A wise, inclusive but sometimes over-protective approach to Torah

Listening for God in Torah & Creation, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Hatchette, £30


Rabbi Wittenberg’s kindness and wisdom shine through in this collection of magnificently crafted thoughts on the weekly parashah. Wittenberg draws on rabbinic texts, a wide range of world literature, and his personal reflections as senior rabbi of UK Masorti Judaism.

What a teacher chooses to focus on tells us much about him. Rabbi Wittenberg’s overarching concerns are inclusivity and care.

And so, Abraham’s attempt in Vayera to persuade God not to destroy Sodom becomes a call for us to act like Abraham and speak out in public against injustice. Other lessons teach us to acknowledge the struggle for women’s spirituality (Chayei Sarah), to be respectful of sexual difference (Acharei Mot), to counter racism (Beha’alotecha), and to cherish and safeguard the environment (Shoftim).

Rabbi Wittenberg encourages us to find these values through encounter with the text, appreciating that sometimes the text or its classical interpreters do not say what we would like them to say.

I found myself nodding along with much this, but also find the rabbi’s approach to be overly protective. He often feels the need to apologise for the text or its historical reception. For example, he seems almost embarrassed by God and Abraham’s role in defining Sarah as Abraham’s subordinate and feels terrible about the hurt caused by the biblical prohibition of homosexual intercourse, a hurt which his community publicly acknowledges each year when this section is read out loud from the Torah.

Of course, we want everyone to feel comfortable, but we should also credit people with the toughness and intellectual creativity to find their own way through texts they find disturbing or painful.

I personally find more than just one passage hard to take at face value, but I am not looking for validation. It is the clash of the ancient text against our modern assumptions which gives rise to moral progress. I want the text to challenge me as much as I want to challenge the text.

I am also not persuaded that every progressive idea needs to be given a home within the tradition. Compelling ideas are compelling despite the text, not because of it.

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