Engaging with Tradition and Modernity

on Monday, 01 March 2010. Posted in Rabbi Marshall's Articles

The ORacle, March 2010 Issue

During the hakafa (meaning circle) of our Torah service, we carry the Torah throughout the congregation proclaiming that the world rests upon Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim, Torah, worship, and acts of loving kindness. What does is mean to have Torah as our foundation? How do we define Torah beyond the Hebrew Bible?

For me, Torah is a way of approaching the world. It begins with the Israelites as an inchoate people making mistakes and learning moral behavior: Cain and Abel learning about sibling relationships, Noah learning about our societal obligations to each other and our earth, the Israelites learning that God is in their midst and within each of them—not a golden idol, and Moses learning that responsible leadership mandates sharing authority.

As Jews, we see ourselves and our weaknesses through the lens of our biblical ancestors and gradually we mature enough to receive a set of laws both to govern our behavior and to guide our worldview—that all of us are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God; that our obligation to the poor, the sick, the grieving, and the stranger are paramount; and that honoring the miracle of creation through Shabbat, through how we nourish ourselves and the blessings we say over food, through the celebrations of new seasons, new harvests, and new life are all ways we imbibe the Eternal’s gift of Torah.

Torah can be divided into Written Law--the scrolls we read from each week, and Oral Law--our Rabbis’ quest to elucidate how to actualize these mitzvot. Study of both is what has kept our people engaged within tradition and modernity. We must claim Torah law, halakha, for ourselves. As a liberal community, we have the obligation to interpret and develop the body of Jewish Law in accordance with the actual conditions and spiritual needs of modern life. Today’s Jewish communities are vastly different from our ancestors. Our changed spiritual and communal needs are valid bases for re-interpretation.

Reform Jews do many things well: advocacy for societal and environmental justice, creative and innovative services, and meaningful summer camp experiences to name a few. But one challenge that remains is serious Torah study and engagement with our texts. Our tradition is infinitely rich and can be approached from a range of perspectives--the mystical to the scientific. All contain a myriad of portals to the Divine.  

In this vein, TempIe Beth Or is offering several opportunities to wrestle with halakha and commentaries in a modern context:


March 7, 10am: “Are You Really a Bad Jew?” How we define ourselves Jewishly

May 23, 10am: Euthanasia: A debate about Jewish law and commentaries in a modern context


Let us continue to make our Torah relevant, to interpret it and make it our own.


Rabbi Jessica Kessler Marshall