Rabbi Adina Allen, Co-Founder & Creative Director, The Jewish Studio Project, is a spiritual leader, writer and educator who believes in power of creativity to revitalize our lives and transform Jewish tradition. Integrating a lifetime of experience in the expressive arts with her rabbinic training, Adina has taught clergy, educators and lay leaders in hundreds of Jewish communal institutions across the country. She is a recipient of the Covenant Foundation’s 2018 Pomegranate Prize for emerging Jewish Educators and is a fellow of the Open Dor Project for spiritual Jewish entrepreneurs. Adina was ordained in Hebrew College’s pluralistic training program in Boston in 2014 where she was a Wexner Graduate Fellow.
Shavuot is a holiday of radical inclusivity and creativity. On Shavuot, each and every one of us is invited into the ongoing experience of receiving and transmitting Torah. Yet, despite this exciting proposition, Shavuot can be a holiday that is difficult to connect to. Unlike Chanukah or Shabbat, there are no home practices. Unlike Pesach or Tu b’Shevat, there is no ritual meal. Unlike Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, there is no special communal worship. Shavuot does not focus on themes of rededication, liberation or personal salvation. Instead, it is a holiday of revelation, reception and innovation. Shavuot dares each of us to ask: What is Torah? What is Torah to me? How do I receive Torah anew?
What is Torah?
In Jewish tradition we use the word Torah to refer to many things. Torah commonly refers to the five books of Moses, or, more broadly, the twenty-four books of the Tanakh, which also includes the Prophets and the Writings. This is known as Torah sh’bictav, the written Torah. Torah also refers to Talmud, midrash, and all of our rabbinic commentaries. These works are known as Torah sheh b’al peh, the oral Torah. Beyond these codified works, Torah can also refer to the unique insights that we offer - it is a term that includes all of the wisdom we bring forth today. In this way, Torah is both the tradition we’ve inherited from our ancestors and the innovations we weave through these ancient texts, connecting them to our lives, questions and beliefs today. Torah is at once static and dynamic; set for eternity, and always evolving and changing. Accordingly, on Shavuot we both commemorate the revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai - an event from the past - and receive Torah anew, in the present.
A rabbinic commentary on the experience of revelation at Sinai illustrates the beauty of this dichotomy. In the book of Deuteronomy, the final book of the Torah, Moses recounts the experience of revelation on Sinai. As he looks back and retells the story of this moment, Moses says that God’s voice came forth and spoke the words “Kol gadol v’lo yasaf” (Deuteronomy 5:19). Traditionally, this is read as “A great voice spoke and did not continue.” According to this read, the verse means that all of what Torah is was revealed on Mount Sinai and anything that comes after that experience is not “Torah.” Yet, the word yasaf can mean both “didn’t continue” and “did not stop.” Playing on this meaning of the Hebrew root of the word yasaf, other commentators interpret this verse as, “A great voice spoke and did not cease.” According to this interpretation, God’s voice came forth at Sinai and that same voice continues to come forth today. Our tradition not only tolerates both of these interpretations, it holds them together, alongside one another, valuing the truth of both.
What is Torah to Me?
Torah is both something ancient given to our ancestors and something we continue to receive anew today. We are both inheritors - tasked with preserving and transmitting that which has been bequeathed to us - and innovators - tasked with activating our receptivity and creativity to allow new Torah to come to us and through us.
Shavuot teaches us that each and every one of us is needed in this project of inheriting and innovating Torah. A midrash on the experience at Sinai teaches, “Said R. Levi: The Holy One, blessed be God, appeared to the people like a picture, which is visible from all angles. A thousand people may gaze on it and it gazes on all of them… Said R. Yose: In accordance with each and everyone’s personal capacities did the word speak to them...” Here, Torah is compared to a picture that each of us beholds from our own vantage point. We all have a unique angle from which to understand Torah, yet it is only when all of our viewpoints are brought together that the fullness of Torah is seen.
Too often, engagement with Torah is outsourced to scholars or clergy, authorities who have a certain kind of experience with our texts. When we are not encouraged and equipped to bring the fullness of our lives to the text and to let the text speak meaningfully to our lives, Torah can easily be seen as impenetrable, unappealing, or unimportant. In this case, only a small minority reaps the sustenance that Torah can provide, and even fewer of us have the opportunity to nurture the soil that allows Torah to thrive. Yet, this midrash teaches that each and every one of us has a unique capacity to understand, interpret, and innovate words of Torah. It is only when the entirety of our community feasts at the table of Torah that its myriad flavors and textures can be tasted. The greater the diversity of voices that are brought to our texts, the richer our collective understanding becomes.
How Do I Receive Torah Anew?
In this neo-rabbinic time, we are called upon to engage the texts of our tradition through new and creative means in order to bring forth the novel interpretations and relevant insights so deeply needed today. “Torah may contain entire dimensions that are not yet apparent to us,” theologian Rabbi Art Green writes in his book Radical Judaism. “We should strive to remain open to learning on as many levels, and by as many methods, as we are able to. In this way, Torah will become for us, as it was for earlier generations, a way to navigate those mysterious channels of existence.”
To receive Torah anew is to set sail on a creative journey deep into the heart of mystery and to emerge renewed and prepared to tell the tale. Each of us - simply by being human - is endowed with the creative capacity to embark on this revelatory journey. Torah teaches us that we are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine. The Holy One is the ultimate Creator, and each of us contains sparks of this divine creative power and potential. Creativity is imbued in us from the very beginning and is a foundational aspect of what it means to be human. It is an essential pathway to connection with the Divine.
New words of Torah emerge when we engage in creative process. We use whatever means we have at our disposal—paintbrush, pen, voice, instrument, the body—to explore the mystery and unearth new insights. As we follow the flow of imagination, memory, intuition, and emotion we activate our many senses and open ourselves up to receiving information on multiple levels at once. We may be surprised, terrified, delighted, or amused by what we find when we journey into the unknown. But that is precisely the vital connection between Torah and the creative process. Both require the courage to encounter, and then to express, that which we find off the beaten path, in the wilderness of our own hearts.
In every era, we have been called on to be both inheritors and innovators, bringing our lives into conversation with tradition, continually yielding something new. Shavuot reminds us that all of us are needed in order to catalyze the ideas most essential in our time. In this neo-rabbinic era, we are called upon to democratize Torah and creativity. As we open up this process to more of our community through new and creative means, we will be able to receive the interpretations and insights most needed today. In so doing, we will breathe new life into our tradition just as it enlivens and sustains us.