy, on the other hand, still lives in the synagogue and preserves the capacity to speak directly to modern men and women. One does not need to be a scholar to appreciate its power. Indeed, to know who wrote a particular prayer and where he lived in no way illuminates the full meaning of that prayer. To know only that when facing God Jews say these particular words is to know a great deal about Judaism.

I therefore have tried to represent the inner life of Jewish piety through very extensive quotations from the Jewish prayerbook. These serve to illustrate the theology and moral perceptions of the Judaic tradition. They do so better than do theological writings, for the prayers are said by all pious Jews and speak both to and for their situation. Obviously, people who do not affirm the message of these prayers are not going to grasp all of what they say in behalf of people who do. But the presentations of the liturgical forms and personal piety are to express the spirit of Judaism in its most authentic and idiomatic language. If you want to know what it means to be a Jew, this is the best way.

Sacred literature of course occurs throughout the liturgy, and Psalms and many Scriptural passages are cited as they appear in important and dramatic moments in the life of prayer. Nearly every writer who appears in this anthology draws extensively, whether explicitly or not, upon the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, the writings of philosophers, mystics, and sages. But, again, for our purpose it would be misleading to approach the Hebrew Bible or the Talmudic sources outside of the context of Judaic piety, for it is only that context which today gives them meaning and makes them significant for the description of classical and . . .

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