What is Torah?
As we continue our tour of Jewish theology we turn our attention to Torah. The word Torah can be translated a few ways, but “instruction”, as in,”teaching” seems most fitting.
Torah has several meanings – it can refer to (1) the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures (pentateuch), (2) the entire Jewish bible, also called the Tanakh (Old Testament), or (3) all Jewish sacred writing, the Tanakh and it’s several hundred year commentary, the Talmud, or in the broadest sense, (4) the entirety of Jewish instruction, written and unwritten (oral) throughout Jewish history.
For the sake of this post, let’s use Torah in the sense of Tanakh, but also with some reference to its broadest sense.
Jewish Reading – Christian Reading
Jews and Christians don’t read the Bible in the same way. (Shocking, I know.) Just as it would be arrogant and improper to speak for all Jews, the same applies to attempts to speak for all Christians. Yet some generalizations do contain useful information and aspects of the truth.
The predominant Jewish understanding of the nature of the scriptures usually leaves most Christians dissatisfied and often concerned. Most Christians have high regard for scripture, as do most Jews. But Christians, granted, not all, tend to invest a greater degree of supernatural significance in scripture than do most Jews.
This does not mean that Jews treat the scriptures without reverence or fail to consider their pivotal spiritual and religious significance. But it does mean that the texts don’t always serve the same purposes. They certainly aren’t interpreted in the same way.
A Sense of Progressive Revelation
Most Jews have a minimal view of revelation. Our understanding of the relationship between our sacred texts and the divine is that of inspiration. Jews consider the scriptures to be the product of human effort inspired by our ancestors wrestling with how they understood God, the world, and the purpose of life.
While the Jewish community closed the canon of sacred writings that today forms the Tanakh around 200 BCE, this does not mean that Jews think revelation and inspiration – the wrestling with God and meaning – is over.
Torah is not merely a collection of writings; it is the ongoing process of engagement – and the writings are the parameters of the Jewish conversation. To be a Jew is to be a part of this conversation and to find yourself in the narratives it offers.
Jews no longer add to the written canon. But each generation of Jews who engage Torah offer their own insights, interpretations, experiences, and meanings.
Torah contains revolutionary ideas and timeless truths – the equality of all humanity, the equality of men and women, and the inherent dignity of all human life created in the image of God. It dictates love of strangers and calls for the care of the poor and the outcast. Its vision remains vital for any people who wish to be considered humane.
But doesn’t Torah also promote violence, killing, the subjugation of women, killing gay people, and even genocide?
Jews believe it’s their responsibility to find ways of engaging iron-aged myths with what some might call postmodern thinking. What is required is critical naïveté – the ability to recognize myth for what it is, move beyond the literal concerns, and then, with updated knowledge, engage the myth allowing the text to newly inform, engage, and transform us.
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. We are not bound by our ancestor’s views, but we must at least first wrestle with them to be faithful to the conversation and their experiences.
Seeking wisdom is a continuous process, confined to no one group and to no one age. We are to apply the texts to our current realities – with both the text and our current understanding of reality in dialog, neither trumping the other.
The texts are living and meant to speak to every generation. To do so, each generation must engage the texts in an ongoing conversation. Every Jew has a voice in this conversation and a role in Torah’s ongoing reinterpretation.
Why Write Torah?
Torah was written to create a culture and a people. It was written to give a sacred narrative to a new, and ongoing community. It was written to convey a sacred history and story in which those who came after could connect with those who went before. It was written to convey wisdom to the generations to come.
The Jews were a collection of wandering tribes who came together to form a community centered in a sacred story and set of values and practices. Religion binds people together – and Judaism emerged as these tribes of unrelated peoples came together to form something better.
Torah was written over a nearly 2,000 year period. As modern scripture scholarship demonstrates, it had multiple authors and most sections have been edited and added to, multiple times, by later, often disagreeing, generations. Some stories are told twice, with slight differences.
The Bible contains a mixture of writing styles and genres. It combines history remembered with history metaphorized, expressing sacred myths that are primarily sweeping spiritual statements, providing context for answers (but not necessarily the answers themselves) to life’s basic questions. Contrary to the assertions of some Orthodox Jews, Moses did not write Torah.
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 insights into 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, the sacred history, and the collective wisdom of the Jewish worldview.
How to Read Torah
From the liberal Jewish perspective (the perspective of over 75% of today’s Jews and Jewish scholars) – 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 and their wrestling with the meaning of life.
The texts were not meant to serve primarily as historical or scientific documents (at least according to how we today, understand those disciplines), and their moral application must be subtly, culturally applied. Since Torah consists of many viewpoints, and sometimes contradictory ones, our reading is always selective.
Literal readings render the core myths irrelevant and distract from the narrative.
A large part of the way of reading Torah is what Jews call midrash. Midrash is an interpretive act, seeking the answers to religious questions (both practical and theological) by plumbing the meaning of the words of the Torah. Midrash responds to contemporary problems and crafts new stories, making connections between new Jewish realities and the unchanging biblical text.
Midrash can involve new ways of applying old texts or giving old texts new meanings. It can also involve a re-telling of the original story, adding layers of depth and meaning not easily seen in the original. Midrash flows from a sense of progressive revelation.
Written by rabbis both steeped in Bible and absorbed by the Jewish questions of their time, works of midrash aggadah often occupy the meeting ground between reverence and love for the wording of the fixed text of the Torah, and theological creativity. Midrashic writings thus often yield religious insights that have made Torah directly applicable to later Jewish realities, especially the concerns of its authors. Some of what midrash aggadah yields is insight into the burning, sometimes time-bound questions of those who wrote it. Still, the interpretations produced often have more universal and timeless application to our, or any, generation.
The Bigger Picture
Historical context matters. The scriptures of the Roman world were the Iliad and the Aeneid – mythic narratives that portrayed the salvation of the world found in Roman conquest and the path of peace residing in submission to Rome.
Understanding this ancient worldview and its scriptures helps us understand the remarkable, radical nature of the narrative that replaced them – the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian writings.
The new narrative(s) accepted by the West told of salvation through love and mercy and peace through nonviolence. It portrayed the new order of divine love as superior to the Empire of Military Will to Power.
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.
The Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Usage
If there’s any truth to the notion of Jewish “chosenness”, it’s the call within Torah for Jews to be a light unto the nations. Jews have historically interpreted this call as involving our bringing the concepts of monotheism and a certain moral genius to the Western world, and beyond. We Jews don’t always live up to our ideals, but we still must offer them.
The early Christian community, largely emerging from the broader Jewish community, took the Hebrew scriptures as their own, and adapted them, largely through midrash, to their own purposes. And most Jews feel this is a very good thing – it helps us fulfill our unique call and role in history. (We don’t mind you using them, really.)
Christians have midrashically read the Hebrew scriptures, finding ways to see Jesus in the texts, retelling old stories with new meaning, and adopting the texts to explain the nature of their covenant with God – or their being enfolded into the broader Jewish covenant – depending on your theological viewpoint.
In my opinion, many Christians would benefit from adapting some of the Jewish approach to the scriptures. Far too many Christians are stuck in forms of literalism and proof-texting that rob the texts of their vitality and power. The texts are for us – we are not for the texts – to paraphrase a particular Jewish reformer.
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.
Questions? Reactions? Disagreements? Bring them on … happy to engage.