Reflection #2 from CJLS meeting on May 25, 2011

By Jonathan Lubliner, Jacksonville Jewish Center in Jacksonville, FL

At the most recent meeting of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, we explored the issue of communal pray in a minyan for the non-hearing.  There was general consensus that the Talmudic era strictures placed upon the non-hearing were based on a lack of knowledge about the cognitive abilities of the deaf; had our rabbinic ancestors been privy to the information we possess, in all likelihood they would have framed the halakhah governing the heresh (one who is deaf) quite differently.  Committed though we are to the sources of our tradition, the Conservative approach to halakhah has never shied away from making use of scientific knowledge in framing new approaches to age-old questions as integral to the halakhic process.  It is not surprising, then, that members of the Committee agreed with near unanimity to the elimination of myriad constraints placed upon the ability of a non-hearing shaliah tzibbur (prayer leader) to lead services in sign language for the deaf community.

There was debate, however, over the permissibility of signing from the Torah as part of a communal Torah service in which individuals called to the scroll would recite the aliyah blessings.  If sign language is a language like any other, can it be said that signing is identical to “reading” the Hebrew words present on the scroll, or is the act more analogous to translating and interpreting the original in a different language?  While there is a long and venerable history to the translation of the Torah reading into the vernacular during worship, doing so has never served as a replacement for reading the Hebrew text in the original.

Beyond the specifics of any ritual discussion, halakhic discourse often furnishes us with a way to express profound truths unrelated to the parameters of the issue itself.  Ours is a tradition rich with multi-layered understandings of text, one in which we are invited to comment, interpret, and exercise our religious imagination.  Yet despite this license – or more correctly, because of it – our forebears insisted that the public reading of the Torah in Hebrew attest to an urtext of Jewish unity, a kind of foundational dinner plate upon which the delicacies of midrash might be heaped.  If the “Torah is a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation,” as Abraham Joshua Heschel once noted, it is based on our common embrace of a single text, even if we sometimes understand that text differently from our ancestors or from one another.

This lesson is not only worth considering with the approach of Shavu’ot, but is particularly appropriate in a world where we often blur the distinctions between spin and plain meaning.  Rather than bother to read the speech of prominent political and cultural figures and then make up their own minds about what was (or wasn’t) said, too many rely on the blogosphere to tell them not only what was intended, but sometimes even what was articulated.  The danger lies not in using such filters to help us make better sense of the infinite sea of information through which we daily navigate, but in forgetting the substantive difference between an original and the distillation of its meaning through translation.

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