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Our children need, as we do, the cultural package into which Judaism places our deepest values: the stories, poetry, holidays, music, art, rituals, prayers and texts that inspire us, train us and challenge us to right living. When our decisions are shaped by Jewish study, they become part of that package, and they can serve a new generation.

We also study because Jews value thinking.

A Selection of Educational Resources - Rabbi Sacks

Ours is a tradition of people who think, question and explore. We need to train ourselves to have open, flexible minds that truly listen to and learn from opinions other than our own. If undertaken in the proper spirit, text study offers such training. It is an opportunity for learning and growth. Open dialogue is among our best tools for truthful, good decision making. Text study engages more voices in our decision-making dialogue.

Weekly Torah Portion: Lech Lecha

It allows us to challenge our own assumptions and to learn from the perspective of countless generations of Jews who came before us. Torah study is revelatory dialogue. The act of dialogue is holy; it reveals the divine.

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Regardless of whether we agree with the Torah or with a particular commentary, this conversation is a revelatory one. It is a conversation to which we bring our own experiences and understanding, and through which we open ourselves to being changed by the understanding and experiences of others, including the understandings of our texts. The process helps us to reveal truth and perceive the divine.

This structure allows us to analyze complications, resist temptations and explore the deeper questions of meaning. This Jewish civilizational structure influences both our conscious and our subconscious selves, and it can point our actions in the right direction. It is both training for open, thoughtful dialogue and the practice of it.

Aiming for the benefits listed above as goals of text study suggests several things about how we should study. Most important, if our study is to be a thoughtful, revelatory dialogue, we must listen to texts with open minds. While we can be aware of the time-bound limitations of a text and the values with which we approach it, we must be truly willing to listen to the text. We may be critical, but we must not be dismissive, or we lose all the benefit the text offers us. We should recall our shared humanity with its authors. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes of the quality and impor- tance of dialogue: 1.

A genuine encounter with a human other can be a prelude to an encounter with the Divine Other. The disciplines required are the same: to be open, to listen as well as speak, to be capable of empathy and humility, to honour the other by an act of focused attention. Nor is this a minor matter.

Gateways to Torah

Real dialogue with the text implies openness to change on both sides. From our side, we need to be open to the possibility of reconsidering and sometimes changing our understandings or practices based on our interactions with the texts. Conversely, when we make decisions without allowing for the possibility of the text influencing our ideas and actions, we are left with a decision that is partly prejudged. It is based on contemporary prejudice. Of course, if the study stage of VBDM is not done with care, people will simply bring with them their American individualist perspectives, patiently wait until the study step of VBDM is over, and assert their American values.

That can derail the educational phase and empty the process of its Jewish content. When that occurs, the purpose of VBDM is circumvented. Barbara Hirsh points out in the same volume that this requirement of truly learning involving openness to change applies both to the Jewish texts and to the other inputs in the VBDM process, including a study of relevant science:. Without training that explores how to get input from Jewish tradition and from social science as a part of the process, the results will not be better than voting in what amounts to a popularity contest among conflicting views.

Openness to learning from the text is partly a matter of attitude. But there are also techniques that will help us learn from our texts, which might seem to be at an unbridgeable distance from our current position. Is it possible to translate or revalue the text into our terms?

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If the text presupposes a God who is highly anthropomorphic, we should ask what the text would say to us if we supposed the God in the text were what we believe God to be. Were they reacting to their anxiety over the conflict between their understanding of their own ideal selves and their actual lives? We can understand the texts as helping us deal with such realities or with similar conflicts.

We might also maintain the relevance of ancient texts by allowing ourselves to accept parts of the text while not accepting their pronouncements completely. Indeed, values-based decision making is one way of maintaining the claim on us of some parts of texts and responding positively to them when we are unable to affirm other particulars that are tied to an earlier set of scientific, social-scientific and theological understandings. We seek to accept a value core of the text. But we might give the text a new interpretation based on our own experience and insight.

We might change its significance. One of the benefits we seek from text study in our decision making is an awareness of the complexity and salient features of the issues about which we are deciding. To gain that awareness, we must include in our study diverse texts that approach the issue in different ways. Taking seriously the variety of Jewish teachings on a subject helps us to reach a well-considered decision, one that reflects the nuances of the issue. Text study may also suggest Jewish outcomes that would not otherwise have occurred to the group making a decision.

This can avoid the unnecessary invention of new solutions when inherited ones are as good or better. If we wish Jewish texts to help us analyze the salient features of the situations about which we are deciding, it is often useful to include texts from the Talmud or the responsa literature 3 dealing with case analysis.

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I will give suggestions about where to find such texts in a separate section below. Sometimes we will be surprised to find that there is none, or we will be enlightened by understanding the nature of the difference. In my congregation these sorts of questions were very helpful in analyzing our approach to the role of non-Jewish members of our community in Jewish ritual. For example, once we had concluded that there was very clear textual and ethical support for rabbinic officiation at the funeral of a non-Jew, we wondered what, if anything, distinguished that case from rabbinic officiation at the marriage of a non-Jew with a Jew.

We wish our text study to help us align our decisions with both the particular values and approaches relevant to our specific issues and the deeper general values that we want to shape all our decisions. We want our text study to help place our decisions in a holy context. Therefore, in addition to the very practical texts from Talmud, responsa and elsewhere, we should include more lofty texts on our topic that clarify their place in the search for a godly life.

Deuteronomy However, care should be taken in applying these generic value texts to ensure that they do not obscure approaches particular to the issue under consideration. We want our text study to help us situate our eventual decisions in the context of Jewish community. What are the current practices of klal Yisrael the whole of the Jewish people? Are there denominational statements, responsa or other publications related to this issue? Another important way to create a Jewish communal context for our decisions is to use the texts to learn the Jewish way of talking about the issue at hand and to express our decisions in that language.

While this Jewish naming of issues, values and solutions is important, it should not be taken as the core of the study part of VBDM or the Reconstructionist Torah process. There is a common practice of text study that unfortunately limits the usefulness of the study. While such very general value language helps to connect our decision with the Jewish community and helps to remind us of our deep core values, it rarely helps us to challenge our own assumptions. It does little to help us rise above the limitations of our situation in our particular time and experience or to root us in Jewish teaching around the issue at hand.

Such recourse to generic values, which makes it easy to remain unchallenged and unchanged, undermines the VBDM process. The following is from an article I wrote with the Temple Bnai Israel ritual committee about our search for a Shabbat practice for our community, specifically for an understanding of what it is we cease from on Shabbat:.