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The Torah Process: How Jews Make Decisions

This article is excerpted from The Guide to Jewish Practice, Volume 1. The full Guide may be ordered from the Reconstructionist Press.

While the congregation where I am the rabbi uses a process virtually identical with values-based decision making (VBDM), I prefer to call it a “Reconstructionist Torah process” to make its Jewish content clear. Torah is more than the Five Books of Moses; it is the name Jews give to the process of discovering a godly way of living. Torah is a process involving a constant interplay between thought and action. Jewish texts provide the foundation upon which this process of discovery and action is built. Torah as process involves wrestling with received texts and practices and bequeathing new texts and practices to our descendants. Torah is what constitutes and distinguishes the Jews as a civilizational community. Any decision-making process that claims to be Jewish necessarily involves Torah in this broad sense. Indeed, to call a decision Jewish implies engagement with Jewish text. Over the course of Jewish history since before the Common Era, the Torah process has provided a common thread in all times and places.

Torah has always been a process. In previous generations, that fact was sometimes downplayed in favor of the myth of an unchanging Torah that “Moses received at Sinai and passed on to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders,” and so on. (Mishna Pirkey Avot 1:1) But it was truly a dynamic process that bequeathed to us the Torah in the narrow sense of the Five Books of Moses, the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), the Talmud, the siddur, the poetry of various ages, the midrashic collections, the halakhic codes and the responsa literature, as well as works of philosophy, reform and mysticism.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan and the Reconstructionist movement have made several contributions to the methodology of the Torah process. We acknowledge it as a process that often results in change in Jewish practice. We state clearly that we sometimes are trying to change (or “reconstruct”) Judaism. The Reconstructionist analytical framework, based on the insight that Judaism is a civilization, means that we view Jewish forms of practice and texts as Jewish symbols or vehicles for often universal values and norms. Each civilization is defined by specifics that are unique, and it needs them in order to make abstract values tangible and compelling. The particular group-specific practices and texts enable the group to pass values on to new generations.

Therefore, in order for Jewish civilization to function and provide a framework of meaning and godly living, we need to value the specificity of Jewish forms and traditions, while insisting on change when those forms no longer function to support our values. This methodological contribution of Reconstructionism to the Torah process, a civilizational, functional view of tradition, has been a major driving force in Reconstructionist Jewish life and creativity. Finally, a Reconstructionist Torah process explicitly learns from contemporary, non-Jewish wisdom and values. Examples of such learning include an embrace of democracy and contemporary science.

The Benefits of Jewish Text Study

Many of us would say that the most important thing for a Jew or for anyone is simply to treat others well, to be a mensch. Of what importance, then, is the painstaking process of Torah study? In a famous story found in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), when an impudent Roman asked the sage Hillel to tell him the whole Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel seems to have said that such a telling is possible. He answered, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole Torah.” If we are clear about our values, which perhaps can be summarized by Hillel’s statement of the Golden Rule, and if we are clear about whatever scientific and other input is necessary to understand which actions best put those values into practice, why study? But Hillel goes on to tell the Roman, “The rest is commentary. Go study.” What does he mean? What is “the rest?” What will study add to the Golden Rule if it is “the whole Torah?”

There are several possible answers:

We study Torah (in the broad sense) as part of our decision-making processes because treating others right isn’t always easy. Real-life situations are often complicated, making it unclear which values should shape our actions. A core technique used in rabbinic literature (the Talmud in particular) is an analysis of the salient features that distinguish different situations. Our study can help us deal with the complex nature of our world by alerting us to the salient features in our situation and helping us to analyze cases more carefully and fully. Even when we have concluded what the right action is, our efforts to do the right thing are often hampered by distractions, habit, temptations, accumulated hurts and other factors in both our personal and communal lives. Study can place our decisions in a holy context that can help us maintain the motivation and clarity of purpose we need to follow through with the actions that we have chosen. Study can place our decisions and actions in a communal context, the context of the Jewish community, allowing us to reinforce our resolution with the consciousness that we belong to a community of practice, that we are not alone.

We study because we want our decisions to be consistent with answers to questions of meaning, of life mission, of facing mortality and of ultimate truths: Who are we? Our study will help put our decisions into this deeper context. Torah study is, among other things, a spiritual discipline, a practice to habituate us to the use of the language and the thought patterns of holiness. Like prayer, it accustoms us to looking for ultimate value, for right and wrong and for God or godliness in our lives. We need not believe that everything or even anything in the Torah is God-given, nor do we need to agree with everything we read in order to let Torah study be an exercise in spiritual conditioning.

We study because raising children to treat others right isn’t as simple as doing our best to set a good example. Our children need, as we do, the cultural package into which Judaism places our deepest values: the stories, poetry, holidays, music, art, rituals, prayers and texts that inspire us, train us and challenge us to right living. When our decisions are shaped by Jewish study, they become part of that package, and they can serve a new generation.

We also study because Jews value thinking. Ours is a tradition of people who think, question and explore. We need to train ourselves to have open, flexible minds that truly listen to and learn from opinions other than our own. If undertaken in the proper spirit, text study offers such training. It is an opportunity for learning and growth. Open dialogue is among our best tools for truthful, good decision making. Text study engages more voices in our decision-making dialogue. It allows us to challenge our own assumptions and to learn from the perspective of countless generations of Jews who came before us.

Torah study is revelatory dialogue. The act of dialogue is holy; it reveals the divine. Regardless of whether we agree with the Torah or with a particular commentary, this conversation is a revelatory one. It is a conversation to which we bring our own experiences and understanding, and through which we open ourselves to being changed by the understanding and experiences of others, including the understandings of our texts. The process helps us to reveal truth and perceive the divine.

Thus, from a Reconstructionist point of view, the “rest” that Hillel characterizes as commentary to be studied is the civilizational structure that makes it possible to follow his Golden Rule over the generations. This structure allows us to analyze complications, resist temptations and explore the deeper questions of meaning. It brings us and our decisions into the context of an ongoing community, allowing us to be influenced by the community’s norms, to use the tools of its wisdom, and to inspire ourselves with its stories, history and art. This Jewish civilizational structure influences both our conscious and our subconscious selves, and it can point our actions in the right direction. It is both training for open, thoughtful dialogue and the practice of it.

Qualities of Effective Text Study

Aiming for the benefits listed above as goals of text study suggests several things about how we should study.

Most important, if our study is to be a thoughtful, revelatory dialogue, we must listen to texts with open minds. While we can be aware of the time-bound limitations of a text and the values with which we approach it, we must be truly willing to listen to the text. We may be critical, but we must not be dismissive, or we lose all the benefit the text offers us. We should recall our shared humanity with its authors. As Hayim Nahman Bialik taught in his essay, “Halakha and Aggada,” even when dealing with the legal texts of the halakha, we should strive to perceive the “smell of the fields” inhabited by those who wrote those texts in response to the story of their lives. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes of the quality and impor- tance of dialogue:1

In the course of a discussion about the origin of the after- noon prayer, the Talmud refers to Isaac who “went out to meditate in the field toward evening” and concludes that “meditate” must mean “to pray.” However, the talmudic statement, “en siḥa ela t’fila,” can also mean “conversation is a form of prayer.” That is a startling and powerful idea. A genuine encounter with a human other can be a prelude to an encounter with the Divine Other. The disciplines required are the same: to be open, to listen as well as speak, to be capable of empathy and humility, to honour the other by an act of focused attention. Nor is this a minor matter. The greatest command of all, Shema Yisrael, literally means, “Listen, O Israel.”

What Sacks says of dialogue with a human other applies also to dialogue with a text.

Real dialogue with the text implies openness to change on both sides. From our side, we need to be open to the possibility of reconsidering and sometimes changing our understandings or practices based on our interactions with the texts. Such an openness lessens (though it can’t eliminate) the prejudices that arise from our being shaped by the time and place in which we live. Conversely, when we make decisions without allowing for the possibility of the text influencing our ideas and actions, we are left with a decision that is partly prejudged. It is based on contemporary prejudice. Rabbi David Teutsch, in Volume 1 of Guide to Jewish Practice, specifies:

Of course, if the study stage of VBDM is not done with care, people will simply bring with them their American individualist perspectives, patiently wait until the study step of VBDM is over, and assert their American values. That can derail the educational phase and empty the process of its Jewish content. When that occurs, the purpose of VBDM is circumvented.

Barbara Hirsh points out in the same volume that this requirement of truly learning (involving openness to change) applies both to the Jewish texts and to the other inputs in the VBDM process, including a study of relevant science:

Without training that explores how to get input from Jewish tradition and from social science as a part of the process, the results will not be better than voting in what amounts to a popularity contest among conflicting views.

Openness to learning from the text is partly a matter of attitude. But there are also techniques that will help us learn from our texts, which might seem to be at an unbridgeable distance from our current position. Is it possible to translate or revalue the text into our terms? If the text presupposes a God who is highly anthropomorphic, we should ask what the text would say to us if we supposed the God in the text were what we believe God to be. Or we might ask what aspect of our ancestors’ experience of reality was captured in this text. Can we experience that same reality and learn from our ancestors’ experience? For example, many biblical texts depict God as having what one bat mitzvah student2 described to me as “an anger management problem.” Were the authors reacting to a reality that included random and terrifying dangers? Were they reacting to their anxiety over the conflict between their understanding of their own ideal selves and their actual lives? We can understand the texts as helping us deal with such realities or with similar conflicts. We might also maintain the relevance of ancient texts by allowing ourselves to accept parts of the text while not accepting their pronouncements completely. Indeed, values-based decision making is one way of maintaining the claim on us of some parts of texts and responding positively to them when we are unable to affirm other particulars that are tied to an earlier set of scientific, social-scientific and theological understandings. We seek to accept a value core of the text. Or we commit to addressing the text’s concerns without necessarily addressing them in the way the text did.

To interact with a text in this way, there must also be openness to change from the text’s side, as it were. Obviously, we won’t literally change its words. But we might give the text a new interpretation based on our own experience and insight. We might change its significance. And in true dialogue, we may end up not following the practice recommended (or even “commanded”) by the text.

One of the benefits we seek from text study in our decision making is an awareness of the complexity and salient features of the issues about which we are deciding. To gain that awareness, we must include in our study diverse texts that approach the issue in different ways. Taking seriously the variety of Jewish teachings on a subject helps us to reach a well-considered decision, one that reflects the nuances of the issue. Text study may also suggest Jewish outcomes that would not otherwise have occurred to the group making a decision. This can avoid the unnecessary invention of new solutions when inherited ones are as good or better.

If we wish Jewish texts to help us analyze the salient features of the situations about which we are deciding, it is often useful to include texts from the Talmud or the responsa literature3 dealing with case analysis. (I will give suggestions about where to find such texts in a separate section below.) Even in dealing with non-talmudic texts, it is useful for us to use the Talmud’s style of attention to the distinguishing features of different cases ourselves: If we feel or act one way in situation X but differently in situation Y, what is the difference between the situations? Sometimes we will be surprised to find that there is none, or we will be enlightened by understanding the nature of the difference. In my congregation these sorts of questions were very helpful in analyzing our approach to the role of non-Jewish members of our community in Jewish ritual. For example, once we had concluded that there was very clear textual (and ethical) support for rabbinic officiation at the funeral of a non-Jew, we wondered what, if anything, distinguished that case from rabbinic officiation at the marriage of a non-Jew with a Jew. At my invitation, this led to a Reconstructionist Torah process, in which an analysis of the similarities and differences between the cases of wedding, funeral and bar/bat mitzvah celebration played a useful role.

We wish our text study to help us align our decisions with both the particular values and approaches relevant to our specific issues and the deeper general values that we want to shape all our decisions. We want our text study to help place our decisions in a holy context. Therefore, in addition to the very practical texts from Talmud, responsa and elsewhere, we should include more lofty texts on our topic that clarify their place in the search for a godly life. And we should take the opportunity to remind ourselves of some of our core generic value texts, such as the creation of humanity in the divine image (Genesis 1:27; 5:1–2), the mitzvah of loving one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:18), the commandment to be holy (Leviticus 19:2), and the commandment to pursue justice. (Deuteronomy 16:20) However, care should be taken in applying these generic value texts to ensure that they do not obscure approaches particular to the issue under consideration.

We want our text study to help us situate our eventual decisions in the context of Jewish community. This means we should use the practice called in rabbinic Aramaic “puk ḥaze”—“go out and see” what Jews are doing. What are the current practices of klal Yisrael (the whole of the Jewish people)? Are there denominational statements, responsa or other publications related to this issue?

Another important way to create a Jewish communal context for our decisions is to use the texts to learn the Jewish way of talking about the issue at hand and to express our decisions in that language. While this Jewish naming of issues, values and solutions is important, it should not be taken as the core of the study part of VBDM or the Reconstructionist Torah process. There is a common practice of text study that unfortunately limits the usefulness of the study. It involves assigning value terms from other generic core texts (such as those mentioned above) to the particular text dealing with the issue to be decided without engaging with what the particular text’s concerns really are. Often, quite generic value terms are used, terms such as kedusha/holiness, tzelem Elohim/ human dignity or brit/covenantal community. While such very general value language helps to connect our decision with the Jewish community and helps to remind us of our deep core values, it rarely helps us to challenge our own assumptions. It does little to help us rise above the limitations of our situation in our particular time and experience or to root us in Jewish teaching around the issue at hand. Such recourse to generic values, which makes it easy to remain unchallenged and unchanged, undermines the VBDM process.

An Example: Shabbat Practice

I would like to offer an extended example of one congregation’s wrestling with Jewish text in the way described above. The following is from an article I wrote with the Temple Bnai Israel ritual committee about our search for a Shabbat practice for our community, specifically for an understanding of what it is we cease from on Shabbat:

So we enter into dialogue. We let ourselves be challenged and enlightened by voices from the past as well as by the voices around our table as we meet in committee. We seek a solution that is Jewishly authentic, giving tradition a vote, and that also addresses our own varied approaches, withholding tradition’s veto. Although we studied a wide range of ancient and modern texts4, the core ideas with which we wrestled and out of which we developed our approach to Shab- bat practice can be found in a few classic sources: the two statements of the Ten Commandments, the mishnaic statement of the 39 main categories of forbidden m’lakha (work), and two additional early rabbinic teachings.

Here are excerpts from the two versions of the Shabbat commandment:

Exodus 20:8–11

Remember the Sabbath day to consecrate it… . Do not do any production … for in six days God made the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day… .

Deuteronomy 5:12–15

Be on guard of the Sabbath day to consecrate it… . Do not do any production … for the purpose that your male and female servant might rest as you do. And you shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, but the Eternal your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an out-stretched arm… .

In the version from Exodus, Shabbat is about awe and the acceptance of creation as it is. The version in Deuteronomy, by contrast, emphasizes the social-justice aspect of the day, ensuring rest for workers and asking us to recall our own slavery and release.

Neither of those texts, nor anything else in the Torah, is very clear about the exact nature of the m’lakha (translated above as “production,” and often translated as “work” or “labor”) that is to be prohibited on Shabbat. In the Mishna, the rabbis established the following definition:

Mishna Shabbat 7:2

The chief categories of m’lakha are 40 less one:

one who sows, ploughs, reaps, binds sheaves, thresh- es, winnows, selects, grinds, sifts, kneads, bakes,

shears wool, washes it, beats it, dyes it, spins, weaves, makes two loops, weaves two threads, separates two threads, ties, unties, sews two stitches, tears in order to sew two stitches,

traps a deer, slaughters it, flays it, salts it, cures its hide, scrapes it and cuts it up, one who writes two letters, erases two letters in order to write two letters,

builds, tears down, puts out a fire, kindles a fire, hits with a hammer, transports an object from one domain to another.

The above arrangement of the Mishna makes clear that the “chief categories” themselves can be categorized as all the things involved in baking, sewing and writing a scroll, plus a few other miscellaneous items. The above list is consistent with a number of possible definitions of the core meaning of “m’lakha” The rabbis of the Talmud claimed that the Mishna’s list represented all the types of labor involved in the construction of the Mishkan, the holy dwelling/sanctuary in the desert that the rabbis considered to be a symbolic representation of Creation itself.

Our committee considered several possible definitions of m’lakha based on the above text. These included: creation, production, servitude, the everyday and the technological (as opposed to the natural). Some of these we rejected for not having the clear meaning we thought they had at first. None of the definitions created consensus in the group.

We had come to the “productive impasse” that often appears at some point in our consideration of ritual issues. In this case, it could be described as an impasse between the two versions of the Ten Commandments, between the “don’t create” people and the “rest and enjoy yourself” people. This disagreement is often illustrated by the examples of traditionally prohibited activities, such as knitting, gardening or painting. The Deuteronomy people say, “I enjoy it, so I should do it on Shabbat.” But the Exodus people think such a position ignores too much of the teaching of Shabbat about letting the world be. On the other hand, when the Exodus people say these activities should be avoided on Shabbat, the Deuteronomy people think they are ignoring Isaiah’s teaching that “you should call the Sabbath a delight,” and may even suspect them of having an old-fashioned and nostalgic attachment to halakha (rabbinic Jewish law).

Our solution grew from the following talmudic statement: “Whoever took trouble the day before Shabbat will eat on Shabbat. Whoever didn’t bother the day before Shabbat, what would they eat on Shabbat?” (B. Talmud, Avoda Zara 50a) On weekdays, we prepare for Shabbat; on Shabbat, we don’t prepare for weekdays. According to the talmudic statement, we don’t even prepare for Shabbat on Shabbat, although our committee did not maintain that stricture in our final policy. The following mishna (Shabbat 12.1) also serves as a basis for our solution: “Whoever performs a forbidden act of labor on the Sabbath and [the result of] his act of labor endures is liable.”

Those texts suggested to us a definition of m’lakha as preparation for the future (after Shabbat); the activities to be avoided on Shabbat are those that focus on enduring product as opposed to process. That definition seemed to acknowledge the claims of both the Exodus “don’t-create” people and the Deuteronomy “rest-and-enjoy” people and to challenge each to stretch in the direction of the other.

We have concluded that a definition of m’lakha as the making of a product in preparation for the future authentically reflects our encounter with our source texts, and helps us resolve the contradictions that arose between the texts themselves, as well as the contradictions that arose between the texts and our modern perspectives.

We are excited to share this study and policy with others in our movement because we think it is an interesting and useful piece of Torah, and because we think it illustrates a decision-making process … that is a little different from the way many congregations use values-based decision making (VBDM). Both processes abstract from the particulars of halakha in order to find enduring principles or values. This opens a space for modernization, while remaining true to the source. The Reconstructionist Torah process described here, though, makes no use of generic values, such as tzelem Elohim/human dignity or brit/covenantal community, sometimes drawn from a published list, as many VBDM processes in our movement do. Its principles are specific and grow directly from our dialogue with Jewish texts and practices.

Rabbi David Teutsch, the great teacher of VBDM in our movement, is very clear that the VBDM process isn’t useful or valid if the decision makers aren’t open to being changed and influenced by the confrontation with Jewish tradition and with each other’s experiences and beliefs. We think the recourse [solely] to generic values undermines the process in many of our communities by making it too easy to remain unchallenged and unchanged. By contrast, our committee’s direct confrontation with the traditions of Shabbat led us to wrestle with the very specific issues of rules, delight, creation, technology, servitude, nature, product, process, objectification and more. It challenged and changed all of us.

So what do we actually do when studying a text as part of a VBDM process?

We might usefully start by recapitulating many of the steps in a VBDM process specifically with regard to the text in order to clarify its assumptions and beliefs. What is this text? Who wrote it and why? What were the facts and options in the world from which the text originated? What were the assumed norms that limited the set of actions that the text’s author(s) considered viable? What was the historical, intellectual, religious and cultural context of the text’s author(s)? These questions are not asked in order to distance ourselves from the text or to discount its position, but only in order to understand the text more fully and to better discern what it or its author might be able to tell us in our situation.

Having understood the text’s original context, we engage in a close reading of the text: Does the text have a clear p’shat—plain meaning—or are there multiple ways to understand it? What might we learn from its literary characteristics—internal verbal connections or wordplays, intertextual allusions, seeming or real contradictions, superfluous or missing information and so on? What questions does the text raise for us?

Finally, we can try to discover the text’s relevance to our decision making: We can ask, as described above, whether the text can or should be translated or revalued to help it speak to our time. What issues does this text make us conscious of in our decision? What characteristics of the situation does it consider salient to a decision, or what characteristics do we need to consider in order to make sense of the text? (In the Shabbat example above, for example, we asked what were the characteristics of baking, sewing and writing that made them the core categories of forbidden labor.) What are the values embodied in the text?

At that point we are ready to integrate the results of our text study into our decision-making process.

I have found that text study can be useful in several stages of the VBDM (or Reconstructionist Torah) process: in formulating the question; in clarifying values, beliefs and assumptions; and in determining possible actions. Although there are definite components to a VBDM process and these components should not be skipped, the trajectory of each process will be distinctive, and text study might be relevant at various times in the process. In leading such a decision-making process, I very often start with some basic text study in order to help frame the question. With a well-framed question, it is possible to explore and express Jewish and personal values and norms, to research relevant scientific and social-scientific approaches, and to begin to formulate alternative solutions. As described in the excerpt from our congregation’s Shabbat article above, I very often find that the group will come to an impasse at this point and that another, deeper engagement with the Jewish sources is helpful. This engagement often reveals new, unconsidered alternatives, or brings nuance to our understanding of the relevant values, often creating a space for the discovery of common ground where simplistic initial value positions seem to afford no such ground.

Finding Appropriate Texts

Given the importance and benefits of text study in Jewish decision making, it is unfortunate that it can often be difficult to find appropriate texts, especially in English. A rabbi or other Jewish scholar can, of course, be an important resource in finding and teaching relevant texts. Some of the chapters in this volume will point you to texts rele- vant to the issues discussed. I very often start my search for texts in two places: the Encyclopaedia Judaica (E.J.) and the Reform (or, less often, the Conservative) responsa literature. The Reform responsa are answers given by a panel of Reform rabbis over the last century to questions of Jewish practice. They are written in English and are mostly available both online and in hard copy from the Reform rabbinical association, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). These responsa are a good starting point because they often give a review of the relevant textual history of the issue. (A smaller portion of Conservative responsa is available online from the Ra binical Assembly.) But don’t stop with the E.J. or the responsa; look up citation references whenever possible. Like all texts, the E.J. and the Reform responsa are products of their times and of their authors’ agendas in both their conclusions and their interpretations of older texts, so you’ll want to examine those older texts for yourself if you can. As discussed above, look for other denominational statements about the issue or other descriptions of current or historical practice. It is worth looking for books on the topic you are studying. Even if they come from a different Jewish perspective than your own—say they are Orthodox and you are Reconstructionist—they may provide a useful collection of relevant study-texts and will challenge you to think and learn. Finally, I would encourage exploring the other “texts” of Jewish civilization: literature, music, drama and even art. These too can help suggest and clarify values and solutions, highlight relevant nuances of complex situations, and create a Jewish context for our decisions.


What is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go study.

  • 1. Sacks was the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the [British] Common-wealth. Quoted from the Jewish Dialogue Group’s “Dialogue in the Jewish Tradition.”
  • 2. Hannah Kaplan
  • 3. Responsa a responses by individual rabbis (or sometimes panels of rabbis) to questions of Jewish practice.
  • 4. The modern texts included parts of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath; Rami Shapiro’s Shabbat chapter in his Minyan; a halakhic responsum (t’shuva) by Rabbi Amy Eilberg; and the Reform guide Gates of the Seasons on the Shabbat principles of “menuha (rest), kedusha (holiness) and oneg (delight).” We also learned some of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s teachings about Shabbat.

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