Our stories and traditions are powerful, whether or not they qualify as historical facts. There are 70 faces of Torah, multiple truths that coexist.
The following is taken from the sermon Rabbi Ariana Katz gave on the occasion of her installation.
Hinenu, I am grateful for you. I am grateful for the joy that pulsates out of this room, the laughter that erupts Erev Shavuot when we’re pitching classes to each other at 10 p.m., or when you turn one of my sermons into a collaborative homiletical experience. I am grateful for the Torah that flows from you, in Torah study or on my porch or between hauling boxes of High Holy Day prayerbooks. I am moved by how you practice care work in caring for our space, and showing up for one another (and for my family!). I am inspired by your strength to mobilize in the face of fear, when we encounter interpersonal struggle and when we imagine, and respond to, political and environmental violence. These early years have felt like decades. Imagine what more we will learn, what ease we can find, and what truths we will uncover together. B’ezrat HaShem, with all the help we can get.
I want to share with you a teaching that has been fundamental to my life and my rabbinate. Asher Tzvi Hersh Ginsburg, aka Ahad HaAm (“One of the People”), was a Hebrew essayist and foremost pre-state Zionist thinker, known as the father of cultural Zionism. He wrote on many issues related to myth making, as well as modern Hebrew language and secular Jewish civilization in Israel/Palestine.
He wrote an essay on Moses in 1904 that included the following:
And so it is when learned scholars burrow in the dust of ancient books and manuscripts, in order to raise the great men of history from the grave in their true shapes; believing the while that they are sacrificing their eyesight for the sake of “historical truth.”
It is borne in on me that these scholars have a tendency to overestimate the value of their discoveries and will not appreciate the simple fact that not every archaeological truth is also an historical truth.
Historical truth is that, and that alone, which reveals the forces that go to mold the social life of mankind. Every man who leaves a perceptible mark on that life, though he may be a purely imaginary figure, is a real historical force; his existence is an historical truth.
See, it does not matter if Moses really walked this earth. If he truly crossed the Red Sea or even stood on a molehill giving some new rules to his four friends. We have constructed civilizations based on the fact that he lived, made it through a split sea, brought down Torah from Sinai. And more importantly, we have constructed myth and archetype; we have derived deep personal meaning from the leadership, humility and passion of Moshe Rabbeinu, “Moshe our Teacher.”
We must recognize today that there is a reality in which Moses is just a very, very good story—a story told around campfires of hungry people needing heroes to hold on to, who were inspired by the idea that we might actually be able to talk to G!d, that the powerful nation of Egypt could be outsmarted by a group of wily Israelites. There is no actual archeological evidence to prove our Exodus.
We must recognize today that there is a reality in which Moses was real—the Moses who saw the back of G!d, fought for and often against his own yelling people, watched the sea part before his open arms, freed his people from bondage, took direct action against a slave driver, found safety as he floated down the river. Achad HaAm wants us to understand all that is true, regardless of whether it is fact.
You are real because you know yourself to be real.
Many things can be true at once. Many things can be true, even if they are forgotten. Myth can be created like cotton candy whirling in a sticky machine—thin fibers of the ineffable catching on one another until it is something you can see, fluffy and pink and so real.
Stories are true because they have become true in our lives.
There is no objective truth; we live in a world of myths we choose to put stock in. The scientists here know better than I that science is really just a set of really good guesses strung together that make facts. So, too, is tradition. So, too, is Torah.
Acknowledging many truths at one time is both Jewishly familiar and fundamental for our collective survival. To acknowledge many realities is to mark that even in these moments of joy, heat and peace, there are revolutions rising and being quashed around the world, concentration camps at our borders.
Becoming aware that our operating myths—the myths we take for granted and base our thinking on—might diverge is how we teach each other, move the other (especially when their myths are harmful). Understanding our operating myths and beliefs allows us to soften towards operating myths we don’t share, to uncover hard truths of harm and accountability, and make repairs. Admitting that many things can be true all at once is how we win, you see. I have to believe and act, for example, as if environmental collapse is imminent, happening, worsening. The choices I make with my life and the way I spend my time must come from this core understanding. And I have to believe and act as if the solutions are here, implementable, and I am a fundamental part of them. Knowing many realities might be true is how we win.
The text chosen for the front of our beautiful Torah cover, designed by Annie Sommer Kaufman with our community’s input, comes from Bereishit, Genesis, 1:2:
וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃
The earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep; the breath of the Divine hovered over the surface of the water.
The image of the Divine hovering over the surface of the waters—not breaking the surface, but imperceptibly close—is my hope for our congregation. Many Truths coming close to this world, inspiring our choices.
The midrashic text Bamidbar Rabbah explains that there are shivim panim leTorah: 70 faces of Torah, 70 ways to explain Torah. This is multiplicity and variation in the ways we might come to interpret or know text and the Divine. This is many truths being able to be found in any one sacred text. Perhaps that underlines your fear of eisegesis—that we are reading into the text only what we want to find is true. Or perhaps it is underlining that our subjective experiences, just like our neighbor’s, are holy. What do you lose—what are you losing right now—if a RIGHT WAY is taken away?
Water is multifaceted. It can take on an infinite number of shapes, each of which is holy. So, too, is Torah. This beautiful text from the midrash Song of Songs Rabbah explains all the ways that Torah and water are the same, including:
Just as the water has many voices, so, too, does Torah have many voices.
Just as water originates in tiny drops and accumulates into mighty streams and rivers, so the Torah is acquired word by word today, verse by verse tomorrow.
Just as water is not pleasing to a person who is not thirsty, so, too, Torah not appreciated unless a person [has struggled with it enough to be] tired from it.
Just as a scholar is not embarrassed to ask a student, “pass me some water,” a scholar is not embarrassed to learn from a student a chapter, a verse, a word or even a letter.
We inherit a multi-vocal, multi-agenda’d canon. Together, we bring all our life experiences, all our family and cultural traditions, all our values and biases and dreams, and we weave together a collective myth. As we act on our collective myth, it becomes true.
Beckoning Us Forward
What is beckoning us forward, Hinenu? What do the years ahead hold, and what will they ask of us? What are the facts of this lifetime, and what are our ancestral myths that help us understand it?
Hinenu has been gestating and growing for years now, and I’ve been a part of it since 2016. Now that we have finished our first year, that I am installed as your rabbi, our Torah is dressed, and we have a full and clear image of our values, what do we do with it? We are no longer becoming, though we are maturing. We can no longer rest on the joy of even having made it this far. We must be propelled forward by that joy.
What lies ahead? The years ahead will be full of great blessing, joy, beauty and art. The years ahead may be full of unexpected suffering. Sickness, death, challenges and attacks on what we know to be most true.
What beckons us forward? That this community should be a site of healing. A place for people to name their alienation from the Jewish world for being too left. Too multifaceted. That we should be a site of healing on the journey for those bearing hurt from religious community. A place for healing created by and for all of us multifaith families, all of us trans and queer people, all of us Jews of color, all of us people with disabilities.
What beckons us forward? That this community should be a site of resistance. Resistance to the violence of gentrification and displacement, to homelessness and hunger. To xenophobia and the horrors of militarized borders and detention, to Islamophobia. To able-ism, to transphobia and the horrors white supremacy. That our resistance begins with words, but ends with creative, collaborative, dynamic action.
What beckons us forward? A collective responsibility to care for this holy makom, this holy place, to tend gently to this growing root system, to ease into a reality in which we are here—and we are not going anywhere—and to build on that foundation.
What is beckoning us forward? A yearning to be together, to make something out of this lifetime.
What is beckoning us forward? A world in which we are all truly in our excellence. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if G!d hears our prayers to make the rain fall, or Esther really did save us from disaster, or Moses walked this earth. We are building civilization together, here, with one of many histories, believing it did. May our myths guide us. May we be so blessed to know ourselves as real, reflected in the faces of our community around us. Kein yehi ratzon (may it be so).