Sometimes there are three of us, sometimes a half dozen or so. We stay busy delving into the mysteries of the Torah, led by our guide in search of “tomatoes”.
On this weekly journey, Rabbi Pamela Gottfried – brilliant, witty and always fun – helps us dig our way through the weekly parashah, ignoring the greens that spill across the pages of the holy text, looking for at least one ripe tomato, a nugget of absolute truth hidden in Judaism’s spiritual salad.
It’s actually in the digging that one of the core beliefs of Judaism can be found. Other religions ask their faithful to spend much time and effort focusing on things cosmic and divine. Jews, at least the Conservative movement I follow, lets God pretty much take care of God, suggesting instead that the faithful attempt to lead really good lives – help the poor, the sick, those in need – and spend just as much time as possible in study.
This effort to understand the Torah can be traced back at least 2,000 years to a famous story found in the Talmud about Rabbi Hillel. Apparently a pagan approached the sage and told him he would be willing to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach him the whole of the Torah in the time he could stand on one foot.
Hillel replied, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary.” If the line sounds familiar, that’s probably because the concept has its roots in a wide range of world cultures and in its most familiar form – Therefore all things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them – is commonly known as the Golden Rule and attributed to that other famous rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. It all becomes even clearer when we update the rule to modern English: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!
But I digress. What is often lost in the translation of Rabbi Hillel’s charge is the final line. After saying that most of the Torah is simply commentary, he then tells his pagan questioner to “Go and study it (the Torah).”
And that’s what generations of Jews have been doing for centuries, digging deeply into the moral and ethical teachings that some believe were written by the hand of God. Of course, there are many who believe the divine words of the Torah is the collective wisdom of our ancient ancestors, men and women attempting to create a people and nation from scratch.
Today the work and study continue, for us here in the Land of Cotton at classes offered by local shuls, held at synagogues, private homes, conference rooms in offices buildings and retail shops in shopping centers.
Rabbi Gottfried’s class is both sponsored and held in the offices of a smart physician, a mensch who knows how to heal the body and is pretty certain, I think, that Torah is all about healing the spirit. So once a week we gather, schmooze a bit about life and snack on the tasty goodies provided by pharmaceutical companies hoping to grab a bit of the doctor’s business.
Eventually we get around to the heavy lifting, pushing aside the leafy greens filling the week’s parashah, looking hard for one really ripe tomato, a bit of spiritual truth that connects us with our ancient traditions and beliefs.
SPIRITUAL QUEST: Jews in funny hats and side curls have been studying Torah (photo above) for centuries, exploring the text closely to unearth the hidden secrets found in the ancient words of God. Today we wear jeans and feast on fruit and cheesecake while studying. It’s a different time and different vibe, but the words of Hillel still rest quietly above our study hall.