How To­rah Study Changed Our Lives

Forward Magazine - - Legal Notices - Laura Ni­cole Diamond is the au­thor of the novel “Shel­ter Us,” and editor of the an­thol­ogy “De­liver Me: True Con­fes­sions of Moth­er­hood.” www.Lau­raNi­coleDi­a­mond. com.

In­ever planned on be­com­ing a To­rah study reg­u­lar, and the last thing I ex­pected was that at­tend­ing To­rah study would lead me to adopt an “un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nor” from Gu­atemala. Yet that’s what hap­pened. While many Amer­i­cans are mov­ing away from re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tion, my in­creased con­nec­tion to Ju­daism through weekly To­rah study has strength­ened my moral com­pass, in­fus­ing it with a sense of the sa­cred — so when I was pre­sented with a re­quest that would dra­mat­i­cally al­ter my fam­ily’s life, I knew what to do.

Let’s back up. I used to think that To­rah Study was for pi­ous Jews who kept two sets of dishes, wore tal­lit and kip­pot 24/ 7, and be­lieved in a God who watched and lis­tened and in­ter­vened. I am none of those. The phrase “To­rah study” it­self con­jured an im­age of a win­dow­less room filled with se­ri­ous men in black hats, mur­mur­ing in un­in­tel­li­gi­ble He­brew. I thought there was no room for mod­ern, fe­male pro­gres­sive me.

So what changed? I didn’t lose a bet or ac­cept a dare. I ran into a friend who was on her way to To­rah study at our syn­a­gogue, a pro­gres­sive Re­con­struc­tion­ist con­gre­ga­tion. “It’s my vi­ta­min,” she gushed. “My fa­vorite hour of the week.” I was stunned. And in­trigued. Maybe I should check this out? Who among us doesn’t crave a mean­ing­ful, spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ence?

The first time, I ad­mit I felt lost, like I had joined a grad­u­ate level seminar mid-se­mes­ter. I wasn’t fa­mil­iar with the char­ac­ters or set­tings, and the plot was down­right head-spin­ning. But my big­gest prob­lem was with God. If I didn’t be­lieve in God, and that To­rah was the lit­eral word of God, then what could I gain from it?

Then our rabbi said some­thing that al­lowed me a way in: She re­ferred to To­rah as “our myth­i­cal history.” This meant I could read To­rah not as a book sub­ti­tled “What To Do and What Not to Do — Or Else,” by God, but as “Our Big, Beau­ti­ful, Messy Book of Hu­man Truths,” by many wise peo­ple. These were sa­cred sto­ries, in­deed, honed over mil­len­nia by bril­liant an­ces­tors, their mean­ing en­gaged and wres­tled with, and ex­panded upon by ev­ery gen­er­a­tion, in­clud­ing my multi- gen­er­a­tional, co-ed group sit­ting in the west side of Los An­ge­les in 2015.

So I went back. Each week the text be­came more un­der­stand­able, as un­packed by our rabbi. Yes, it was in­ter­est­ing to learn about an­cient cul­ture, lan­guage and ge­og­ra­phy, but the big­gest rev­e­la­tion was that an­cient peo­ple strug­gled with the same hu­man con­cerns as I do, and that they had rel­e­vant wis­dom to share. The big se­cret about To­rah study is this: It is not “study­ing.” It is a dy­namic con­ver­sa­tion about what it means to live with mean­ing, pur­pose and com­pas­sion. It is a book club with an ex­pert leader and cu­ri­ous read­ers. Ev­ery week, I feel a key turn­ing, un­lock­ing some emo­tional truth I didn’t know I was miss­ing. A word. Click. A phrase. Click. With my rabbi and com­mu­nity, I ar­rive at deep “aha” mo­ments. This is spir­i­tual boot camp.

Which brings me to my new Gu­atemalan daugh­ter.

One of the most oft- re­peated lessons of To­rah is that we should welcome the stranger. Dozens of times ev­ery year, To­rah ham­mers home the fun­da­men­tal tenet that we are de­fined by our care­tak­ing of the most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple in so­ci­ety.

In the midst of this, I re­ceived the e-mail that changed my fam­ily: An 18-year-old girl whose par­ents had sent her to Amer­ica to pro­tect her from vi­o­lence in Gu­atemala needed a home. Was there any­one out there who could help?

My first thought was about her par­ents, and the heart­break­ing de­ci­sion they had been forced to make in send­ing their daugh­ter away to pro­tect her. Then I thought of the man­date to take care of the stranger. Fi­nally, I thought of the story of Moses’ mother plac­ing him in the treach­er­ous Nile to spare his life, and of the woman who pulled him from the wa­ter. I knew what I needed to do. I did not have to ag­o­nize, re­search or de­bate. I had al­ready had the con­ver­sa­tion with my an­ces­tors and my com­mu­nity, and we had all agreed: We would pull her out of the wa­ter. We would bring her home.

Don’t get me wrong — the de­ci­sion was not with­out anx­i­ety. But my wor­ries were triv­ial com­pared with her sit­u­a­tion, and my weekly prac­tice with To­rah had given me the courage to do what I knew was right.

It doesn’t mat­ter that I can­not state whether I be­lieve in God, or that my imag­i­na­tion is not wide enough to com­pre­hend a Di­vine Un­know­able Force. These are not pre­req­ui­sites for To­rah study, just cu­rios­ity and an open heart. Qui­etly and in­sis­tently, To­rah has bol­stered my sa­cred com­mit­ment to do the right thing. It touches the part of me that yearns for good­ness and ho­li­ness in the world. Although the im­pact of To­rah study on my life is rarely as dra­matic as adding a mem­ber to our fam­ily, its lessons re­ver­ber­ate in sub­tle ways in the daily life of this mod­ern woman try­ing to do her best.

In the midst of this, I re­ceived the email: An 18-yearold girl, whose Gu­atemalan par­ents had sent her to Amer­ica to pro­tect her, needed a home.

ANYA ULINICH

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