Torah's Intent

May 11, 2013
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove

Parashat B’midbar, pre-Shavuot

You may be familiar with one of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, “The Bedroom.” I remember as a college student putting it up on my dorm room wall with adhesive poster putty, a momentary expression of my individuality – until I discovered that pretty much everyone else on my hall had done the same. Something about the composition – the sparsely furnished bedroom, the blue walls, the desk, the chair – spoke to the austere existence of student life. Having lived with the poster for a few years, I also remember how excited I was finally to see the real thing some years later on a trip to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. 

So for me, and perhaps for you, last week’s article on the painting in the New York Times caught my attention. According to recent findings, it would seem that Van Gogh’s color palette wasn’t what we thought it was. Using an electron microscope and X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, scientists have discovered that, among other differences, the walls we have always thought to be blue were actually violet when Van Gogh first painted them. It seems the paint pigments of the era were not stable, and with the passage of time the color has changed substantially from its original. For art historians, this news has resulted in a dramatic revision not only of this one painting, but of our understanding of Van Gogh’s artistry, influences and subsequent influence on his craft. (NYTimes, 4/30/2013).

So here is a thought experiment. My whole life, at least from the time I first encountered the painting, I understood it to look one way; now, as of last week, I have been informed that that the original looked otherwise. So here is my question: Which painting is the actual painting? The painting I knew or the painting as it was actually intended? Which has more authority, the original, or the artwork as it has been received and understood over time? The article in the Times reports that beginning this fall, next to the original the museum will hang a digital reconstruction of what the painting looked like when Van Gogh first painted it. If it were possible for experts to restore the painting to how it looked as the paint dried, should we do so? Or is it possible that more important than what the artist wanted is the reception of the piece of art by us, the viewing audience of subsequent generations.

This question is one we ask of any cultural artifact produced in a time or place not our own – and sometimes even in our own. Do we know what Robert Frost was actually thinking when he wrote of “the road less traveled”? Should Frost’s intent influence how we read the poem? I recently saw the movie Searching for Sugarman, a documentary about the Mexican-American musician Rodriguez, whose music, totally unbeknownst to him, became anthems to the South African anti-Apartheid movement. Which is more important, what Rodriquez actually meant when he wrote the songs, or what the songs came to mean to the social movement they inspired? The question of original intent applies not just to art or poetry or music, but to some of the most pressing questions of the day. Think about the current debates on gun control. What was the original intent of the drafters of the Second Amendment? Was it to establish a well-regulated militia akin to the National Guard or to secure the right of an individual to bear arms? A more fundamental question applies to the act of pinpointing the original intent at all. Whatever it may have been, should it now determine policy for us today? One could, and many would, argue that times and context change. We do not live in the time of the Bill of Rights, or Frost or Van Gogh. Who cares what they were thinking? All that matters is what we are thinking, and what we want – today!

This question is not just about cultural artifacts, or the interpretation of American statutes, but today – on the cusp of the festival of Shavuot – about Torah itself. In just a few days’ time we will celebrate the time when the Torah, our people’s founding document, was received, when Moses and the children of Israel stood at the base of Mount Sinai to hear the revelation of God’s will – our laws, our narrative, our sacred scripture – our Torah. As a people, we have nothing more sacred than Torah. Embedded in it is the intent not just of any poet, artist or founding father, but of God. The stakes in this one are a bit higher. So what is more important: the Torah as God meant when God gave it, or the Torah as it has come to be understood by successive generations?

In order to answer this question, I need to tell you another story, the story of something called the Conservative Movement. Once upon a time … Jews had a very different notion of the Torah that came from Sinai. We always knew, of course, that the Rabbis interpreted the Torah away from its original meaning. After all, nowhere in the Torah does it mention little black boxes called tefillin, or list the specific laws of each holiday, or describe the particulars on how to keep kosher, or a whole lot of other things we do as Jews. Judaism has always been a religion where the rabbis interpreted the meaning of the Torah. But back before a party called “Modernity,” we also believed that these interpretations – both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah – were all given at one and the same time, at Mount Sinai. The system was built on the belief that the ongoing word of God was revealed at one moment, was unchanging and was eternally applicable. As the Talmud teaches, “Even what a veteran student will one day set forth before his teacher was already said to Moses at Sinai” (B. Megillah 19b). What was “The” (capital T) original intent? It was a self-authorizing myth. It was whatever the Rabbis said it was, and it was binding on the Jewish people.

Everything was going great, until two guests arrived at the party for whom nobody was prepared. Their names were “Enlightenment” and “Emancipation.” And while they came bearing good will, they brought with them a friend who definitely wasn’t invited and his name was “history.” At first everyone was excited about the new sensibility that history brought along. History brought all sorts of interesting information about the past, telling us what it was like way back when the Torah was given. Like today’s researchers studying the Van Gogh painting, historians used scientific methods that could tell us the actual conditions of the ancient past that gave birth to the things we care about most.

But then something happened that nobody counted on, something that would change the way modern Jews would relate to Torah, right through to this very day. With a historical consciousness present in the room, all of a sudden some Jews started to say, “Uh, you know what? My friend ‘history’ tells me that the Judaism of way-back-when looked different than it does today; it was a reflection of the era in which they lived. And you know what, my friend ‘history’ also tells me that we live in a different time than they did. Which must mean … that it is incumbent upon us to do exactly what has always been done – to reform Judaism in a way that makes sense to us!” And that is exactly what happened. In the early 1800s in Germany, the Reform movement was born. Before this, there had never been different kinds of Jews. But now, because of our other friend, “Emancipation,” Jews could do what they wanted, which – not surprisingly – is what they did. Not everyone agreed with all these new reforms like adding instrumental music and changing the prayer book. And these people yelled out, “No! No! Make that history go away! Tell that history you do not want to play.” We call those people Orthodox, because they believe, at least in theory, that everything still returns back to that single eternally binding moment of Mount Sinai. I am oversimplifying the story a lot, but for the historically minded Reform Jews, what mattered most was what Judaism had become and would become. For the Orthodox Jews, the goal was to return to, or more precisely, never to leave the original moment. A historical consciousness had, in no small way, changed Judaism forever.

Conservative Jews, unlike the Orthodox, understood that, like it or not, history was here to stay. However, unlike Reform Jews, they didn’t see history merely as a tool to shed or abandon the past. You could study the past sympathetically, to find sources of inspiration and meaning. Sure, some things needed to be discarded, but some things should be conserved, thus the name, “Conservative Judaism.” As Martin Buber once explained, history was a dye with which to separate out the variegated elements on the petri dish of the Jewish experience. As for who gets to decide what stays and what goes, that is a task that never ends – we hope. We are always seeking to retrieve the original voice of Mount Sinai, but we are never willing to abandon our commitments to the present.

To close the loop with the image with which I began, for Conservative Jews, for better and for worse, we are committed neither to the original version nor to the version to which we have grown accustomed. We stand somewhere in between, or more precisely, we shuttle back and forth. The original matters, but it is not determinative; we serve the Jews of today, not those of yesteryear. But if, on the other hand, we are able to retrieve the truth of our tradition by studying our history, then we should embrace that opportunity and let that knowledge inform our present practice. And so, not surprisingly, unlike our Reform and Orthodox friends, Conservative Jews are always squirming. We are always wondering what stays and what goes. Ours is a more complicated brand to sell and – not surprisingly, in a world of sound bites – we are having a tough time.

As to the question of who is right and who is wrong – nobody really knows. Here in this synagogue, a Conservative synagogue, we do things one way, but we are humble enough to know that the folks doing it another way have integrity, too. And what is it that God actually wants from us? Well, that is a question that none of us has the answer to, but let me stack the deck by leaving you with a famous story told this time of year.

Once upon a time there was a king who had two sons. He gave each son a measure of flax and a bundle of wheat and told them he would return after a set time to see what they had done with his gifts. One son wove the flax into cloth and and threshed and ground the wheat and combined the flour with other ingredients and baked it into bread. The other son did not do a thing with the gifts of wheat and flax. When the king returned, he asked his two sons to bring him what he had given them. One son set out the cloth with the baked bread, the other brought out the wheat and flax exactly as they had been given. Which one do you think got it right? Which one made the king prouder? So too, the Midrash explains, when God gave the Torah to Israel. Not only it is ours to work with, but that was actually God’s intent all along, that we would take God’s gift and make something of it, something that not even God originally imagined. Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah, is after all, just one day of the year. What we do with that gift, well, that is our job year round, every day, throughout our lives and please God, into the generations to come.