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Clergy Column by Rabbi Jeremy Morrison

Four Orientations to Reading Torah in the New Year
November/December 2022
At Simchat Torah (which, this year, was on October 16-17), we began, anew, our annual cycle of reading Torah. In that spirit, I want to share with you four orientations to reading Torah. My rabbinic colleagues and I teach these orientations to our 6th-7th grade students and families; we call them a Toolbox for Reading Torah (downloadable pdf). But they are also the orientations that I, and my colleagues, utilize when teaching Torah to adults in our community. Perhaps these tools might be useful to you, when you read Torah or any of our sacred texts:

Literary Criticism. Take apart the text to discover all of its pieces and elements. With our pre-teen and teenage students, we call Literary Criticism “the screwdriver.” When we use this tool, we examine the elements of a text to discover how its words, phrases and structure convey meaning. We look for patterns and repeated words, and compare a story to other stories like it.
Contextualization. Every text has a context. This is the hardest of the four orientations to utilize when making meaning from an ancient text because we need to explore the world that created such a story or text. Who wrote the text? When was the text written and where? What were the political, economic and social forces that influenced the writer(s)? These are some of the challenging questions that comprise this orientation. In seeking answers to these questions, we  push ourselves beyond the text. Our questions and answers enable us to compare the world that produced a text with the world in which we live and are reading the texts that have been passed down to us.
Parshanut/Commentary. Cut through the texts with the Rabbis to make something new. As my colleagues and I tell our students, we aren’t the first Jews to read the Torah. The stories and laws of the Torah have been read and interpreted by many, many generations of readers. What can we learn from them and from the comments of readers like Rashi and Ibn Ezra, and from midrashim, rabbinic explanations of gaps in biblical texts?
Personalization. This is the fourth and most important orientation to reading Torah. We call this tool “The Glue.” How does an ancient text that wasn’t written about or by us, become ours? How is it relevant to our lives today? How does a text inform my actions? Challenge or develop my moral compass? Or shape my identity? The goal of personalization, of discovering personal meaning within our sacred texts, is the most important goal of our reading Torah in our religious community. It is what distinguishes our reading of Torah, from how one might read the books of the Bible at a university or in a literature course.  However, too often, our reading of Torah begins and ends with this orientation; I want to recommend that our personalizing of Torah will be so much more profound if we utilize, first, the other three orientations before we paste the lessons and challenges of a text onto our own lives.

With wishes for the discovery of new meanings in our ancient texts,

Rabbi Jeremy Morrison

Mon, October 2 2023 17 Tishrei 5784