The seventy faces of the Torah

May 25, 2012

Torah Thought

This past weekend, the Jewish world celebrated the least known of the Shelosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals; the festival of Shavuot.

Pesach is well-known because of the elaborate set of home rituals called a seder. And most Jews have at least some familiarity with Sukkot because of the temporary booths in which we eat and sleep for a week. Shavuot has become the poor cousin of the family of Jewish festivals; its only attempt at notoriety being the consuming of dairy products, particularly cheesecake.

The three Regalim were originally connected with the seasons of the ancient Israelite agrarian society and the mitzvot of bringing sacrifices to the Temple in gratitude to the God of Israel. The holidays were then given historical significance of major proportions connecting each with an essential occurrence in the Biblical experience of the people of Israel. Pesach is the time of our people’s liberation, Shavuot the givingand accepting of the Torah, and Sukkot the 40-year trek in the wilderness. Each of these three stages in the maturing of our people is also a stage in the developmentof the relationship between God and Israel. Shavuot is the middle stage, the agreement upon the details of that relationship; the basis of our commitment to God and, complementing that, His promises to us.

The Torah has been at the center of Jewish existence ever since that worldchanging event at Sinai more than 32 centuries ago. Our oldest of traditions teaches us that the Torah given by God to Israel through Moshe is identical to the text of the Torah contained in the scrolls kept in synagogues throughout the world. More than 2,000 years of rabbinic teaching has made that identification. Jews during all that time kept the belief of Torah MiSinai as the keystone of all Jewish life and civilization. And then came the Modern Age of scientific investigation. The basic assumption of the integrity of the Torah text was questioned forthe first time in ages.

For some, the answer to the “question” was to dismiss it as if it were not there. They only felt comfortable with the Tradition as it had been for millennia. For others, the “question” was so overwhelming it could not be dismissed so that the Torah itself could no longer provide the basis of Jewish life. Still others refused to dismiss the “question” but also refused to relinquish the Tradition. This third group has spent the past few centuries painfully attempting to reconcile the two, never quite satisfied with every new solution proposed.

What are the barriers to the kind of faith our ancestors professed for so long? They form the categories of the modern study of the Jewish Bible. Let us go through them briefly.

First, how do we determine with precision the actual wording (letters, vowels, trop) of the Biblical text? Somewhat more than a 1,000 years ago, Jewish scholars took note that texts around the Jewish world were not identical to each other. Theologically, this was a disaster since theTradition, Massora, taught that the Torah, and many of the other books in the Biblical canon, were the word of God. To have any variation from copy to copy would confuse the messages and instructions contained in them. A group of scholars in Israel began a long and painstaking process to regain the original and authentic text. Calling themselves the Messoratiyim, Massoretes, they produced the Massoretic text of theHebrew Bible considered by  Jews to be the only authentic text. These scholars also determined the vowels to be included in a vocalized text as well as innovating a set of markings designed to punctuate the Hebrew to insure its particular meaning. These markings became known as Ta’amey HaMikra or in later, Yiddish, terminology, trop. The question for modern scholars is, did the Messoratiyim succeed in restoring the wording of Moshe from Sinai?”

Why would scholars formulate that question? After all, a believing Jew should have little difficulty making that leap of faith. The problem came from the fact that the earliest extant examples of the texts of the Bible did not jibe with the Massoretic text. In the mid-20th century, a discovery was made in caves near the Dead Sea in Israel of a group of ancient scrolls, some of which were copies of Biblical books dating from the first century. These scrolls were not identical to the Massoretic text. In addition, the earliest translations of the Bible in Aramaic and Greek, when translated back into Hebrew, are not identical to the Massoretic text.

In the Middle Ages, the period of classical parshanut, commentary, the great Bible scholars produced explanations for the hard-to-understand phrases that would not be easily readable by the average educated Jew. Occasionally, even they, believing Jews all, needed to acknowledge a difficulty in the text which suggested that the Torah might not be of unified origin. The most famous example is a comment from R. Avraham Ibn Ezra on the phrase “v’hakena’ani az ba’arets,” “and the Canaanite was in the land then.” The phrase infers that there is a narrator who is speaking from a time after that in which the action in the narrative takes place. Careful reading, or a term used by contemporary literacy critics, “closereading,” produced  the idea that the text of the Torah consists of a number of separate documents blended together to make a whole. Upsetting to many, including some of the scholars who proposed this theory, the idea is based upon textual discrepanciessuch as contradictory contents, inconsistent use of vocabulary, differing writing styles, etc, reflecting origins at varying points in the Biblical period.

In the 20th century, archeology in Israel and other parts of the Middle East led to discoveries about the world in which Biblical civilization developed. Information came to light, allowing for new analyses of Biblical narratives, legal codes, poetry, wisdom sayings, and other literary genres never before imagined. The Flood story in B’reishit was now to be compared with Babylonian parallels. The Covenant Code in Sh’mot proved to closely parallel the Hittite Law Code. The list goes on. For many Jews, these discoveries proved that Biblical texts, even the Torah, were no longer to be considered of divine origin and, therefore, lacked the authority of God-given words. But these people did not examine the Biblical texts carefully enough. Yes, similarities were many but, whereas the Ancient Near Eastern material was definitely literaryand the caliber and sophistication of the stories, poems, and legal material was surprisingly high for such ancient texts, they all lacked a very important quality. They did not possess the visceral feeling, the passion,the love that Biblical texts espouse in the relationships among human beings and between people and God! The Jewish Bible will always be different from all the other examples of Ancient Near Eastern literature because it teaches its readers to care; about God, about humans, about animals, about the world around us.
—Cantor Gordon Piltch, Beth El

Letter to the Editor