Turn it and Turn it:
Text Study as a Practice for Life

Kol Nidre 5779 / 2018
Berkeley Community High Holy Day Services
Rabbi Adina Allen

Rabbi Shimon patach – Rabbi Shimon opened his discourse with a line from Isaiah upon which he would expound. He quoted: I have put My words in your mouth (Is 51:16). He interprets: It is vital for a person to engage in Torah, for with every word of Torah that is innovated in the mouths of humans, a new heaven is created. It was taught: In the hour that a word of Torah is innovated in the mouth of a human being, that word rises up and presents itself before God, and the Holy Blessed One lifts that word and kisses it and crowns it in seventy crowns, engraved and inscribed. … The Holy One, the Ancient of Days, breathes in that word and it pleases God more than anything. On this it is written in Isaiah: As the new heavens and the new earth that I make endure before Me (Is. 66:22). Notice that it is not written “I made” in the past tense, but rather “I make,” in the present. The world is continually made and remade through innovated words of Torah (Zohar 1:4b).

What delight – God’s, ours, Torah’s – in being innovated and renewed. In not being locked into one set iteration or interpretation, but rather to have space breathed in between the lines, the lines blown open to the possibility of what else they might become, how else they might be understood. It is visceral and expansive and deeply pleasurable – God kissing and crowning and breathing in these new words of Torah – to make space for what else might be and to allow it to become.

The creators of the Zohar were engaged in the improvisational interpretive process, one that is both playful and serious, where ideas are both deeply held and joyfully allowed to evolve. A page of Talmud shows the building blocks of this process. A statement, something from the Mishnah – one of the earliest rabbinic texts – sits in the center of the page, perhaps bolded. The Mishnah is what we have inherited, the raw material that has been passed down. On all sides of this statement are pages upon pages of discussion about what that ancient piece of mishnaic means. Punctuating the back and forth are phrases like minah ley – meaning, from where do they derive that? Hechi damey – how is that to be understood? Elah – but/rather, and chazaka – this is the default assumption to be challenged. On the inside margin of the page is the great sage Rashi’s commentary, helping us to follow the discussion, and, on the outside margin is the commentary of Tosafot, Rashi’s grandsons, the next generation adding their understanding.

The pages are alive with multiple perspectives and different voices – the words of the mishnah, though written long ago, are in a continual process of change and transformation as they are innovated in their mouths – in our mouths. Each generation produces new commentary, the delight in the exploration of text and truth continues in our own day. An inherited idea is taken, piece by piece, and examined, argued over and elucidated. What was, becomes the seed for the next flowering.

Throughout our tradition, text study has been a way for rabbis and scholars to remain engaged with multiple perspectives. So important was this ability, in fact, that to serve on the court, in rabbinic times, one had to prove adeptness at seeing things from many angles. As we learn in Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 17a, No one may be seated as member of the court until they show that they can m’taher hasheretz – prove the purity of an impure animal – in 150 ways. One was not eligible to adjudicate legal issues until – not only could they find a way to see something seemingly black and white as rainbow colored, but until they could make this argument in 150 different ways.

The same approach is taught to students in the beit midrash, the house of Jewish study. Midrash is derived from the Hebrew root meaning to seek or inquire. The goal in the learning process is not to come back with the “one right answer” – that illusory trophy. Rather, it is to explore how creatively, from how many angles, you and your study partner can interpret a particular line of text and how much joy can be uncovered.

The process of hevrutah – paired learning, the central practice of traditional Jewish study – is one that affirms myriad possibilities and waters the soil of human relationship. In this process of going back and forth over text we offer potential interpretations and allow for understandings very different from our own. We get to pilot our thoughts, try on new ideas and savor the surprise of an unexpected insight from our learning partner.

For generations this has been the work of the Jewish elite – rabbis, scholars, judges. Today, this task of seeing and re-seeing is the task of all of us, to take this from the page and into our lives. This method of learning, of approaching what’s in front of us without a foregone conclusion is a practice for life. Let us take this approach, so ingrained in the ethos of the traditional text learning, beyond the study house walls and into the wider world; beyond how we look at text and into how we understand ourselves, each other, and what’s possible. Hafoch bah v’hafoch bah d’kula bah, the Mishnah teaches. Turn it and turn it for everything is in it. We contain multitudes.

Each of us is more than what we’ve done. We become heavy with identities – our job title, our role in our family, how good or bad we think we are – and yet none of these things is us, none define who or what we are. We go through life with these certainties, “I’m not good at that,” “my relationship with my mother is this.” Some categorization is there to help us and keep us safe. But in other places where it is fruitful for us to play, what may we discover? This is an invitation to improvisation in life. Can we allow ourselves the unfettered freedom to play – with how we view others in our lives? With how we see the world? To continually be in a state of curiosity and ask, even in the times in which we feel most sure, the question: what else could this be?

Our rich learning tradition offers us a powerful tool for those moments when we feel most resistant, when we are defensive or overly certain. When we feel a strong emotional response we know that there is more we need to know. We may not be able to come up with 150 ways to look at the situation or issue, but maybe we can come up with one more way? We may not feel comfortable discussing and debating the issue with a range of people, but perhaps we can find a single chevrutah partner who will help to open our mind to a new way of seeing things.

The ancient rabbis spoke of Torah as black fire on white fire. The black fire is the printed letters, the white fire the space between and around them. Both fires are for us to read and interpret. Rami Shapiro teaches that, “like actual fire, the letters and the spaces between them are alive, dancing, active, and impossible to pin down.” The letters dancing on the scroll are the story of what’s been written so far. A story which may from afar seem fixed but which, upon each new encounter, shifts and changes in meaning. We get to shift and change the perspective we bring to one another’s stories and to the ways in which we interpret our own. And the majority of the Torah, in fact, is not the letters at all, but is the blank, white parchment, spaciousness, possibility.

In Likkutei Mohoran, Rebbe Nachman teaches that the world was formed through the creation of an empty space in which new creation could occur. God contracted light to the sides and an empty space was left in which the world came into being. May this Yom Kippur be a day of new beginnings in which we gently invite what has been – the ways we’ve understood ourselves, the ways we’ve been in relationship, the patterns we’ve established, the interpretation of our lives we’ve carried with us until now – to move aside, and allow for a vast spaciousness of possibility to emerge. As Rabbi Shimon taught, the world is continually being made and remade through our playful improvisation. As did our sages, let us delight in this notion and open ourselves to what it might mean in our lives.