Breathing Together Words that Aim toward Wisdom

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Breathing Together Words that Aim toward Wisdom

By Arthur Waskow

The deepest origins of the word "Torah" in Hebrew seem to be in the vocabulary of archery — just as "chet," usually translated "sin," means "missing the mark."

"Torah" means not the arrow, or the archer, or the bull's eye, but the process of aiming the arrow. By extension, it means aiming toward wisdom.

When we gather to learn Torah, we are breathing together words that aim toward wisdom — some of them first breathed 3,000 years ago; some of them just this moment breathed into the room.

So let us begin by looking 'round the circle at each breathing face: each face a Face of God, each breath part of the Breath of Life, a share of Torah. and let us glance, if we can, at those green faces of God, the graasses and the trees, atht breathe out what we breathe inm, and breathe in what we breathe out.

And let us remember the teaching of Akiba, spoken when a small group of the Rabbis were hiding in an attic from the Roman army — for Rome had forbidden both the study and doing of Torah, on pain of death. The Rabbis were debating: Which is greater study or action? For which should we risk our lives?

Finally, Akiba said: "Study is greater, if it leads to action."

So let us remember that what we learn here we learn for the sake of living, connecting. Learning is a mitzvah among the mitzvot, a way of connecting along with other ways of connecting. Let us not become addicted to the study alone, as those rabbis did who found Torah so erotically entrancing that they forgot to go home to make love to their wives, forgot to give tzedakah, forgot to pray three times a day.

Precisely because they found themselves so entranced, they created the blessing that said it was one mitzvah to learn Torah. So we begin:

"Blessed are you, Yahh, our God, Breath / Living Spirit of the World, who breathes into us the wisdom to know that we becoime holy by connecting with each other and with all of life, and that one way of making holy connection is breathing together words that aim toward wisdom."

When I have led study groups on the Chumash (the "Five Books") or part of them, I have used the Everett Fox translation of the Chumash ever since it started coming out in pieces, in 1973 or thereabouts. I have also begun using his translation of Samuel, "Give Us a King." (Both published by Schocken. Presumably, more of the Tanakh is on the way.)

As my mention of the Samuel books hints, I would encourage their study. The gamey flavors of the tales of Samuel, Saul, & David are amazing — nothing like 'em. In the study groups I've led, people are amazed, fascinated, disgusted, delighted — moved, excited.

Because Fox, drawing on the Buber/Rosenzweig translation into German, aims to reproduce the rhythms, word-plays, etc of the Hebrew, it can draw us much closer to the Biblical mind-set.

I almost never begin with a "dvar torah" other than the words of the text itself. I do choose what passage and how much we will read — going around the room with each person reading two or three verses, to reinforce the sense that we are all in this together. If people interrupt with questions or assertions, I often — but not always — treat these as ways into the learning, rather than as disruptions of it.

Once we have completed the passage, if not before, I simply ask what feelings and thoughts it has aroused. Then I weave the discussion from what emerges.

When our text is to be the Song of Songs, I usually make one major change in the pattern: I co-read it aloud, usually but not necessarily with a woman, usually with Phyllis Berman, using Marcia Falk's innovation of different type faces to indicate the male and female and "chorus" voices in the poems.

I think two translations of the Song done in our generation are excellent.

One is by Marcia Falk, and in the right edition it comes with her detailed scholarly analysis of why she translated as she did. The other is by Chana & Ariel Bloch.

After co-reading the text, we invite responses directly from the heart and minds of the participants. Almost always, after some discussion of the erotic power of the song and of the kind of spirituality it encourages in the participants, and where they find "God" in the Song, the participants on their own then begin to raise questions on everything —

from the issue of the origins of the text to the issue of the decision of the Rabbis to include Shir HaShirim in what we call the "canon," to the issue of the emergence of the allegorical approach to the text, etc etc.

If they don't, we weave these issues into the discussion.

With Shir HaShirim as with all of the Tanakh, the question we pose as the crucial one is what role this plays in our own lives. For us, the original meaning/s of these texts is/are important in enriching and illuminating their meaning (or lack of it) for us today.

I realize this may seem contradictory to the practice of using the Fox as-if-it-were-Hebrew translation I mentioned above. If we're after the meaning to people now, why not use an idiomatic English like the new JPS?

Basically because I think the (quasi-)original text speaks with more power to our lives than idiomatic English. It digs deeper into all our levels of intellect and emotion to hear the breathing patterns, the puns, the intensification — yes, INTENSIFICATION! — by repetition — that are the ground-work of the Bible.

Then why not begin with the footnote apparatuses that have grown up about these texts, so as to "understand" them first in their social and literary contexts? Because I want people to hear them first with as much immediacy, direct power, as possible. The writers/editors wanted them to be directly experienced, and part of "understanding" them is to do that.

Then we bring in the social/literary context. And here Fox's notes, as well as those in the annotated 5-volume JPS edition of the Chumash, are very useful.

If the other — the socio-anthropo-literary analysis — is well brought in, then it too can become a stimulus to examining, "What do we learn about our own lives from this text?"

For example, suppose we see the Torah (esp. Chumash) text thru the lens of a collision between the new mono-crop imperial agriculture of Babylonia and the older nomadic hunting/herding patterns of the Western Semites.

As the Western Semites struggled with the spiritual meaning of that collision and what it meant to their societies, to the earth, etc — what they did can help us address what it might mean in our own lives to face the collision of our previous cultures with the gigantic transformations of Modernity.

In this way, we may well begin to experience the METHOD of the Tanakh as a teaching for our time, even in regard to those parts where the CONTENT is not.

I do want to emphasize that although it is useful to have someone available who can bring this kind of one-step-back historical knowledge to the text, it is NOT necessary in order to get a rich learning from the text.

Open-minded, curious grown-ups, exploring it with a full sense of their own empowermnent to bring in their own experience — a sibling conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian history, the poor in big cities today, internal doubt, depression, ecstasy — all can inform & be informed by the Tanakh.

My book Godwrestling — Round 2 is, among other things, a woven record of just such discussions in the Fabrangen (Washington DC), one of the early havurot , and later in other communities. And in the "Words of Torah" section of the Shalom center's Website are some similar thoughts as well: Shalom Ctr Website

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