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An Approach to Torah

Here is an excerpt of a sermon I gave about my approach to Torah.

 

 

….Professor Israel Knohl of the Hebrew University seizes on the parallel narratives describing the creation of the world and concludes that this is not unintentional.  The Bible purposefully begins with a mahklohet, differing opinions, and a dispute, for it is symbolic of the multiple voices and strands found throughout the Torah.

 

 

Rabbi Robert Harris, professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, takes this even further and notes that Rashi and other commentators point out that the Torah essentially “begins with a text that requires our involvement and intervention in order to achieve some meaning.”

 

 

The only way to comprehend its meaning and what the Bible is telling us is to struggle with it by becoming actively engaged in wrestling with the possibilities of understanding what it means.  The ambiguity, the uncertainty, is the way it is presented as if the Torah is shouting out at us that it is not meant to be simplistic or quickly understood.  The Torah, by its very nature, does not lend itself to a straightforward, monolithic, fundamentalist interpretation.  We have an open invitation to speculate, conjecture and to explore the text.  A classic rabbinic term is often employed to introduce a comment about a word or sentence, darshani, meaning:  “explain me,” implying that the rabbis believe the passage calls out for the explication, and then a number of possible ways of understanding the words are offered.  The Bible is not a clear, unambiguous text that lends itself to an absolute universally accepted understanding with only one way of interpreting its words.

 

 

Rashi actually winds up suggesting that the very first word, Bereshit, should be substituted by the word, berishonah.  He says this is necessary because otherwise not only do the words not make sense, but they are grammatically incorrect.  Rather than read it as “In the beginning God created,” and so on, it should be read, he tells us, and makes a strong and compelling case by bringing in a number of proofs and evidence from other citations, berishonah,” “In the beginning of God’s creation.”  The change may not appear to be that significant, but he suggests that otherwise the Hebrew construct would not make sense since it is not logical in the Hebrew language to follow the word Bereshit by a gerund or infinitive.

 

 

As I was studying this passage, which I have learned many times before, it suddenly dawned on me – Rashi and other commentators had the chutzpah to feel comfortable correcting the grammar of the Torah.  They believed the Torah was from God, that it is infallible, that it has no mistakes, and yet, they had not problem reinterpreting and thus emending the text.

 

 

Professor Harris teaches that the nafka mina, the lesson we learn from this is that “God’s Torah requires human involvement in order to achieve its meaning – it is incomplete without the participation of humankind.”

 

 

This is why text study is so important, and this is the approach I advocate when reading Torah.  Come and join our Thursday morning Torah study class and be a part of the ongoing conversation that spans across the generations.


Comments

1 Comment

Robbie

i am flattered – and humbled – that "someone out there" has seen fit to cite me in a sermon… a great zekhut, to be sure, and i am most appreciative. just one quick addendum, if i may (i hope i may!): you write:

"Rashi actually winds up suggesting that the very first word, Bereshit, should be substituted by the word, berishonah. He says this is necessary because otherwise not only do the words not make sense, but they are grammatically incorrect. Rather than read it as “In the beginning God created,” and so on, it should be read, he tells us, and makes a strong and compelling case by bringing in a number of proofs and evidence from other citations, berishonah,” “In the beginning of God’s creation.” "

this is not quite what rashi is saying, although he does entertain the possibility of reading "barishonah" along the way. in the end, his peshuto explanation focusses not on bereshit as much as it does the finite verb, bara ("he created") that follows. rashi suggests reading this word as though it were an absolute, "be'ro" thus yielding the reading adopted by the NJPS Tanakh translation.

thanks so much for letting me weigh in here, kol tuv, robbie


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Stuart Weinblatt

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the President of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America. From 2009 - 2014 he served as Director of Israel Policy and Advocacy for the Rabbinical Assembly.
Rabbi Weinblatt is the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, a vibrant Conservative synagogue of 650 families he founded in 1988, along with his wife and a handful of families.