Reflections on Life – With and Without Torah
Tricia Hellman Gibbs, alumna of the 2008 San Francisco Wexner Heritage Program, is the co-founder of the San Francisco Free Clinic, a clinic providing free care to the medically-uninsured. In the fall of 2011, she will begin the Masters program in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
“He (who delights in Torah) is like a tree planted beside streams of water, which yields its fruit in season; its foliage never fades, and whatever it produces thrives.” Psalms 1:2-3.
The mention of “streams of water” in the verse of Psalms quoted above reminds me of the story of Rabbi Akiva, the second-century sage who defied the Roman government by continuing to teach Torah despite the threat of dire punishment. Why would he take such a risk? He explains it to his companion, Pappus B. Judah, by means of this parable: A wily fox is walking along a river. He sees a school of fish, rushing from place to place. “From what are you fleeing?” he asks, and the fish reply: “From the nets cast for us by men!” The fox advises them to come up onto dry ground, where they will be safe. “Are you the one that they call the cleverest of animals?” cry the fish, “You are not clever but foolish! If we are afraid in the element in which we live, how much more in the element in which we would die!” (Berakhot 61b)
From this story, it appears that Torah is like a river. Without it, we Jews are fish out of water. That’s the kind of fish I was for the first 45 years of my life.
The question that eventually led me to Torah plagued me particularly in the years after 9/11: why does religion seem to cause so much trouble in the world? Why do people do horrible things to each other in its name? In spring of 2006, fed up with news programs telling me this and that about the holy texts, how this one was “peaceful,” and that one was “warlike,” I decided to read them and find out for myself, something I had not done before. So I went to Barnes and Noble and bought two books: the “Good News Bible” and the “Quran.”
What I didn’t know when I sat down to read these texts was that this project would soon bypass my do-it-yourself search for “evidence,” shooting light-years past the categorization of “pros” and “cons.”
Why? Because of the river.
As I read my Good News Bible, I heard it, far off, as though penetrating many layers. “Israel,” it murmured, “the Lord, and the Lord alone, is your God.” (Deut. 6:4). Who can say why this verse compelled me to buy a Hebrew Bible? Or to enter the doors of a synagogue and find a teacher? But that is what happened.
Discovering the Torah so late in my life was not without its challenges. Mostly, it left me with a huge thirst for more knowledge. Thankfully, family friends suggested the Wexner Heritage Program, which seemed uniquely geared to a learner precisely such as me. Two years of study, however, just whet my appetite for more, and this led me to another problem: where and what to study next? Become a rabbi? Get a degree in Jewish Studies?
For a number of reasons, most importantly my continued preoccupation with the challenges of religious conflict, I chose to pursue a Masters Degree in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, one of the country’s leading ecumenical and inter-religious institutions. There, I’ll have the enormous opportunity to study with one of my former Wexner Heritage teachers, Deena Aranoff, in an intensive study of the works of the Medieval Jewish rabbi and physician, Moses Maimonides (zt”l).
Why the RaMBaM? Like so many others before me, I’m drawn to the clarity and elegance of his thinking. Also, I suppose that someone like me who comes to religion later in life can be subject to flights of enthusiastic fancy. Maimonides helps keep me grounded with at least one foot on the earth.
Knowledge, rather than faith, is at the center of his religious focus. And as I learned from another of my amazing Wexner teachers, Rabbi Danny Landes, Maimonides began his fourteen volume codification of the entire oral law, the Mishneh Torah, by stating that the first commandment is this: “To know that there is a God.” To know (לידע), rather than to believe, .(ליהאמין)
Though we, as Jewish people, are at home in the river of Torah, it bears remembering that rivers lead to other rivers, and that all waters, in the end, lead to the ocean. If non-Jews also find the life-giving waters of God’s word in their holy texts, they, too, will flow together to meet at that destination. Perhaps this is why, when speaking of the “end of days,” Maimonides used as proof-text Isaiah 11:9, “For the earth shall be full with the knowledge (דעה) of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Guide for the Perplexed, III:11)