Monthly Archives: May 2010

Faith and Doubt

by Bruce Black (Sarasota, FL)

The Ten Commandments are the bedrock of Judaism, the cornerstones of our heritage, the foundation of our faith, yet few Jews talk of them as such or of the revelatory scene that took place–if it took place– atop Mt Sinai.

Every year we read the words of the Ten Commandments on Shavuoth, believe in the truth of them, live our lives by them throughout the rest of the year… whether or not the event atop Sinai actually occurred.

In some sense, maybe it doesn’t matter if it occurred because the Ten Commandments in and of themselves are truth. That is, they contain truth, and it’s irrelevant where the commandments came from–from God or from Moses or from some anonymous scribe who wrote them.

On the other hand it seems essential to believe not only in the truth of the Ten Commandments but in the truth of how they came into being, even if we can never know the full story.

We know (or think we know) that Moses ascended Mt. Sinai. And we know (or want to believe) he returned holding the tablets. But what happened between those two events… in the time it took for him to climb up and down the mountain?

Those moments–were they moments or hours or days?– are shrouded in mystery, in the fog of history and time.

Did Moses “see” God? Did he “hear” God’s voice? Or did Moses merely imagine God speaking the words to him?

And did Moses write the words down himself? Or did God hand him the tablets already inscribed?

There’s no transcript, no record of the event that we can turn to in order to learn what happened. All we have are the words of the tablets, and the record of the event as its presented in the Torah.

Does it matter if we know the whole story or just part of it? Does our lack of knowledge–or our limited amount of knowledge– change how we live our lives as Jews?

If the event–the revelation atop Sinai– didn’t happen, if it’s just a figment of someone’s imagination, does that mean the commandments are worthless, not to be taken seriously, not to be followed?

What rules–if any–would we replace the commandments with?

What would become of us–as Jews, as human beings–without them?

Standing in front of the open ark on Shavuoth, I thought about the Torah and the Ten Commandments and wondered if the words had passed from God through Moses to my ancestors to me, or if they might have originated in Moses’ heart, or in the heart of some unknown writer.

No matter where the words may have originated, they possess the ring of truth in the way all great literature contains the ring of truth.

But is that ring of truth enough?

When I left the temple after services, I still had no answers, only more questions.

I’m still learning how to live with faith and  doubt simultaneously, and how to balance knowing and not knowing.

Bruce Black, the founder of The Jewish Writing Project, is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Jewish publications such as The Jewish Week, The Jewish Exponent, Reform Judaism Magazine, and The Reconstructionist, and in secular publications such as The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Cricket and Cobblestone magazines. Online Education News ranked his blog on writing, Wordswimmer ( , among the top 100 creative writing blogs of 2009.

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Tribal Ghazal

by Sue Swartz (Bloomington, IN)

Be careful to perform all the words of this Torah, for it is not
an empty thing for you, it is your life…

I would welcome an easy forgetting, if not for the words.
I would pass up allotment and ceremony, but never the words.

Presence/Absence, glory & thunder, text with great resiliency:
Velvet-wrapped, indelibly inked, my self bows before the words.

From birth, a tribalist: daughter with broad receptivity –
I lie down and rise up with the sweet imperfection of these words.

Ancient scrolls stay alive with impudent twists of commentary.
I turn and turn the story, and the story (in turn) turns my words.

Transcendence doesn’t really interest me, nor does equanimity.
I prefer uproar, wild beasts set loose in the Garden of Words.

The believer in me is undecided, often racked with deniability.
Agnostic though I may be, I do not believe these are useless words.

Oh – to be the prime redactor, creator of numinous biography.
Lowly poet, heretical follower, I wrestle headstrong with the words.

Distracted and doubting this afternoon, still here I am, hineni.
Perilous to live like this, can’t stop swooning over the words.

The prophet’s heart is a raging fire, helpless before God’s word.
I’d burn too, wander alone in wilderness – were it not for the words.

Sue Swartz is a poet, essayist, and social justice activist living in Bloomington, Indiana. Her two blogs reflect her current passions and writing projects: Torah, tattoos, and truth are the focus of Awkward Offerings (, while musings on work and workers is featured on Chop Wood, Carry Water (

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by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

(The Ten Commandments are read during the Shavuot morning service.)

Rules are not meant to inhibit you,
to trap you behind bars where you are,
straddling evil and good,
one foot stretching toward each side,
but to reveal the extremes
that most of us, even if we extended our arms
as wide as the equator, wouldn’t reach.

The rules that say “you shall not”
strip off humanity’s holiday suit
to expose intent gone awry,
the bleakest, blackest wrongs
that can’t be made right
even by the fanciest footwork of lawyers
and medicine that proves exception,
(which may explain away why you do it,
and lighten your punishment).
It may make sense, but it is always wrong to murder.

The rules that say “you shall”
are the bunch of perfect carrots — and you love carrots — waiting for you on the farmer’s porch just down the road,
which you’ll never quite reach
but on the way there
you fling pocketsful of corn to the chickens
and pat the head of a brown-eyed cow
and pour water for the day-laborers.
You may never eat those carrots, but you’ll have taken the right road.

Janet Ruth Falon, the author of The Jewish Journaling Book (Jewish Lights, 2004), teaches a variety of writing classes at many places, including the University of Pennsylvania.  At the moment she is teaching journaling and creative-writing classes to people with cancer, and she’s working on a project that she hopes will be published as The Breast Cancer Journaling Workbook.

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An Old Bogart Film

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

My parents protected me from the war.
They seemingly made a pact that
whatever happened in Europe, stayed in Europe.
They spent those years in Austria,
full of foggy intrigue, shadows and doorways,
like the ending of some old Bogart film.
Did they run, fight or hide?
Were there secret deals and flights into the night?
Exactly how many relatives died,
and what was the nature of the commodities
that secretly changed hands?
I know nothing of those days,
except what I’ve read in books.
I know nothing of the pain and the excitement
even as I grew up safely on American shores.
My parents protected me from the war.
I should be grateful to my parents, shouldn’t I?

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

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“You a Jew?”

By Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

“You a Jew?”
“Yes, I believe I am.”
“Never met a Jew before.”
This from a sparkling, fresh-faced girl of nineteen,
a future film actress, I’m sure, on her day off
from the fundamentalist camp by the lake.
With the weight of my ancestry
pressing down on my back,
I felt the instant spokesman for my tribe.
Shouldn’t I be wearing a yarmulke and sporting payos?
Shouldn’t I be blessing this fair maiden in Hebrew?
“Ask me any question you like,” I said,
my ancestors from the Holocaust
rolling over in laughter from their graves.
“Do Jews believe in heaven?” she tried, innocently.
“No, St. Pete,” I said, using humor to shield my ignorance,
“but I respect your beliefs,” I added unnecessarily,
trying to extinguish the fires of the crematoriums
while posing as the even-handed poster child
for a religion that was as new to her as it was to me.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.


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