Global Jewish Reflections | Claiming My Own Torah This Shavuot
This Shavuot, Miriam Lorie reflects on what it means to truly receive the Torah.
By Miriam Lorie - Rabbinical Student; Yeshivat Maharat | May 23, 2023
Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.
I’ve sometimes found myself looking at my Jewish heroes and wondering what they were like as children, teenagers, or young adults: Did they always walk with presence, speak with gravitas, and have an air of spirituality to them?
And now, as I approach the last year of my rabbinic training, I look back on my past learning and teaching opportunities and I wonder what my own future will look like. Will an aura of “religious leader” magically descend when I receive semicha? I’m pretty sure not — and in fact I hope I’ll continue to be the same person, someone who remains in continual formation for my whole career.
Still, this final-year landmark is an opportunity to look back on the journey I’ve been on, and also to think about the Jewish journeys we can all have. As we approach Shavuot, “zman matan Torahteinu” — the time of the giving of our Torah, it’s the perfect moment to think about how each of us, whether we’re religious or secular, professional or lay leaders, can find and claim our own Torah. This is so central to the work of Yesod — the partnership between JDC and Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe that promotes Jewish values, learning, and culture for Jewish communal professionals.
Jewish teachers and leaders don’t fall fully-formed from the sky, so the following are my observations on how each of us can keep developing:
1. Learning starts with teaching and teaching starts with learning
By my twenties, I’d had a year of advanced Jewish education and had studied at numerous evening classes and Limmud conferences, but I didn’t feel remotely qualified to teach. My aunt and uncle asked if I would teach my cousin for her bat mitzvah and I agreed. But once you agree to teach, you need to study and prepare, so teaching keeps us learning and vice versa in a virtuous cycle. Fifteen years later, I’ve taught around 50 bnei mitzvah students!
2. Say yes to every opportunity
Impostor syndrome is real, but it can be chipped away by just “doing the thing” over and over again. Teaching Torah improves with experience and that experience needs to start somewhere, so go for it! The same can be said for learning opportunities. Yesod supported me in taking a risky mid-career break studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. That year changed my life in a wonderful way which is still unfolding.
3. Torah belongs to all of us
I learnt this from the Torah l’Am course, which I’ve had the opportunity of learning and teaching with wonderful Yesod leaders. It centers around the philosophy that Judaism democratizes learning — as the Rambam says, “The Crown of Torah is for every Jew. Whoever desires it may come and claim it.”
4. We need to narrow the knowledge gap between rabbis and other Jews
Despite No. 3, there is often a big barrier before people have the skills and confidence to learn and teach Torah. Jewish literacy training needs to be better for all Jewish leaders and community professions. Otherwise our work is unrooted and Jew-ish, not Jewish.
5. Have go-to mentors, champions and critics
I’ve been fortunate to have amazing mentors from the Yesod network, and now I’m proud to be a mentor for someone else through Yesod. We recently had a conversation about how she will one day pay it forward and be a mentor herself! Mentors are brilliant for giving honest feedback, advice, and support on your career journeys. Sometimes they’re your biggest champion, sometimes they give challenging feedback — both aspects are essential. Without mentors and coaches, I would not be a rabbinical student running a Jewish community today.
6. Have fun and be creative
This was the approach of Maureen Kendler z”l, a British Jewish educator who I so wish was still around to inspire, teach, and support us. Judaism is serious and weighty, but it is also life-affirming, joyful, and full of creativity. So whatever your leadership, have fun with it!
Shavuot is the perfect moment to think about how each of us can find and claim our own Torah.
On Shavuot, we read the book of Ruth, in which a young woman makes a series of bold choices to pursue Judaism. She leaves her home country, security, and wealth and heads to a life of uncertainty, poverty, and exclusion. One of the most compelling reasons for reading her book at Shavuot is because Ruth is Judaism’s most famous convert, a process of “receiving her own Torah.” The Torah teacher and singer-songwriter Alicia Jo Rabins writes the following about Ruth:
“Part of Ruth’s extraordinary bravery lies in her brave decisions, none of which is guaranteed to work out. She repeatedly risks failure, heartbreak, rejection, censure; through these bold choices, Ruth transforms her life entirely. What daring risks might we take in our own lives? What unimagined future might lie ahead of us if we are brave enough to leave the familiar and set out for parts unknown? She repeatedly risks failure, heartbreak, rejection, censure; through these bold choices, Ruth transforms her life entirely. What daring risks might we take in our own lives? What unimagined future might lie ahead of us if we are brave enough to leave the familiar and set out for parts unknown?”
This Shavuot and beyond, may we all be able to take daring risks to pursue our own Torah. After all, “whoever desires it may come and claim it.”
Miriam Lorie is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Maharat, one of the first Orthodox Jewish British women to embark on an ordination programme. She serves as the Rabbi in Training at Kehillat Nashira, the Borehamwood Partnership Minyan. She is a bnei mitzvah and pre-marriage teacher and has studied at Midreshet Harova and at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, for which she received a Yesod Europe Jewish learning micro grant. Miriam has worked in interfaith dialogue, community leadership, and is a BBC Pause for Thought contributor.
Yesod Europe is a partnership between JDC and Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe.
Read more here about the Yesod Europe Jewish Learning Fund.