This past Thursday our weekly Torah study class, which began with Genesis 1:1 twenty two years ago, completed our study of the entire books of Moses. The Washington Post did a wonderful article about this accomplishment, and on Saturday I spoke about the meaning of 22 years of the study of Torah.
On the Completion of 22 years of Study of the Torah
People say it is not a good idea to read online comments on articles about you – but it is hard to resist, and so yesterday when the Washington Post featured our Torah study class prominently on the first page of the Metro section, my curiosity was piqued when I saw there were 19 comments.
Among the comments were:
Well written; thank you for this
What a fantastic journey. Good for them.
Bravo! Reading Torah instead of tweeting. This group has beautifully illustrated the value of the sacred in remarkable contrast to the profane twitterverse we presently inhabit.
Mazel Tov to these dedicated people! As a Christian, I try to read through both the Old and New Testaments each year, usually a translation that I haven’t read before…. Always get new inspirations and learn something.
Congrats on a fascinating journey. The Bible, and especially most of the first 5 books are more and more interesting the deeper one delves into word patterns in the original language, double meanings, grammar, and other topics… Some of those (ancient) commentators have minds that would be the Nobel Prize recipients of today. It is awesome to read comments written 900 years ago that sound as if written last week. And the multiple modern translations and thoughtful commentaries look at the text from angles the medieval geniuses could not have foreseen.
And then there was this one, which was in response to my comment, “Like those people who like to take their time with a fine cigar or a fine glass of wine, we took our time with a fine work of literature.”
Yikes: “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again.” The writer went on to cite several other less tolerant passages in the Torah.
I think I first started to appreciate the Bible as the great work of literature that it is when I took a class in Biblical Hebrew in college with Dr. Sam Iwry. My teacher used to say, “There are those who say the Bible is holy and therefore it is great. And there are those who say the Bible is great and that is why it is holy.” He imparted an appreciation for the Tanach by teaching how great it is.
One can read and approach the Torah in any of a number of ways.
Traditionally those who came before us read it as the word of God. This is why the ancient commentators who composed the midrash savored every word, and looked for any subtle deviation in the text. They saw these as intentional and wanted to discern what it was that God was trying to tell us.
It is no wonder then that mystics pored over the text intensely as they looked for secret hidden messages from God.
But even as they did so, it was clear that our sages never wanted us to take the Torah literally, in a fundamentalist way. Were that the case, our rabbis never would have come up with the fanciful, imaginative and creative interpretations they came up with – interpretations which often reversed the simple, literal reading of the text.
That may be why I have never been bothered by the seeming contradiction between the Torah’s account of creation and scientific explanations. The Bible was not meant to be read as a science textbook. It is more concerned with the question of why than of how. Its purpose is to teach us everlasting truths about our purpose on earth, not to offer a detailed explanation of how life came to be.
There were few boundaries or limits placed on them, and even contradictory opinions were preserved, transmitted and recorded.
And so they playfully imagined all the letters of the alphabet coming before God and making their case to begin the Torah with them. Or they played on the words in this week’s Torah reading which tell us that the Israelites encamped under Mt. Sinai to teach that this must mean that when offering them the option of choosing to accept the Torah or not, God held the mountain above their heads and said to them – “Nu are you going to accept the Torah or not?”
(It might be where the Mafia learned how to “make an offer you can’t refuse.”)
Or the rabbis ask why God chose Mt. Sinai among all the mountains he could have chosen, and say – precisely because it was not the tallest or most beautiful, most green or lush, or most majestic is why it was chosen — teaching us to value and accept and appreciate that even the lowest, simplest, and most modest have inherent value and merit.
The midrash and our later medieval commentators are fascinating and compelling because they struggled with the same issues that confront us today. I constantly marvel and am inspired when I realize that some 2,000 years ago they asked some of the same questions we ask today. They faced some of the same challenges and share some of the same doubts that confront us today.
This is why I teach that the midrash is the prism that makes the Torah Jewish. It is where Jewish thought, philosophy and theology is presented, albeit, not systematically, but in the subtle comments it makes and ways that it reads and emends the text. The rabbinic teaching that the letter “bet” was chosen as the first letter of the Torah because it corresponds to the first letter in the word “bracha” meaning blessing reflects their optimistic, positive perspective on life.
Understanding the importance of interpretation is why I am not bothered by the quotes mentioned by the man who replied to the article in the Post. I know that the passages he finds offensive were never allowed to be put into actual practice and that they were tempered by the sensibilities and sensitivities of the rabbinic interpretations. And these rabbis were anything but fundamentalists. So while the Torah provides for capital punishment, and the Talmud explains in detail how to carry it out – the rabbis also famously said that if someone was convicted and executed by a court once every 70 years, it was considered excessive, and was called a “hanging court.”
As I said at the dedication of the Museum of the Bible:
The Bible is a unique work of literature. It contains laws and legislation, morals and ethics, philosophy and poetry, even love poetry, as well as the inspiring ideals the Prophets imparted, imploring us to implement their clarion call for justice for all. It summons us to create a world where all are to be treated with respect and dignity because we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God …
Yet when studying or reading Torah, it is important not just to read it from the perspective of the rabbinic sages. For as liberating as that is, it can also distort the text. The rabbis really did believe that Aaron had nothing to do with the building of the Golden Calf. They justified some of the boorish actions of our patriarch Jacob and were blind to his shortcomings and deceptive and conniving ways. And while there were skeptics, there are those who really believe that the world was created in 6 days about 5,800 years ago.
As modern, non-Orthodox Jews we can appreciate the wisdom and greatness of Torah, and recognize that it contains truth and truths, while not being bound to read it in a fundamentalist way as being entirely true.
As a result, my approach can best be characterized as being eclectic – to teach it as great literature and point out some of the brilliant plays on words and sophisticated use of language. There are passages we read in the context of the times when it was written, or in light of recent archaeological findings – findings incidentally, which more and more shed light on the text and help to explain oblique references, and which more often than not buttress the case for the veracity and historicity of the events, stories and characters in the text. And sometimes, especially in the struggles of the patriarchal narratives and their family issues, we read the narrative from the perspective of modern psychology.
This is the sign of great literature.
At the Bible Museum I said:
Are there any passages or words more uplifting than:
Love your neighbor as yourself
Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor
Justice, justice shall you pursue
In the beginning, God
Am I my brother’s keeper?
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil for Thou art with me.
You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
They shall beat their swords into pruning hooks
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
Remember you once were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Proclaim liberty throughout the land.
There is a time for everything under heaven.
And so, this is why I like the saying — when we read Torah we should read it slowly and take our time, because God is speaking to us, and we want to hear and ponder the meaning of every word. Well, we took our time – 22 years.
Abraham Joshua Heschel said that the Torah is a midrash on the word “Vayomer Elohim: And God said…” He taught that the Torah is the word of God as recorded by humans.
I like to put it this way: If you believe the Torah comes from God and is the absolute word of God, you must be open to seeing the hand of humans in the composition of the text. But if you believe it was created by people alone, then you must be willing to see the presence of the hand of God in its creation as well.
The Torah is sacred and possesses intrinsic value for it inspires us to live lives worthy of its lofty ideals. As we say in our morning prayers, “May the words of Torah be sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of all Your people, so that we, our children, and all the children of the House of Israel may come to love You and to study Your Torah on its own merit. Blessed are you O Lord who teaches Torah to His people Israel, and who has chosen us from among all peoples by giving us the Torah.”
May it continue to inspire us, to ponder its meaning and to share its message.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt
Congregation B’nai Tzedek
February 3, 2018