I read sacred texts in three ways–all of them satisfying, all of them essential, all of them ways of going deep into my tradition. And, in moments of grace, all of them are ways of feeling God’s presence in the world.
The first is sitting in synagogue on Saturday morning, as the weekly portion of Torah is chanted during the service. There is something about hearing the words sung in that setting that is unlike any other experience of sacred text. I do not leave our century or the four walls that surround me. But I know I stand with Jews around the world who hear the same words that day–and with Jews who have heard these words in one way or another since Torah began to be read aloud. I often leave the congregational reading behind as I dwell on a word that arouses special interest, burrow into a commentary or two, try to figure something out. I know that I can always rejoin the chanting when I’m ready–and that the text will be there next week and the week after for further delving, wrestling, and inspiration.
Jewish tradition has always recommended that sacred texts be read with a hevruta or study partner (from the word haver, meaning friend or colleague), and my personal experience has verified the wisdom of this path. It is not only that you miss less of what is in front of you when a second pair of eyes is focused on the page; the more important point is that Torah wants more of Jews than to be read or appreciated. It wants to be lived. The text wants to enlist partners in the work to which it — speaking for God — calls us. That work is more easily grasped and undertaken when we are not alone. The study itself, when it takes place in pairs (or small groups) proves a vehicle of community — serious connection on a deep level and mutual presence that affirms human dignity — and thus helps imagine the world of just and compassionate community that the Torah seeks to establish.
Finally, there are times for one-on-one encounter with Scripture, as there are for such encounters with people, and for the same reason: the conversation is better for the intimacy. Torah speaks powerfully when its voice is heard in the quiet of midnight or early-morning study, alone, undisturbed by the noise of daily life. The text wants to linger with us over time, like the words of any conversation that we know will change us. We need to weigh its implications, turn them over repeatedly in our minds, let ourselves feel deeply what it might be hard to feel in public. This, in my experience, is when the connections between text and life are made most powerfully. This is when I am most likely to feel that the word that speaks so loudly to me in this reading was not there the last time I looked, and to be full of gratitude that it is there for me now, a challenge that won’t let me go.