When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)
JNS.org – Rabbi Gordon Tucker spent the first 20 years of his career teaching at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the next 20 years as the rabbi of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y. I confess that when I heard about the order of those events, I thought that Tucker’s move from academia to the pulpit was strange.
Firstly, I could not imagine anyone filling the place of my friend, Arnold Turetsky, who was such a talented preacher at Temple Israel. When I heard that the synagogue had chosen Tucker to be his successor, I thought of Wolfe Kelman’s quip that, “Every congregation wants the opposite of whoever they have, unless the man dies. Then they want him.”
Tucker seemed the antithesis of Turetsky in every way, both good and bad, and I could not imagine the congregation adjusting to him. Turetsky spoke to the heart; Tucker speaks to the mind. Turetsky was a storyteller; Tucker is a philosopher. But the congregation didadjust, and it has turned out to be a marvelous match for both the rabbi and the community.
The other reason I thought it was strange for this academic to transition to the pulpit was that people usually switch fields when they are bitter or jaded, and I knew that Tucker was a bright star of the JTS faculty, brimming with fresh ideas, and by no means bored or cynical about the institution.
Now, after reading Tucker’s recently published book, “Torah for Its Intended Purpose,” I think I understand why he left the academic world and entered synagogue life. Tucker is a Jew who treasures the Torah—but not simply as a collection of books to be studied grammatically or historically. He believes that the Torah is “Torat Hayim,” a living Torah that needs to speak to the spiritual questions of our time and listen to the pain of the people of our time.
Tucker’s book is a collection of the essays and sermons that he has written over the last 25 years. There is plenty of scholarship and erudition in these pages. But more importantly, there is the hand of a gentle teacher, leading his people to appreciate Torah, and at the same time challenging Torah to relate to the search for truth and meaning in the lives that his people are engaged in. This is a book in which Torah teaches life, but in which life also teaches Torah.
Tucker served for many years on the Conservative movement-affiliated Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee of Jewish Law and Standards. He was often classified as a leftist or dismissed as someone who was only looking to make the law easier and more comfortable. But this book makes clear that Tucker’s position was more complex than that. He makes the case that when the law is difficult to obey, and hard to justify, it is not enough to say, “What can I do? The law is what it is and who am I to change it?” According to Tucker, one must see the law in terms of its goals and its premises. One must see the law in terms of the Agada—the world of ideas and values that coexists with the law. And one must sometimes give priority to the will of God, as closely as we can discover it, which transcends even the law. To affirm that the will of God outweighs the authority of the law is dangerous, for how do you know when you have gone too far? At the same time, however, to claim that the will of God is found only within the law is just as dangerous. One way runs the risk of chaos. The other runs the risk of atrophy.
This is not only a book of philosophy or jurisprudence. There is a sermon within the book’s collection about Tucker’s visit to Ghana, where he witnessed the horrible and sub-human cells in which Ghanaians were held until they were sold into slavery. That sermon must have made Tucker’s audience shiver, and also must have made them think about our responsibilities when we wear clothing that is made by slave labor, or the times when we eat tomatoes that are harvested by workers who are paid below minimum wages.
Tucker’s essays insist that Conservative Judaism, if it is to be taken seriously, needs to deal with more than trivial things—more than whether or not men and women can sit together at prayer services, or whether or not we can eat swordfish. Conservative Judaism needs to be a moral force that deals with the issues of our time, and even challenge tradition, in the name of a higher cause. The closing pages of Tucker’s teshuvah (Jewish legal analysis) on the normalization of gays and lesbians in the Jewish community comes to a crescendo with the stirring declaration that the issue is not about the rights of the LGBT community, but about the moral power of the Agada, which declares that human dignity and compassion are values that the law must reckon with if it seeks to be compatible with the will of God.
There is so much more in this book than the topics I have touched on. There is a challenge to Avery Cardinal Dulles’s declaration that only believers can earn salvation in Christianity. There is a fascinating explanation of why the biblical Jacob cared so much—almost obsessively—for his sons Yosef and Benjamin, and for Yosef’s children. And there are essays on the Shabbat and High Holy Day prayers that will surprise many readers who think that they already know what those prayers mean. In all, there is a wealth of guidance in this book for Jews who are seeking it.