Introduction to the Study of Torah
There is nothing more basic in Judaism than the study of Torah. Torah is the beginning of all other religious texts. It is the record of communication between God and Humanity. It stands above all other texts because it records what God expects from us. Since all texts can be connected to Torah, this is why the study of any Jewish text is also called “Torah”.
While almost every Jewish text can be called “Torah” because it derives its legitimacy from its connection to the the original scrolls, in its minimalist incarnation, Torah refers to the Five Books of Moses: Berayshit (known also by its English name – Genesis), Shemot (Exodus), Vayikra (Leviticus), Bamidbar (Numbers) and Devarim (Deuteronomy). It is the first of the three divisions of the Jewish Bible [called Tanach, an anacronym for Torah, Neviim (Prophets), Ketuvim (Writings)]. Torah is considered the oldest of the three and the most holy although all three parts are considered holy books. As a legal text, Torah is comparable to the Constitution of the United States; it is the basic document of law that all subsequent laws must be able to have a direct line of connection to its words. The difference, of course, is the Constitution is a document written by human beings and therefore can be amended or rescinded. The Torah represents the word of God. To amend it or to rescind it would be to say that God made a mistake; a theological proposition that not only undermines the source of authority for the law, but calls into question the very foundation of Judaism. We don’t say that God is wrong. God is right; the Torah is right and when we follow its laws, we are right too.
But as a law code, the Torah is woefully incomplete. For example there are many married people in the Torah but there is almost nothing about a marriage ceremony. The Torah provides for divorce by having a “sefer keritut” a document of separation prepared but it never spells out what that document should say. There is no good definition provided to ascertain the meaning of the word “Shabbat”. We are told that we cannot do “Melacha” on Shabbat, but melacha is not defined anywhere either. The usual word for “work” is “avoda;” what is the difference between avoda and melacha? The Torah gives us no clue. Laws in Shemot are repeated in Devarim but there are significant differences in the way the laws are written. What do the differences imply? Why are they different? What do we learn from these differences?
As a history book, the Torah is not much better. Some stories are clearly not told in chronological order. Were there two times Moses struck the rock to bring water to the people or are they really just one story? How many times does Moses go up and down Mt. Sinai before the Ten Commandments are given? What are we to make of the seven days of creation in the light of the billions of years of history on this planet? Why is there no other historical record anywhere of Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, the Exodus or the conquest of Canaan? Are the stories of the Torah religious mythology or historical facts? How can we know for sure? How can we separate the fact from the myth?
If the Torah is not a law book or a historical record, then what is the purpose of this document? I look at it as a moral text. A text that teaches us what we are supposed to do at the many crossroads we encounter in our lives. Remember the story of George Washington and the cherry tree? Is that story historically true? Who knows? But the purpose of the story is to teach us that real leaders don’t lie; a moral lesson not wasted on our children. The lives of the personalities in the Torah all point out lessons in how we should live our lives. The stories are true in the sense that they teach us truths about our world. Is the rest of the Torah historically true? Who knows? This does not mean that the Torah is misleading us. What it means is that we need to be careful not to make the Torah our guide for things that the Torah was never designed to teach. There may be some historical notes in the text and that the Torah gives us laws is undisputed. The purpose of these five books, however, to me seems to be more about moral lessons than about any specific aspect in the life of Jacob or Moses. It does not bother me that the Torah says the world was created in seven days and geology tells me something different. The Torah does not really care how many days creation took, what matters is what we learn from the creation story about how God acts in this world and what those actions mean for us.
There are anomalies in the text that point to a deeper issue. There are passages in the text that seem to indicate that the Torah is not one document. Scholars tell us that there may be four major documents that make up the text of Torah as it has been handed to us today. These documents were not created at the same time but in very different time periods in Jewish history. For some people this idea of different documents borders on heresy. This “documentary hypothesis” sees the text of the Torah more as the work of humanity and not a text that God handed to us on Mt. Sinai. This hypothesis has been around for centuries but only in the twentieth century were scholars able to speak about it without worrying about religious censors. It is unfortunate that the early scholars of this hypothesis were anti-Semites looking for a way to de-legitimize the Jewish bible. The evidence today is pretty clear about the fact of the different documents, but scholars still argue over which passages are to be included in one document or the other. An extraordinary introduction to this hypothesis can be found in the first chapter of the book, “Who Wrote The Bible” by Richard Freedman.
So can the Bible still be divine if it was written by human beings? I think so, but we will have to be a bit more particular about what we mean by a divine text. What does it mean to have a divine text? What inspired human beings to write these texts? Where does creativity come from? What guided the hand of the “redactor” who put the different documents into the five books we have today? Just how would an infinite God put pen to parchment to write a book? What could be better than human hands following divine instructions? I may not know how God got into these “books” but I do know that God is in there and that is why I study the Torah so diligently.
I am not the first one to comment on Torah, nor am I the last. The study of Torah is what I call “The longest running classroom discussion in the history of the world.” My comment is designed for everyone to add their own comments. This blog is a discussion not a lecture. So feel free to challenge me, question me and argue with me. Let me just share with you some of my Torah learning resources.
The Torah has its origins in Hebrew. The more biblical Hebrew you know, the deeper you will understand the text. The best modern Hebrew texts are from the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) and Koren Publications in Israel. You will need a Hebrew text from time to time to see the words in the Hebrew; I can only hint at the issues when I am writing in English.
The best English translation I believe is the JPS translation. Shocken Books also has a translation that is good, that was translated by Everett Fox. There are two JPS translations, one that dates back to 1919 and the other from the 1960’s. The newer one is called the “new” JPS translation and that is the one I use (sometimes it is noted as NJPS).
Jews NEVER just read the text of the Torah. There are centuries of commentary on the Torah and that too is now part of the “text” of Torah. Different commentaries have different agendas. Scholarly commentaries focus on literary style, historical comparisons and cross references to other books, Jewish and non-Jewish. JPS has a five volume commentary. Soncino has a one volume that is a survey of the classic Jewish commentators. JPS also has a “Jewish Study Bible” that is used in college courses. All of these are good resources. JPS and the Rabbinical Assembly put out a one volume commentary called Etz Hayim that includes not only a survey of the JPS commentary but other modern commentaries that speak to the moral and legal issues the text raises. It includes extensive essays in the back that cover other aspects of the Bible and Jewish life. This is one of the best commentaries of the 21st century.
Many individuals have penned Bible commentaries that speak to the issues in their day. The classic commentary is by Rashi but there are others by Sforno, ibn Ezra and Abravanel that speak to the Jews of France, Spain and the Provence. The modern commentaries of S.R. Hirsch and Joseph Hertz speak to the needs of the Jewish community in the 19th and 20thcenturies. Those who are interested in modern Orthodox commentaries that do not include references to historical or documentary issues, can use the Stone commentary. It is a good idea to consider a number of commentaries before asking your own questions and trying to put together an answer. You don’t need to own all these books but finding a Jewish library with them in it will make your study easier and more fulfilling.
Finally, try not to come to the text armed only with what you remember from religious school years ago. Our minds may not remember the stories correctly, we may have learned them wrong or we may have learned them based on later commentators and not on what the text actually says. There are parts of the Bible that are considered too “racy” for young children and somehow we never get around to talking about the adult parts of the text. We will look at the text in Hebrew and English and try to understand it by getting past the usual explanations and stories that are mere excuses for serious difficulties in the text. The text itself has many levels of meaning and we will try to explore these texts on all of these levels.
Now we are ready to start at the “beginning”.