Thursday, November 03, 2005

Toby on Torah

I learned all those Bible stories in Sunday school. This is one of the few things I paid attention to – the stories and the songs. I really know quite a lot about who begat whom and where everything can be found. But never before have I studied the Bible as a historical document. Never have I given any thought to how it came to be the way it is.

I signed up for Toby’s class on The Five Books of Moses not knowing what to expect. I mean how could anyone cover all that ground in 5 90-minute classes?

I even convinced Rebecca (with her Torah-phobia) to come along to the class. I first learned about this strange relationship that Rebecca had with the Torah when she came to the Shabbat morning service that Temple Micah held at the 6th and I Street Synagogue last December. She became panicky as the Torah was paraded around, making sure she wasn’t standing on the aisle. I later learned that this came about because 15 years ago she had purchased her first copy of the Torah and read it straight through in just a week. She was so confused and troubled by some of what she read that she chucked it in the trash can. Her therapist Liza (who was a devout Jew) gasped when Rebecca told her the story. After that Rebecca lit Shabbat candles for a year, but then just took another long break from her Jewishness. So this Torah-guilt culminated in her obvious fear. Over the past year, David and I have drawn Rebecca into the Micah fold on several occasions and she really likes what she sees and feels at Micah. She came to my July Torah-reading and to High Holiday services. David is even teaching her to read Hebrew.

Back to Toby’s class – What became immediately clear was just how much Toby knows. She taught the entire class with no notes, making it serious and funny at the same time. She talked about the idea that chapters 1 - 11 of Genesis were actually written afterwards, sort of as a way of setting the stage for what followed. She mentioned the four suggested authors of the Torah, with the J and E authors coming into play in Genesis. She explained that the obvious duplication of some of the stories with some variation (such as the creation story) was due to these different authors. I keep picturing those early Hebrews sitting around deciding how the story went – “My grandmother always told it like this...” And another would say, “But in my family’s version of this story, it didn’t happen that way at all.” If they couldn’t decide whose grandmother was right, they just put them both in. Then there is this little issue of accent marks that turn “water” into “day” into “sea”. One slip of the pen by a sloppy scribe working on the “original” could make all the difference in the world. Toby covered how the morning prayers were connected to Abraham (because he went out with Isaac in the morning), the mid-day prayers were connected to Isaac for some reason I can’t remember, and the evening prayers were connected to Jacob (because he fought with God at night). The most startling suggestion was that the Golden Calf was actually written back into Exodus in the era of the kings as a warning to those wicked kings. WOW! What a thought. Her parting line concerned the fact that in Genesis it is the gentle souls who come out on top – like Joseph. Of course then David said, “Maybe the Orthodox who study 24x7 are God’s favorites.” The last word came from none other than Rebecca who asked Toby about divine punishment, to which Toby replied, “Come back for Exodus.”

At one point I looked over at Rebecca and could see her mind struggling with something. Torah-phobia doesn’t die easily. Several times during class she admitted to thinking of sneaking out. (But she would have had to wait for me since I was her ride home.) I want to ask her what it was that started the conflict. But by the end of class, she was back on track, ready to come back next week for the Ten Commandments.

After class I sent Toby a message expressing my enthusiasm about the class, but my frustration because of the need to make it a quick survey course without much room for lengthy discussion. She immediately countered with an invitation to join a committee to plan future such classes. Toby is a master at public relations, as well as being a teacher extraordinaire.

Oh, by the way, did I say that Toby is Temple Micah's first second rabbi and that she looks and dresses like a million dollars? A really cool person!


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