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My Arranged Marriage—to the Torah

On Shavuot, as Jews commemorate our marriage to God at Sinai, I look back on the commitment I made as a young man

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According to the sages, when God gave the Jewish people the Torah at Sinai—the event we commemorate this week on Shavuot—it was like a marriage. God is likened to a groom who had been seeking a prospective match for himself, and the Torah is a written manifestation, a material representation, of him. “Do you want my Torah?” the Holy One, blessed be he, asked each of the nations and tribes of the world, according to Midrash. “Do you?”

“What is in the Torah?” they are each said to have asked in return. God replied: “Do not steal. Do not covet your neighbor’s wife. Do not murder.” And each group of people the creator of Heaven and Earth approached turned him down, until he came to the Jews, who said, “We will do and we will listen.” At Sinai, God and his people, the Jews, got married, and we’ve been doing and listening—and studying the Torah—ever since.

When I was young I accepted the Torah just as many Jewish boys did, out of a great desire to be loved by my father and to be a member of the tribe. But at the same time, I felt like a young woman going into an arranged marriage: She gets just a glimpse of her groom before the chuppah—enough to decide that she wants to like him—and she tells herself, “I will go through with it,” even though she still isn’t entirely certain. I wanted to love the Torah, and did; we’ve had a good and enduring marriage. But like any marriage, it’s been complicated and not without its moments of doubt.

***

I was 7 when I first learned a passuk mit Rashi innevenik, a verse with the medieval commentator Rashi. I was with my father in a cramped kitchen in a small apartment in the Briarwood section of Queens. It was 1971—Nixon was president—and Dad was eating his favorite dish, smoked whitefish and cream cheese. He opened my bright new chumash that I had gotten in school and read with great enthusiasm the very first words of the Torah: “In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth.” Then he read the very first words of Rashi: Amar rabbi Yitzchak: Rabbi Yitzchak said the Torah should have only have begun with the first mitzvah (is not the Torah God’s letter to the Jews?). Why did the Holy One begin with the story of Creation? Because, Rashi writes: Should the nations of the world cry to the Jewish people, “Listim atem—you are robbers and have no claim to Canaan,” God has preemptively answered: “I am the Lord who created Heaven and Earth and I give the land to whoever I want.”

“The Torah talks to the whole world!” my father said in amazement. “The Ebershter”—a Yiddish word for God—“is in conversation with everyone. You just have to listen and you will hear.”

My instruction in the Torah, of course, was just beginning. I remember long walks, shpaziring with my father along the Grand Central Parkway service road in the early 1970s, Coupe de Villes and Corvettes and other muscle cars hot-rodding down the highway below us. My father would turn to me. “This is how you do the naanuim,” he would say, showing me with his hands how to shake the lulav, “you shake the lulav back and forth, up and down.” He would recite the words from the Mishnah that he knew by heart. He would go into strenuous detail, moilich u’mavie, maaleh u’morid—up and down, back and forth, and shaking, showing me the movements of the lulav. “Do you get it, do you get it?” he would ask me repeatedly.

For him it was urgent that I “get it.” The Torah had to be transmitted to me. He wanted me to get it, so I did. He wanted me to like the Torah, so I did. He wanted me to marry her. So I did. It was, after all, the bride he designated for me. By tradition God, Israel, and the Torah are one. So, marrying the Torah meant, in a sense, marrying God by embracing his Torah, just as the Children of Israel had done.

Like the Jewish people, I was chosen. I said, “I will do and I will listen.” Who wouldn’t? God had spoken directly to us, liberated us from Egypt, given us manna in the wilderness, enveloped us in a heavenly cloud to protect us from storm and heat, shaded us during the day and leading our way at night. (In my mind, my father had done all this for me and more.) How on earth could we not take his Torah?

But then there was this other side—a split within me I could not articulate then and can barely express now. I signed on to the deal, but not quite with a full heart. Truth was, it was a little bit of a forced marriage. It felt to me that my relationship with my father would be cut off if I didn’t marry the one he chose for me. That was something I could not bear. It is not exactly that I would be punished if I disobeyed, but I would be “cut off”—which was, in a sense, the worst punishment.

And so, a competition was set up inside me. There was the Torah and there was me. The Torah said, “You can’t write on Shabbes.” I accepted; I complied. It was no great temptation after all, but I heard it not only as a prohibition, but as a prediction: “You will not write.” It was as if my life had already been spoken for. You will not have a life, except a life of compliance. To counter this, an alternate voice inside me said, “Go write on Shabbes, if only to surprise yourself—it’s your life, don’t just take what’s given to you!” The Torah said not to marry a gentile. I complied, but a voice said, “Marry whomever you please, marry a woman named Kate Wilson or Amanda Harvey—have a surprise life,” as though that were the opposite of a Torah life. My tension from these opposing voices ebbed and flowed over the years. Much of the time I have been able to quiet them, but they’re always there. I was a believer and still am, but I was hungry—hungry for an un-determined life. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, I desperately needed an unreliable code, a code upon which I could not rely.

It was not a union with the Torah that I had achieved, but rather a yoking to the Torah. I had my own thoughts, some heretical (maybe the Torah was written by man and nonbinding, maybe the world was millions of years old, maybe there was no God and we created him in our image), but I wouldn’t hold on to them. The only thoughts that held a permanent seat in my mental parliament were pre-packaged, pre-thought Torah thoughts: dogma and received wisdom. In my marriage to the Torah, my life and my mind were already spoken for—or so I believed.

Sometimes I wondered: How does the Torah feel about me? I was no great shakes as a human being, certainly not as a Torah scholar. I had never done anything to sacrifice myself for the Torah. I was nothing special, and yet I had the audacity to grouse, kvetch, and complain.

Yet in a difficult marriage one does these things. One copes (what’s the alternative?), one grumbles and grouses (it’s your fault), one accepts (it’s my fate), one fantasizes (what would it be like had I not married her/him?). Brooding and self-absorption can become a habit.

I became preoccupied for the longest time with the notion of a “surprise” life, doing something my father and the Torah didn’t expect or condone. This musing developed out of an unnamed feeling, a spirit-ghost that arose in me even as I received my father’s words and the words of the Torah. First it was a noiseless sound, more like a vibration with no voice and no words, and then gradually it became a whisper but it made its presence louder and louder until it became a preoccupation, almost an obsession.

***

Yet even as I fantasized of belonging to another nation and tribe, in truth, I yearned for no one else. I could have left the Torah a thousand times, as the reins of my father naturally loosened as years went on. In my professional circles, in psychoanalysis, many of my closest colleagues gravitated toward Buddhism, and still others found comfort in a nonreligious spirituality, something that is a little more syntonic with psychoanalysis than, say, with a dogmatic Judaism. I did not follow.

So here we are. Still married, but with wide open spaces between us. Aviva Zornberg writes in her masterwork The Particulars of Rapture that the Torah is given as a “plaything” to the world. God asks us to play with the words of the Torah in lieu of a close relationship with him such as one might have with a person. That is to accept distance and loneliness in a relationship with him. Instead, we are invited to play with his words, to seek him out in his verses, his majesty (“In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth”) and his mysticism and mystery (“And the Lord formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. And man became a living soul.”), his laws and morals (“Thou shalt not steal”), and his desire for us (“The Lord set his heart in desire and love upon your fathers and chose their descendants”).

This invitation to play has led me more often than not on any given night of the week—to the bais medrash. But the journey to get there is not easy. Sometimes before I leave the comfort of my office or home I feel split inside like two halves of an old married couple. “The bais medrash again? Surprise me! I dare you to do anything different—to be different.” The other side answers, “The bais medrash is a surprise. Come with me. You will see. It is a good place.” Like husband and wife, these two sides of me bicker and have grievances, but though they may be at opposite sides of the room, they find a way to each other. I arrive at the study hall. I open the Talmud. First a feeling, then a knowing look, a strong memory, followed by a caressing remark, then by an actual caress. I read the words, I think a new thought. I see a new thing. It feels good. One pulls the other. Caresses lead to kisses and grievances recede to the wayside. Here still is a marriage, and here still is love.

***

I was young once. Now I am middle-aged. Yet I am back where I started 40-some years ago. I am studying the Mishnah: How does one shake the lulav—how does one do the naanuim? The words of the Mishnah are as fresh as when my father gave them over to me. Suddenly, I am surprised at the force of it all. An indeterminate arc ignited millennia ago and relived through my father; I am still at it—with more force than I ever had. Perhaps the greatest surprise is that I, like so many others, still work to understand: How does one shake the lulav? What do we do with an egg that was laid on a holiday? As we commemorate our marriage to the Torah on Shavuot, we are doing and we are listening and we are learning still.

***

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My Arranged Marriage—to the Torah

On Shavuot, as Jews commemorate our marriage to God at Sinai, I look back on the commitment I made as a young man