It is said that when the Israelites stood at Sinai, Torah was revealed. The written word--well, really the engraved word--carved into two stone tablets. And also the oral Torah, the expansive conversations that surround the written words, which emerged like a whisper from the first silent aleph of Anochi.
But the question arises: which is more important? The written Torah or the Oral Torah? Which carries more weight? And really, which one is "right"? By which I mean, when they contradict, which one takes precedence?
On the one hand, I would argue that the oral Torah is more important, because it is what gives life and meaning to the written word, lest it ossify in time. Torah exists in the transmission of ideas across generations, in conversations, in relationships, in study halls and in our hearts. The oral Torah is a survival strategy.
On the other hand, I would argue that the written Torah is more important, because it is our origin story. It is a shared reference point. We turn and return to it for wisdom and insight. Like the wells our ancestors dug and redug, it is a gathering place. It literally brings us together, to sit and study its words. In this way it is more accessible, because it is concrete.
The tension between the written and the oral Torah doesn't just belong to the Five Books of Moses. It exists in family folklore and urban planning, And it certainly exists at Kol Tzedek.
Not surprisingly, we as a community have some preference for the oral Torah. We are a community that is empowered to define ourselves. For many of us Naomi Segal and Rie Brosco are the keepers of our traditions. They, along with other founding members, transmit the oral Torah of our community nearly every time we gather. Reminding us what has come before us to allow us to arrive at each moment. But there have also been moments when we have wanted to point to the written word and say, this is who we are. And we have been limited by the absence of the written word.
Over the course of the last six months, the Strategic Planning Task Force has taken on the bold task of writing down Kol Tzedek's purpose, vision, and priorities. This process has been its own kind of revelation.
Typically in Jewish tradition, we go from the written Torah and seek to expand its meaning through the oral Torah. But in this process, we have attempted to reverse engineer our origin story. To finally write down that which has been living between us, to make explicit that which has been implicit. It has been a tremendous labor and we all owe tremendous gratitude to Elana Baurer, Tania Isaac, Hillary Blecker, Abby McCartney, John Argaman, Candice Thompson, and our consultants Roz, Dr. Renaya, and Ellen.
We have disagreed with care and conviction. We have clarified the places where there is alignment amidst infinite competing and sometimes contradictory ideas. We have generated ideas, debated over Slack threads that run nearly 70 messages deep. We have worked on countless Google Docs with the thesaurus tab by our side. We have searched for the perfect words, which we now understand to be words that are honest and true. Which has required that we searched our hearts for the truth about who we are and who we can be.
I can only imagine the heavenly hosts pouring over those very first 10 utterances. What allowed them to be sure they were ready for revelation?
What I have learned through this process is that the written word is powerful because it is so clear. It is defining and dividing. It sets boundaries. And the oral tradition is powerful because it is infinite and alive. Everything is possible. Quite literally, nothing is written in stone. In that way it can be massaged and manipulated to meet the moment.
I am so grateful that we have both paradigms of Torah to learn from. We need them both.
And so I am honored to give you a preview of the written Torah that hundreds of KT members have helped to shape over the past six months. You can check out our purpose, vision, and priorities here and our community's values here. We will be studying these together on June 12 at the congregational meeting.
It is said that in the moment that Torah was revealed at Sinai, an angel whispered into the ear of everyone present - which was all of us. It is my hope that as we prepare to receive Torah as a community, that the words we have written down land like a whisper, summoning us forward together.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
You can search Rabbi Ari Lev's blog below:
Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.