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Shavuot: A Celebration of God, Torah and Spiritual Genius

God wrote E=MC2.

“Einstein,” you say.

“Yes, him too.”

I once asked my teacher and the editor of the Etz Hayim Bible, “Who wrote the Bible?”

“People,” he replied.

“And what was the place of God?” I persisted.

“God enables genius, whether in Shakespeare, Mozart, or a great scientist. The Torah is a work of spiritual genius.”

My teachers in Rabbinical School shared the modern perspective that ideas have a history. They taught that the Torah unfolded over time and emerged from specific historical settings. During the exile in Babylonia, they taught, Jew began to weave oral traditions together into a magnificent, written tapestry. This description of the Torah’s origins conflicted with my childhood teachers who instructed me that God had dictated the words to Moses letter by letter. If people wrote the Torah, I was left to wonder, in what sense is our Torah worth building a life on?

Among my favorite Bible scholars is Professor Jacob Milgrom. After serving as a Conservative Rabbi for twenty years, he taught at the University of California at Berkeley for thirty years. Among his achievements was a three-volume work on Leviticus, later condensed into a more accessible 300-page book. I read this commentary alongside our weekly readings a couple of years ago. What fascinated me was both how much the Israelites shared in common with their surrounding neighbors- such as slavery, polygamy, and the sacrificial form of worship- and even more so, what was unique to the Torah. Only the Torah, for instance, forbade the eating of blood. The underlying reason was to express that God ultimately controls life. As blood is identified with life, it belongs only to God.

On a stroll with Professor Milgrom, I asked him, “Why did you spend over twenty years researching the details of the Levitical laws.”

“The laws of the Torah,” he responded, “are vessels for values. To understand the details of ritual laws is to uncover the contours and content of enduring values. Ideas are intellectually known, but each time we perform a ritual we relive, re-express, and rediscover those values with our whole person.”

The Torah contains many distinctive laws and rituals, such as demanding that one day a week we refrain from work and commerce. The value conveyed by Shabbat is that God is in charge and that we need to prioritize time to forge relationships with those around us and with God. Our Torah demanded that landowners were to provide for the poor, pieces of social legislation that were radical for the ancient world and persist as a challenge of hope making and justice in our own day. When the Torah states, “And God spoke to Moses saying” (the Torah’s most often repeated phrase), it signifies that what follows is our people’s best understanding of God’s will and values.

Human understanding is continuously unfolding by responding to changing conditions and adding new insights. Einstein’s analysis depended on a strong foundation of scientific learning, and yet his insights also emerged intuitively. In his words, “There is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.” His creativity was linked as well to a sense of wonder, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”

On Shavuot, we celebrate the gift of the Torah and the mystery of revelation. For our people, the Torah is a love letter from God. Yes, people wrote it, but the wisdom of Torah emerged intuitively from our reaching beyond ourselves and hearing a still, silent voice calling us toward justice and love. The Torah is our Jewish foundation for growing lives of meaning, belonging, and fulfillment. I read the Torah as a modern person, aware of the limitations of the past and the enduring richness of our people’s spiritual genius.

I am a Conservative Jew because I live with the tension between tradition and change, like a musical string pulled in two opposite directions that enables a melodic, stirring note;

I am a Conservative Jew because I believe that people can be God’s vessels, both in hearing a transcendent call and as God’s eyes, ears, hands, and feet to effect healing in God’s creation;

I am a Conservative Jew because I believe that the Torah is God’s sacred revelation, but not God’s last word;

I am a Conservative Jew because the Torah challenges and uplifts us- and in parts, repels us too- calling us toward humbly honoring the past, living more wholly in the present, and trusting that we will encounter additional wisdom ahead;

I am a Conservative Jew because I believe that the mitzvot of the Torah require interpretation and form a system of values that strengthens our bonds to the world around us and evokes the best in us;

I am a Conservative Jews because the Torah testifies to an enduring, expansive, evolving Awareness, beckoning us into relationship, “You shall be holy for I the Lord am Holy.”

May this Shavuot lead us further up the mountain of learning toward God’s presence and mystery. And may we embrace the Divine gift of Torah with curiosity, commitment, and creativity.