Imagine that the earth was going to be destroyed within five years, and that you were tasked with deciding what literary treasures to preserve? That is the background of the Tanakh that we have today. The Talmud records the bare bones of discussions where scholars fought for the inclusion of those writings that were dear to them, often against ferocious opposition from their colleagues. Amazingly, of all the possible things to include, the famous Rabbi Akiva chose a collection of bawdy wedding songs! What lay behind such an odd choice?
Tonight marks the holiday of Tu B’Av, commonly thought of as Israel’s answer to Valentine’s Day, the holiday of love. Ironically the most famous Torah verse of all occurs in this week’s parashah: the V’Ahavta—the statement of Israel’s obligations to love God “with all your heart, and all your might, and all your soul”. This paragraph stands at the very heart of Jewish liturgy. But what can it mean to “love God”? After all, the Torah reinforces again and again that God is incorporeal and totally above anything we can imagine. How are we to love something we can’t imagine? It turns out, this week’s Torah portion offers us some useful advice on maintaining a lasting relationship.
The recent kerfuffle around Whoopi Goldberg has once again ignited the perennial debate about whether the Jewish people constitute a race. The problem is that such distinctions are modern social constructs, and were invented long after the Jewish people came into being. Jews are not so much a race or a religion, but a civilization—a culture. As a culture, Judaism has its own laws, folk tales, myths, songs, and several similar—but not necessarily identical—religions. We’re a people, and any attempt to fit us into the little boxes designed for and by Western societies is destined to fail.