28 January 2011
23 Shevat 5771
This week’s Limud Clali (community learning) was a classic Gann Academy moment, the kind of learning experience upon which the school was founded and one that highlighted our Jewish educational mission and vision. Earlier this year we learned that the Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll), used by our traditional egalitarian minyan, needed to be repaired, a process which involves hiring a professional sofer (trained scribal artist who writes sacred texts). This seems simple enough. However, in today’s Jewish world, the standards of who may write or fix a Sefer Torah, as well as what makes a Sefer Torah kosher, vary according to different Jewish movements and even different opinions within each movement. How should Gann decide which standards to follow and how to make this decision for our community?
Rabbi David Jaffe captured the heart of the dilemma and the essence of pluralism in his framing of the program. Initially, he suggested, this was about who should fix this scroll. But this is really a question about Torah in a pluralistic Jewish community. Whose Torah is it? Perhaps, each sub-community at Gann can make decisions for its own Sefer Torah in an effort to maximize people’s freedom to live according to their own principles and beliefs. However, this would limit the extent to which this Torah (literally and metaphorically) can be shared by the whole community. If we are committed to every Sefer Torah being universal or shared so any member of the Gann community will feel comfortable reading from it, then we risk alienating members of our community with a decision that asks them to compromise their core values and beliefs. And how, in a diverse Jewish community, do we conclude what that Torah should look like and whose rules we should follow?
While the adults in the school – teachers, rabbis, myself – certainly represent a wide range of perspectives on this issue and are capable of making this decision, we see this question, however technical it may seem, not simply as an issue to be resolved, but rather as an opportunity for communal conversation. This is another way for our students and faculty to learn together about their own and each other’s beliefs and commitments and about what it means to be part of a diverse Jewish community. Wednesday’s Limud Clali, therefore, included presentations by four rabbis – Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative – about how their different movements approach these kinds of decisions, about their views on this particular issue (who can write or fix a Sefer Torah?), and about what they feel is at stake in this decision for Gann students who identify with their movement or their values. After the presentation, students and faculty asked the panel questions and shared their views, which was then followed by Advisor Group meetings where students continued to discuss and process the issues raised.
I was impressed by the seriousness with which our students treated this program and by the earnestness with which they asked questions and expressed their opinions about this issue and its implications for our community. What inspired me most was walking around the dining hall after advisor meetings and hearing the debates continue during lunch. As I engaged students about their views on the issue, we challenged each other and learned together. As I listened to what they said and, more importantly, how they expressed themselves, I felt privileged to be part of a school and a community where students and teachers care so much and argue so passionately with deep respect for one another. They understand that this is about something much larger than who will fix a Sefer Torah. And they understand that the implications of this decision will, ultimately, be a reflection of not only what we decide but also how we make the decision.
In his framing of the program, Rabbi Jaffe quoted two midrashim on Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah at Sinai), which we continue to read this week. On the one hand, the rabbis teach us, the Israelites arrived at Sinai “k’ish echad b’lev echad – like one person and of one mind/heart.” Yet, other midrashim comment that, when the Torah was given, it was received by each individual “according to his or her strength and abilities.” Somehow, Rabbi Jaffe explained, we need to be unified in order to deserve to receive Torah from God; yet, the moment we try to understand and live out Torah, it means different things to different people. The struggle between aspiring for unity and honoring our diversity is built into the Jewish People’s relationship with Torah from the very beginning. It is through this holy process that we affirm our values, we learn and evolve together, and, out of our diversity, community is formed.
Rabbi Marc Baker