My dear Friend;
You ask the tough questions. That is good but it is not easy. So let us begin with PaRDeS, the four levels of understanding. I do this because there is no one simple answer to any question other than: Does G exist. To that the answer is an unequivocal, resounding, full-faithed YES!!! But that is because G is unique. To all other questions there are parts and nuances and areas open for discussion and question. And so let me explain my interpretation of that amazing spiritual orchard, PaRDeS. P=Pshat is the simple contextual meaning of things. Rashi is considered the greatest Pshat commentator. And yet there is a yang to the yin of Pshat. That is what I call the Modern Critical Approach or MCA. MCA demands provable facts and using commonly accepted logic in approaching theories.
You asked, on an objective level what is my “take on Torah coming from G.” I interpret that question to fall within the level of MCA. I would send you to look at some of the Reform Jewish works on the origin of the Torah. They will tell you that it developed over hundreds if not thousands of years. There are stories that were told around the campfire that were blended with other stories and became our diary. Diaries are not meant to be read by others they are meant to be read and reviewed by the author as a means of growing and learning and delving into the self. They are not books of fact, they are books of personal truths. They contain lessons for life, the life of the person who wrote it and any who would be open to the teachings within. But the reader must always use his/her own life as a flint to the diary’s steel. One strikes one against the other to create the sparks of light that enlighten our path. There were laws that were developed by a wandering people, adapted to an agrarian society, hammered out in the time of kings and kingdoms and finally forged in the furnace of destruction and exile. MCA demands that we view Torah in light of all that was going on in the world around us. We look at the facts. As detective Joe Friday would put it: “The facts ma’am, just the facts!”
But if we leave it there, Torah is relegated to the shelf of wonderful books of stories and tales and history and laws of an ancient people. It is the book of struggle and growth of a people who have miraculously survived intact in a world that would have quickly drowned this unique people in assimilation, slaughter or xenophobia.
On the other side of our Yin Yang is the Pshat of tradition. Torah is exactly true, the word of G that cannot be changed. G handed it down to us and that is that. I have a secret for you. I do not know of a single person on the planet who acts on that belief. If you look through the Stone Humash or any other Orthodox copy or Torah, you will notice that they ‘translate’ certain things in a way inconsistent with the simple translation. They interpret as they translate. I do not mean this as a criticism. Quite the contrary, it is crucial to keeping Torah a living document. I only disagree when it comes to the belief that only one group can interpret Torah. This is a dangerous two-sided coin. If only one group is allowed to interpret it leads to tyranny. But the question arises how wide can our interpretation go and still be within the box of Judaism. I admit, my friend that I have my arbitrary answer to that but I am not totally satisfied with it. I am not satisfied with any one answer and this goes to the crux of your question and it has no definitive answer. So let us continue and see where this path will lead us.
We are now ready to confront the next level of the Orchard. R=Remez. Remez means hint. I think that this is a key element. If you believe that G wrote Torah and handed it down to us, then G put Remez hints in Torah for us to examine and for us to use in our growth. Why did G create Hava from Adam’s rib, in Braeshit 2? The commentators tell us that it was to prove that woman should be close to the heart of man. That is a classical Remez. Not so classical is why is there 2 creation stories in Braeshit 1 and 2. There is a different order to creation. Traditionalists have their answer. My own is that it is a reminder that Torah is not meant to be a book of facts and figures and we should not be viewing it that way. Torah does not come to teach us science or math or history or literature. It is there for us to use in our struggle to come to our own truth. Again this concept is fraught with challenges. Some have used Torah to be a proof text for abhorrent purposes. There were Rabbis in the south, before the Civil War, who pointed to Torah to justify slavery. And yet, the misuse Torah does not negate its power. It is simply that power can be used for good or for evil.
The next level in our sacred Orchard is D=Drash. Drash literally means to expound. To me this is the use of the tools. I use Pshat/MCA as my starting tool. Then I hold up my Remez tool as I gently, lovingly explore Torah more deeply. Sitting back with the ideas that flow from the process I discover my drash, my personal point of view. I try it on and live it and play with it in different situations, argue it with my friends and loved ones, all to discover the fit.
Finally I discard some Drash and accept others into my core. And this is the final part of that mystical, marvelous, meaningful Orchard; S=Sod. Sod means secret and mystery. For me Sod is all that which becomes part of my core, my deepest level of living. They become my life path. Some are simple; “Love your neighbor as your self!” Some require more effort. I look at the Ohel Mo’ed as a model for my soul as I wrote in the Torah Tune-Up for Terumah. But they have become part of the essence of who I am and who I am striving to become. Sometimes that is difficult. But I am comforted by the fact that this very challenge is found in the name that G tells Moshe to use to introduce G to the people of Israel on the advent of their great journey of discovery into Sinai. Some translate it as “I am what I am” but more accurately it is “I will be what I will be!”
With that long-winded introduction let me try answering your questions. ‘Objectively’ does Torah come from G.? My answer is yes but not as a Microsoft word document. G inspires and influences but does not direct and command. Therefore Torah comes from G but it is not the literal word of G. That would be my ‘objective’ answer. It does not lessen my faith in G or in the power and beauty and truth of Torah. It does give me permission to be involved in the translation, interpretation and understanding of Torah.
You stated that you found “…probably more truth then from any one place or source…” and I commend you on that. No one place has the market cornered on truth. Never stop looking and exploring. Are there caveats to that statement too? Of course there are. People are always saying think outside the box. That is nonsense. No one thinks outside the box. It is just that some people have a bigger box. Fundamentalists of all stripes have a small box. That is good for them. It is a snug and comfortable fit. As long as they do not try to force others into their box all is good. The Amish are proud keepers of their tradition as are Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist Muslims, Christians etc. My only problem with small boxes is when they are places from which bomb are thrown or laws are made for those not in that particular box.
Others have larger boxes. They are a loose fit and comfortable for many types of people. We meet each other there with little or no discomfort. Disputation and discussion are encouraged and growth and diversity are fostered. And if they accept that within these larger boxes are going to be people who insist on building smaller boxes for their own comfort, all is well in the neighborhood.
Lastly we have those who are always building bigger and bigger boxes. They are the inventors of things and thoughts. They are never satisfied with the size of their box. They expand their minds and our universe. And we get to go along for the ride. Their boxes are sometimes uncomfortable for some of us because they are too large, they seem to lack safety and security. Things explode in them when ideas and inventions go awry. And yet if they are open to different size boxes dwelling within their huge box, then we, who need somewhat smaller boxes, feel warm and comfortable. And we are even are willing to expand our own boxes within theirs.
Yet we all think within the box. I do not for one moment believe that there are many gods. Nor for one moment do I consider the possibility that there is no god. Those ideas I have examined and discarded. They are outside box.
You then asked about some of the rituals of Judaism. And I can only suggest that you learn the ‘Pshat/MCA’ understanding of them while finding your own ‘Drash’ meaning for yourself. Then if it sinks into your soul it becoming part of your Sod it will be yours forever. For me the Mikvah is a place to release my spiritual baggage. After a week of the grind, as it were, it is a joy to go and study with my Rebbe and join him in the Mikvah. I feel that the baggage that I have been carrying, drop away from me. Arguments, and disappointments lose their meaning. All the times that I ‘should on myself’ during the week are allowed to float away. I emerge purified, meaning I have let go, and I am more prepared for that Shabbos space without time.
My approach allows and even demands my active involvement. In this way I am not attacked with the all or nothing view of the small boxed folk. For them if one thing is not exactly the way they believe then nothing is. That is fine for them, but not for me. In Jewish tradition we are taught that there are many meanings, many ways of looking at Torah. I believe that we all have a right to translate Torah into our lives.
As an aside you make a wonderfully Maimonidean comment. “Now I know that there is a level of law in place for the common folk in order to maintain an order and common balance for everyone…” Maimonides said that many of the 613 are for the masses to keep the people in balance and on the right path, and we happy band of philosophers keep them as an example for them. (Please take that as a ‘tongue in cheeky’ type of comment).
Again you ask the tough direct question. How can I accept Shabbos and still drive? My answer is that I would prefer not to drive, but I am not fiscally or physically able to go to the extremes that it would entail for me. Instead I look all the way back through Halacha, from Shulchan Aurech through the Tur, Mishnah Torah, Gemara, Mishnah and Torah. I look for the hints, the reasons for the laws, and the purpose behind them. I don’t believe that Shabbos is one of those laws that are there for us to obey without thought. There are a few (read about the red heifer) but Hilchot Shabbos is not one of them. The purpose of laws of Shabbos is to keep that day different and special and sacred. Therefore I will not involve myself in labor (that is work for pay or pay for work) I will not involve myself in things which have goals that are not holy (taking a walk through a mall though not buying or reading a secular newspaper). But I will drive to Daven and I will drive to be with family and friends for the purpose ‘LiChvod Shabbos’ to honor Shabbat. Now this is definitely NOT the understanding of the Orthodox. If you wish to be Orthodox, then you must consult and Orthodox Rabbi on the laws or consult me with that understanding. I know the Halacha according to the Orthodox, but I am not one of them. I am not part of any movement. Halacha means path and my path is not to be part of a movement. As I am overly fond of saying: “Movements are oxymorons! Once you join a movement, you stop moving!”
You next ask how does one carry his beliefs into the real world. That is a great question because it shows that you realize that you are in a safe space for living an Orthodox life. That is the small box in which you currently reside. If you wish to keep living in that kind of box, there are many communities around the world where you could live comfortably and completely as an Orthodox Jew. But if you wish to live in a bigger box then you have to put some effort into discovering what is your path in that bigger box. It involves study and practice and questions and the ability to look within and make some hard choices. Then you must review those choices and be able to admit that you were wrong about one right about the other and adjust.
But the most important thing that I can tell you is that it is a path without point of conclusion. This path is truly the never-ending story.