Is Torah a useless, outdated set of writings?
You’d think so based on how many Jews read it – the survey’s paint a bleak picture.
Many Jews simply find the writings boring, irrelevant, and not good reading material. When we add the concerns about fantastical stories, offensive (to today’s standards) moral situations and teachings, and contradictory statements, many Jews and non-Jews find little incentive to pick up the writings.
And that’s a shame, because in my opinion, Torah contains beautiful prose and poetry, vital moral insights, and a primary foundation to Jewish identity. It can also speak to us today about our situations, challenges, and trials.
I wouldn’t argue, as some do, that Torah is some sort of supernatural set of writings that contain hidden secrets or magical powers. But I would argue that Torah is worth reading, studying, and understanding – offering us insights for comprehending our lives.
I’m well aware of the arguments of the New Atheists, showing Torah to be a horrible set of writings that no civilized person should consider, but let me build my case.
Jewish identity is significantly rooted in Torah. Torah contains our mythic narrative and a common history that unites us. The scriptures offer us a set of shared ancestors, formative events (Abraham leaving Ur, the exodus, exile and return) as well as our particular holidays and ways of marking time. There would be no Shabbat, no Passover, and no Rosh Hashanah, without Torah.
Torah offers humane, Jewish values that have been embraced by most of the Western world and beyond. The dignity of each person, the inherent goodness of creation, the primacy of love and justice, the value of compassion, the importance of mercy, the directives to care for the needy and draw in the marginalized are all ongoing themes of Torah.
Love your neighbor as yourself, welcome the stranger, pursue justice, practice kindness – would the human family not have realized these values without Torah? This moral vision is accessible by reason, so Torah may not be strictly necessary, but the writings offer powerful stories that stay with a person, become a permanent part of our spiritual imagination, and inform us as a people.
Torah is the mythical foundation to the Jewish worldview.
But doesn’t Torah also promote violence, killing, the subjugation of women, killing gay people, and even genocide?Yes.
But it’s up to Jews today to determine how Torah is read and applied, what narratives become foundational, and what values to embrace. The process of Torah is progressive, not static.
Torah is not merely a collection of writings; it is the ongoing process of engagement – it is the parameters of the Jewish conversation.
Torah is not inerrant, infallible, or even divinely authored – it is a collection of inspired writings that recorded our ancestor’s understandings of the divine.
The bible is not meant to be read as a single, coherent moral text. It’s not meant to be history in the modern sense either.
The texts were not meant to serve as historical or scientific documents, and their moral application must be subtly, culturally applied. Since Torah consists of many viewpoints, and sometimes contradictory ones, our reading is always selective.
The Torah contains many ideas and moral notions that are rightly rejected – genocide, patriarchy, sexism, divinely-sanctioned violence, holy war, misogyny, outdated views on sexuality and marriage, and remnants of an ancient worldview that lacked the benefit of today’s scientific, psychological, and historical knowledge.
Despite this necessary filtering, the Biblical writings contain a core of insights that still ring true and animate contemporary Western culture and spiritual practice. We neglect these writings at our own spiritual and personal expense.
Allow me to recommend a superb book on how to make sense of Torah and the Jewish scriptures. How to Read the Jewish Bible by Marc Brettler is one of the best works out there.
Let me also suggest much of the work of Rabbi Rami Shapiro. These articles of his give you a flavor of his excellent work – Our Story, and A Tribe of Story Tellers. Also, Turning Torah is another sample of his approach – an approach well worth adopting.