Exciting news: studying theology can teach us how to think and even build secular careers! Whatever one’s beliefs, immersion in the complexities of sacred text can expand perspective and cultivate character. Studying theology can make the mind nimbler, the heart more tender and the spirit wiser.
But for all of theology’s great promise, theology doesn’t promise certitude. The call to cultivate mind, heart and spirit isn’t about fixity or certainty, but rather something far more important.
Exhibit A: Jacob’s response to Joseph’s dreams in Parshat Vayeishev.
Joseph recounts his dream of 11 stars, sun, and moon bowing to him. Jacob responds with pique (“are parents to worship their child?”) and Joseph’s 11 brothers seethe with jealousy (Gen. 37:10-11a). The encounter ends with Torah narrating that Jacob shamar et ha-davar: he “kept the matter [in mind]” (Gen. 37:11b).
How are we to understand Torah’s quizzical phrase? What “matter” had Jacob “kept” in mind? Did Torah’s shamar mean that Jacob “kept” something in mind, or was Jacob up to something else?
Exhibit B: The wide world of midrash.
As Rashi famously wrote about Torah’s first rendition of Creation, Ein ha-mikra ha-zeh omer ela darsheini: “[This Torah verse] doesn’t speak except [to say], ‘Explain me!'” (Rashi Gen. 1:1). Just as Talmud recounts that a dream’s meaning congeals only by interpretations we give it (Berakhot 55b), so too Torah herself, whose seeming ambiguities call out to us and magnetize our attention, focus and imagination. We learn that Torah is far less essentialist than relational and dynamic. Again, theology doesn’t promise fixity or certainty.
So history poured midrash into how Jacob responded to Joseph’s dream. To medieval Rashi, Torah’s shamar meant that Jacob patiently waited for Joseph’s dream to come true (Rashi Gen. 37:11). Centuries later, Ovadia ben Yakov one-upped Rashi: Torah’s shamar meant that Jacob waited with “appetite” to see Joseph’s dream fulfilled (Sforno Gen. 37:11). David Kimhi disagreed: fresh off his pique, shamar meant that Jacob “worried” for what Joseph’s dream might portend (Radak Gen. 37:11). To Ibn Ezra, shamar meant that Jacob kept the matter not in mind but in “heart,” as if raw emotion would keep memory alive (Ibn Ezra Gen. 37:11).
Passive waiting or active appetite? Joy or worry? Head or heart? Torah doesn’t say.
And what “matter” did Jacob carry – Joseph’s dream, Joseph’s attitude, Jacob’s own piqued response, the brothers’ jealousy, or the implications for the future? Again, Torah doesn’t say.
And why shamar? Shamar shares its root with Torah’s word that calls us into Shabbat, as in, V’shamru B’nei Yisrael et ha-shabbat (“The Children of Israel will shomer the Sabbath”) (Ex. 31:16), and Sinai’s Shamor et-yom ha-shabbat l’kadsho (“Shomer the Sabbath Day to make it holy”) (Deut. 5:12). Torah uses this same root for tending a garden (Gen. 2:15), blocking a path (Gen. 3:24), and guarding a wild animal against doing harm (Ex. 21:29). Which of these did Jacob’s shamar evoke in his response to Joseph – to protect Joseph? sanctify him? block him? control his excesses? None of these? Yet again, Torah doesn’t say.
And how about context? Did Jacob have sudden amnesia? This same man – now piqued by (if not dismissive of) Joseph’s dream – once felt so awestruck by his own dream of angels riding a divine ladder that he named the place Beit El (“House of God”) (Gen. 28:13-22). Why did a younger Jacob readily accept his own dream as holy guidance but in more advanced age castigate Joseph for dreaming likewise? Surprise: Torah doesn’t say.
From Torah’s seemingly simple narrative of Jacob’s shamar et ha-davar, questions gush like water from a geyser. It says, “Explain me! Drink deeply from this infinitely deep well! Don’t ever stop: keep turning me over and over, for everything is within me” (M. Avot 5:22).
Jacob’s shamar et ha-davar thus becomes our own. We too must keep the matter in mind, turning it over and over, drinking deeply, seeking and finding new perspectives within. We too must do what shamar implies: tend the garden, guard and protect to make holy, and tame some wilder impulses. That’s how the study of sacred text – by building our capacity to seek, pivot, hold nuance, and plumb the depths – can teach us how to think.
But it works only if we’re real about what pluralism is really about.
Exhibit C: Judaism’s pluralism project.
Many imagine that religion’s social calling in a conflict-riddled world is to cultivate certainty to balm confused minds, bruised hearts, and yearning spirits. After all, many are acculturated to believe that answers are the answer. Many look to us for answers. It’s only natural: especially amidst uncertainty, we humans are wired to lurch for the fixity of answers.
Except fixity isn’t the point. As the saying goes, “Never let a good answer get in the way of a good question.” It’s precisely by driving questions and cultivating our capacity to toggle among multiple perspectives that theology teaches us how to think.
This is part of what pluralism is about. Taken together, the midrashic responses to Jacob’s shamar et ha-davar evoke Jacob’s emotions, his personal history, his self-concept and role as father, his relationship with Joseph, the family system with all its warts, the particularism of this tribe, a divine plan existing and unfolding, divinity speaking much less by means we dreaming humans can perceive, the ideas and challenges of both individual and collective chosenness, and much more besides. All of them gush through the geyser.
Jacob’s shamar, its midrash, and the greater project of Jewish pluralism, all are about all of this and more – our emotions, our histories, our self-concepts, our roles, our relationships, the systems in which relationships unfold, particularism and its discontents, theologies of divine “plans,” and theologies of relationships among the divine and human realms. Theology’s capacity to teach us how to think can fulfill its promise only to the extent that we open to that very fullness, precisely where it might challenge us most.
Especially now, when society urgently must deepen capacity to hold values-rich multiplicity, Judaism’s and AJR’s pluralism project is more important than ever. It’s up to all of us – as seminary learners and teachers, clergy, influencers and spiritual entrepreneurs – to shamar et ha-davar in precisely that way.
Yes, theology can teach how to think – which is why so many secular universities and liberal arts colleges rose from theological foundations. Maybe that’s why the president of my own collegiate alma mater (Williams College), himself professor of moral philosophy and religion, described his mission this way in the 1800s:
“We are to regard the mind, not as a piece of iron to be laid upon the anvil and hammered into any shape, nor as a block of marble in which we are to find the statue by removing the rubbish, nor as a receptacle into which knowledge may be poured; but as a flame that is to be fed, as an active being that must be strengthened to think and to feel, to dare, to do, and to suffer.”
Shamar et ha-davar. Keep the matter in mind; keep the mind in mind – and the heart and the spirit. Strengthen it, tend it, turn it, drink deeply, never stop.
Rabbi David Evan Markus (AJR Adjunct Faculty – Rabbinics) is co-rabbi of Temple Beth El of City Island (New York, NY) and Founding Builder of Bayit: Your Jewish Home, a spiritual innovation start-up for all ages and stages. Rabbi Markus also serves as Faculty in Spiritual Direction and past Board Co-Chair for ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. By day, Rabbi Markus presides as Judicial Referee in New York Supreme Court, 9th Judicial District, as part of a parallel career in government service.
Originally published at AJR.