West Hartford rabbi shares the modern-day wisdom of Torah stories
By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – The number 40 has deep significance in Jewish tradition. Noah endured 40 days of rain; Moses spent his first 40 years in the court of Pharaoh and the next 40 years leading the Jews from Egypt to Canaan; along the way, he spent 40 days with God on Mount Sinai. The Talmud teaches that at age 40, a person transitions from one level of wisdom to the next.
For Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, 40 represents two milestones: the anniversary of his ordination, and the number of years it’s taken to shape his first book. December will see the publication of his life’s work, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives.
The rabbi emeritus at Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in West Hartford and former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism spoke with the Ledger about how the book came about.
Q: What inspired you to take on the subject of Torah stories?
A: I began to think about it when I was just ordained, in 1974. I took a job as the first rabbi of Temple Isaiah, a very small congregation in the new city of Columbia, Md. that was just starting. The Baltimore Board of Rabbis invited me to teach their area-wide introductory course to Judaism, sponsored by the rabbis of Washington, D.C. and Greater Baltimore.
While researching teaching materials, I found many good resources on Jewish history, holy days and festivals, customs and ceremonies. This was before the publication of the Plaut Torah commentary, the first-ever non-Orthodox modern commentary on the Torah. So, it was difficult to find something that communicated in clear prose the essential message of the Torah.
For me, that message is not, “Did this really happen?” or “Is this how it happened?” but rather, “What can we find in these stories, as Jews wanting to live meaningful lives?” Materials addressing this question were missing.
During a sabbatical in 1982, I started to write a book that would explore this question. Then we moved to Nashville, where I was senior rabbi of Congregation Ohabai Shalom. I began studying at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School, the first rabbi who had ever done so. They said, “Do whatever you want and when you’ve taken enough courses and written your dissertation, we’ll consider that you’ve completed the requirements.”
Most Doctor of Ministry programs are focused on working with congregations or pastoral care. I wanted to take as many courses in Hebrew Bible, as per my role as rabbi and for teaching Torah. Together with my background from Hebrew Union College and as a student in Israel for a year with Jewish teachers, I was now getting the perspective of outstanding Christian scholars. I felt that I had a lot of good cross-pollination and exposure to a lot of knowledge that many rabbis don’t have access to. For my dissertation, I explicated the message in the Torah from Creation to Mount Sinai. That was the first draft of the book.
Ever since then, when I was invited to lecture or teach, I would use parts of the book, often rewriting it for a particular class or audience. In 1997, I came to Beth Israel in West Hartford and have taught at the University of Saint Joseph and the Hartford Seminary, as well as Beth Israel’s annual Institute for Christian Clergy. Along the way, I was always asking for feedback and critiques. The material seemed to be very well-received so I got the idea to prepare a popular book, not necessarily for rabbis or ministers, but for average, intelligent people – not religious fundamentalists, but those who at the same time do not dismiss the stories in the Bible as silly little fairytales. After all, there must be some reason this book has been translated more than any other book and sold more than any other book in history. It must be making a difference in people’s lives.
A: The process was similar to that of the Bible authors who put the final version of the Torah together. If you’re coming from an Orthodox perspective – that God dictated the Torah to Moses – most non-Orthodox Jews or non-Jews say that we have stories collected over time, written by different people, and put together by an editor in the mid-5th century BCE.
I’m doing the same thing as I imagine they did. For example, in Genesis chapters 12 to 25, we have a series of stories about Abraham: he’s called to leave his home, he and Lot quarrel, they split ways, Abraham is called to a covenant with God and told to practice circumcision, he pleads for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, is tested with the binding of Isaac, buys the Cave of Machpelah, and chooses a wife for Isaac.
My guess is that there were many more Abraham traditions that could have been included in the final edition, but that the ones chosen taught things that gave insight into the nature of God and his relationship to human beings, as we Jews understand God.
For my book, it was the same basic thought: which of these stories speak to me in the most meaningful way and have the most impact? Though I give enough background to orient the reader, I’m not retelling all of the stories because the Torah is very accessible to someone who is not familiar with it. I share what that story tells me that helps me to be a better person and let him or her decide if it has the same impact on them.
The style is not consistent throughout: for some stories, like the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel, I want to make a couple of essential points and be done. For others, there are some characters that get more detailed treatment and in-depth study. For example, I found it important in several places to emphasize or debunk the common perspective that women are always unimportant in Bible stories. In one of the chapters, about Moses, without six women heroes, he wouldn’t have gotten to “Let my people go.” These are things I would want my daughter and granddaughters to understand about the Torah.
Q: On the book jacket, you state that the world is becoming more divided between those who take the bible as the literal word of God and those who dismiss the book altogether. To what do you attribute this phenomenon?
A: The rise of religious fundamentalism is happening all over the world. When I was president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, living in Jerusalem, many of my colleagues there told me that they didn’t want to stay because Haredim [“ultra-Orthodox”] had taken over the city and were making it an uncomfortable place for non-Orthodox Jews.
I was present when Rabbi Alexander Schindler was presented with a very prestigious award from the Israeli government for his part in the Camp David talks in 1978. I was sitting in a beautiful amphitheatre on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem and I thought isn’t this wonderful – but if Rabbi Schindler left here to perform a wedding, he would be arrested.
I’ve heard Orthodox Jews in Israel say that Reform and Conservative Jews are more dangerous than the secularists, because at least they believe that the religion they don’t want to practice is Orthodox Judaism.
Fundamentalist churches are the fastest-growing in the U.S., while the biggest growth overall is among those claiming no religion. I see a non-fundamentalist, affirming approach to religion as a positive good and that’s one of the reasons I wrote the book.
I see a sacred middle ground that takes biblical narratives seriously without worrying whether they are historically or scientifically true. In that middle ground, biblical stories reveal lessons that can lead all of us – Jews, Christians, Muslims, and adherents of another faith or of no faith – to richer, more meaningful lives. The “truth” of these stories has nothing to do with, “Did this really happen?” Their truth emerges in the valuable lessons these stories can teach all of us.
Q: How does the book engage a non-believer?
A: My passion for biblical stories has nothing to do with whether they are historically or scientifically true. I love these stories because they are our stories. If we take a good look, we can find ourselves and guidance for our own lives in them.
I include a chapter at the end, “What if I Don’t Believe in God?” As I discuss throughout the book, the Hebrew Bible assumes the existence of God, who wants human beings to establish a just, caring, and compassionate society. Our covenant with God requires us to do everything we can to make the kind of world God wants. But the simple fact is that not everyone believes in such a God, and so I address how the ideals and values of the journey can speak effectively and meaningfully to those people.
For more information on What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives by Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs visit www.rabbifuchs.com.
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