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  • Sacred Stories: History as Torah

    Posted on April 24th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    Septima Collis courtesy of National Museum American Jewish History

    The study of Jewish history  is the study of Torah.

    For decades I struggled with the theological and textual core of Judaism and so I took refuge in the study of Jewish history. I assumed that this form of Jewish study would allow me to engage while avoiding the pesky textual and theological questions that troubled me so. I was of course mistaken.

    In delving into the lives of women and men from the 19th century, I read their letters and diaries, wedding invitations, accounts of birthday celebrations. These were the stuff of daily life, sometimes seemingly inconsequential but more often poignant and powerful. Quite unexpectedly, I came to see in history a way to work my way back into the world of rabbinic text. These lives that I was studying, Jewish to the core, were their own form of commentary. As I began to read them as a dialogue with the theological and textual issues that concerned me, new avenues of understanding unfolded. Each Jewish life individually and also collectively gave me insight that helped me unpack complexities and renew a connection to Torah.


    Yet too often there is a chasm that divides the study of Jewish history and the study of Torah. The former is meant of course to be a study in fact while the latter one of spirit, a significant difference that does challenge us when bringing them together for the purpose of making meaning.


    But the Sacred Stories project, a joint collaboration between CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders program and the National Museum of American Jewish History, is showing how bridging that chasm enriches us all. Sacred Stories is a weekly Torah commentary that engages the core artifacts of the American Jewish historical experience. Each week a rabbi connects an element of the Torah portion with a particular artifact found in the museum. Working with the museum professionals to edit the pieces ahead of publication, I have been amazed at how drawing connections between items as mundane as report cards or muffin tins can shift the way I understand a familiar text. I have been equally astonished by the way a piece of biblical text can shift the way I see sometime as familiar as the Statue of Liberty or the Liberty Bell.


    In many ways the project is an experiment. I know of no other such historical Torah commentary. It is a collaboration that is pushing expectations and established norms by bringing together the history of the Jewish experience with the text of the Jewish experience. And yet anyone who has ever sat with someone in a dark moment and invoked the experiences of the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt, or delivered a sermon that draws from the parsha to illuminate a contemporary struggle knows that the living experience of the Jews is never apart from Torah. And all that separates our studied attention to here and now from the study of history is the passage of time.


    Jumping from ancient textual past to the present bypasses and disregards the value and potential wisdom of thousands of years of lived Jewish experiences. The Sacred Stories historical Torah commentary shows us the value and potential of taking the opportunity to see the study of Jewish history as Torah.


    Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, the editor of this blog, is currently working with Clal and the National Museum of American Jewish History on the Sacred Stories Torah commentary.



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