A rabbi on the global coronavirus pandemic, the holiday of Shavuot, the sacred cycle of the Jewish calendar and a core (at least one) truth.
By Carin M. Smilk
(May 28, 2020 / Jewish News Syndicate)
Rabbi Jonathan Kligler wears a number of different hats. First and foremost, he has led the Woodstock Jewish Congregation in Upstate New York since 1988, a fact that melds well with his being a musician and recording artist. He is also an author, having written Hineni: Essays and Torah Commentaries from Twenty-Five Years on the Bimah (2013) and now Turn It and Turn It, for Everything Is in It, which was published in January and also focuses on the weekly Torah portion.
An affable, easy-going, yet serious writer and person, he dedicated his words to his late mother, Deborah Kligler Krasnow, whose wisdom graces the pages of his latest work.
Lecturer and best-selling author Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has said “whether analyzing a biblical text or a comment of Rashi or a talmudic meditation on a biblical verse, Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, a superb teacher, makes it clear again, again and yet again why Torah study makes a person deeper in every sense: more intellectually accomplished, more empathetic, and, in the final analysis, not just a smarter person, but—and this is what really counts—a finer person.”
Kligler, 64, who was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, lives in Woodstock, N.Y. (yes, that Woodstock) with his wife, Ellen Jahoda, a visual artist. Because of coronavirus shutdowns, their young adult daughters, Timna and Nomi, are back home for the time being, which Kligler considers an unexpected blessing during these difficult times.
Q: Shavuot is one of the least celebrated Jewish holidays in America, and yet it is the most central by the very means of its definition: The Israelites received the Torah from God, via Moses, at Mount Sinai. How is the holiday seen from the viewpoint of a Jewish educator, and what can be done to encourage its observance?
A: In my experience as a congregational rabbi, one of the most fruitful ways to get people more engaged in Jewish observance is to teach them about the cycle of Jewish sacred time. This includes both the seven-day cycle of Shabbat and the annual cycle of the Jewish calendar. By following the Jewish calendar, we simultaneously walk through the seasons of nature, Jewish history and our own path of spiritual growth.
I explain that if we view the Jewish holidays as “bubbles” in time, then we experience them as isolated events. But if we walk the entire Jewish calendar, then we can experience the intrinsic and essential connection—for example, of Passover and Shavuot.
By counting the Omer, we travel the intended journey from Zeman Heruteinu, “the Season of Our Liberation” (one of the names of Passover) to Zeman Matan Torateinu, “the Season of Receiving the Torah” (one of the names of Shavuot). We discover the purpose of our liberation. If we journey through “Jewish time,” Shavuot is no longer the forgotten festival, but becomes rather the culmination of Passover, as it was intended to be.
Rabbi Jonathan Kligler
Q: Why a Torah commentary, as so many exist on the market? What was the need or reason you chose to compile another deconstruction of the weekly Torah portions?
A: After more than 30 years of teaching Torah, I had a strong desire to “harvest” some of the insights from my teaching and share them in a finished form. As I have matured, I have come to understand myself not as some unique thinker, but as a Jew who is humbly making my contribution to our ancient, yet still completely vibrant, tradition. I wasn’t thinking in terms of marketing, but rather in terms of how I might offer a meaningful contemporary voice that brings the tradition of Torah commentary to today’s audience.
Q: Yours is an extremely readable version of the portion commentary. What was your target audience, and how did you approach the explanations?
A: I wanted this volume to be accessible to the newcomer to Torah study, including the non-Jew, but also to offer a level of depth that would engage experienced students. I also hope my colleagues find these commentaries useful as a resource for their own teaching. I tried to offer sufficient background information so that the newcomer would not feel lost, without sacrificing a sophisticated reading.
I also wanted to highlight the Reconstructionist understanding of Judaism as an ever-evolving tradition. I think this approach enables us to engage in intellectually serious and critical yet simultaneously respectful explorations of our ancient tradition. It also allows us to suggest new interpretations without having to justify and apologize for our contemporary viewpoints.
Q: What do you want readers to take away from the work?
A: The choice of title was quite intentional: Turn It and Turn It, for Everything Is in It. On an intellectual level, I want readers to understand that there are countless ways to read the Torah, and that it is this very quality of the Jewish approach to the text that unlocks its deeper and deeper meanings. Therefore, I vary my commentaries to illustrate this variety—some being historical, some being spiritual, some being literary and linguistic, etc.
On a personal and spiritual level, I am hoping that readers are inspired by the teachings in my book, and that they understand that the Torah is most alive when we read it as a source of insight for our own lives.
Q: What is your favorite Torah portion and why?
A: That is an impossible question!
I would choose Behar (Leviticus, Chapter 25), which we read just a couple of weeks ago. In it, God reminds us that we do not own the earth, and therefore we do not own it nor can we sell it: “The earth is mine, and you are but residents upon it” (Leviticus 25:23). It is as though our agrarian ancestors are calling out to us across the ages, trying to wake us from our delusions of owning and controlling the earth. In my opinion, this may be the most important truth that the Torah can teach us right now. (Also, it was my older daughter’s bat mitzvah portion.)
Q: This book was published at the beginning of the year before the coronavirus was deemed a global pandemic. How does the Torah and its commentaries speak to this situation, to the world, to religion? How is it more relevant in these times?
A: I intentionally wrote this book so as not to be tied to specific current events, even if certain current events may have prompted some of the teachings. I firmly believe that spiritual teachings hold truths that can be applied to every life situation, and that Judaism is still with us because it contains those truths. My task as a teacher of Torah is to find a way to articulate those truths in the idiom of my time, just as Jewish teachers have done for thousands of years. As readers imbibe those truths, it is my hope that they will gain inner strength and stability to face life’s storms and not be toppled over, like the prophet Jeremiah’s tree planted by the water, whose roots grow deep.
One core Jewish truth that I would highlight during this time of the coronavirus pandemic is the unmovable Jewish understanding that we are all in this together. Judaism has always taught that we are responsible for one another, and this truth can strengthen us to sacrifice some individual pleasures and conveniences in service of the collective good.