Accepting the Torah through the Prism of Chaos Theory
Plato’s theory of ideas, and Aristotle’s more empirical approach, are the foundations of the Western intellectual tradition. Both wanted to achieve an ideal understanding, categorization and explanation of the world we inhabit and our position as humans within it. These intellectual giants have influenced Jewish medieval thinking as much as Christianity and Islam. If Philo of Alexandria was a Platonist, Maimonides, of course, was an Aristotelian.
The result of this patrimony has been the search for truth, even absolute truths, which I believe have constricted our way of thinking. Whether the Kantian (or Hegelian) pursuit of the idea, or the Marxist simple reductionism – all reflect the desire to find the solution.
In our times we have at last realized that there is such a phenomenon as fuzzy logic and fuzzy mathematics which are, to put it simply, more approximate and less definite. In a similar vein, what is called “Chaos Theory” offers a different way of looking at empirical data. One might not need to choose one specific theory or solution or answer.
To clarify, many of us are conflicted between valuing the text of Torah we have in a traditional manner, as a unified whole, seeing it as the primary link between us and the Almighty or between us and our history versus wanting to preserve an open mind and academic approach to the Torah. The assumption is that we must choose; that there is only one “truth.” A fuzzy approach recognizes that various possibilities might co-exist. It is thus possible to “have our cake and eat it too.”
I have always sensed an affinity to the fuzzy and making use of such fuzziness. I try to bridge different worlds. In writing this piece, a collection of “riffs” on Shavuot, I am intentionally trying to break out from any straightjacket and bring together different points of view, approaches and disciplines. My aim is to illustrate the variety of perspectives and to express the conviction that we should be able to respond to different approaches simultaneously rather than think that each of us must be loyal only to one.
I am really asking: Is it possible to look at the Torah as a human phenomenon and still feel a sense of its spiritual Divinity? Can we embrace several approaches simultaneously and find satisfaction in both? The Festival of Shavuot offers us a range of names, ideas and customs that illustrate this conundrum, and who how we might live in a world that does not think in terms of “either/or.”
What Should We Call Shavuot?
The Torah says nothing about the connection between Shavuot and “Matan Torah,” the Sinai Revelation. The festival is described first as Chag Hakatzir (Exodus 23.16) with mention of Bikurim, the First of the Harvest (23.19). It appears eleven chapters later as Chag Shavuot (Exodus 34.22) together with the command to bring the First of the Harvest. In Leviticus (23.16-17) the festival is unnamed, referred to only as the culmination of the 49 days of the Omer, although the term Bikurim is once again used. In Bemidbar (28.26) again the name HaBikurim appears but as Yom instead of Chag. And in Deuteronomy (16.9) it is Chag Hashavuot as in Exodus 34 but with the definite article. Why does the Torah use different names in seemingly random fashion?
The academic response suggests that the Torah was compiled from multiple sources that were edited or collated. The strength of the academic response is that it explains the multiple names for the holiday—different communities or authors used different names for the same festival. The weakness of the theory is that it doesn’t explain the Torah as we have it now or the thoughts of the editor/compiler. What is the average reader of the Torah supposed to call this holiday?
Traditional offers several responses. The most obvious one is to dismiss the question and say that the Almighty makes the decision as to how to express Himself according to altogether different criteria than that of human readers. Another approach follows b. Gittin (60a) suggesting that text of the revelation was not written down immediately but extended over a forty-year period. Just as our own vocabulary and usage varies over time so too will that of Moses.
Alternatively the festival may bring together different elements that either combine to make the whole or allow for varying emphases depending on circumstances and location. Nature and History, Divine Intervention, combine as the alternative justifications of several festivals.
Just as Pesach is sometimes Chag HaMatzot, or Sukkot is also Chag HaAsif, so Shavuot has multiple names to record its multifunctionality.
These answers skirt the issue and don’t really explain the various differences and contradictions between the presentations of the holidays in different book of the Torah. The strength of this approach is that it forces us to take in the Torah’s presentation as a whole. If we are to study the Torah as we have it, and engage in the discourse of Torah mi-Sinai, we need to find a way to make all its parts work together. Traditional methodologies give us a way to do this.
A Kid in Its Mother’s Milk and Eating Dairy on Shavuot
The association of seething a kid in its mother’s milk on Shavuot is circumstantial at best. The association in all versions of the Torah in Exodus of bikkurim and “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” is one of the many reasons given for the custom of eating milk on the night of Shavuot.
The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk (Exod 23:19).
The Hassidic master, R. Yitzchak Meir Rotenberg (Alter), in his Chidushi HaRim, prefers this reason for our custom over the more traditional legalistic explanation found in the Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chayim 494:12), namely, that the Israelites were forced to eat dairy because they had just received the Torah and did not have time to ritually slaughter and prepare the meat properly.
What is the meaning of the prohibition to cook a kid in its mother’s milk? Maimonides, in his Guide of the Perplexed, suggests that this was an ancient pagan harvest custom that the Israelites were forbidden to imitate. This suggestion fit well with the context in Exodus and explained well the reason for the Torah suggesting such a strange practice in the first place.
This association between the Harvest Festival and boiling a kid in its mother’s milk was spuriously reinforced for a while by an archeological misreading (or Freudian error). Excavations in the late 1920s at Ras Shamra in Syria uncovered the ancient city of Ugarit, including a hoard of Ugaritic texts. Among them was a tablet containing what seemed to confirm this as a common harvest ritual. For a short time, archaeology became a friend to the Rambam, confirming his understanding of the law and making sense of its context in Exodus. Alas, further examination proved this to be a false reading. Nevertheless, it remains a wonderful illustration of the desperate need on the part of some to marry loyalty to the text with archeological evidence of its “validity.”
Thus, we don’t really know why the Torah forbids cooking a kid in its mother’s milk, nor do we know the connection between this and harvest season. So do we at least know why we eat dairy on Shavuot? Is the Chiddushei HaRim correct, or maybe the Mishnah Berurah? Maybe some other explanation? For example, R. Zvi Elimelech Spira, in his Bnei Yisoschor (Sivan 5), writes that we eat dairy on Shavuot because milk is the symbol of rachamim and chesed, which is the essence to Torah and mitzvot. Is this the reason?
Some modern biblical scholars have suggested that milk is simply a spring drink, since spring is the time where the majority of kids and lambs are born and thus, the udders of their mothers are full. Thus, quite prosaically, dairy is consumed on Shavuot because it is a spring holiday. This is quite plausible, which is often the upside of academic explanations, but this does not make the suggestions of the Chiddushei HaRim or the Bnei Ysoscher any less meaningful.
What Happened on the Mountain?
The actual description of the Sinai theophany contains inconsistencies and indeed apparent contradictions, even within the book of Exodus itself, not to mention when compared with Deuteronomy. Some verses claim the people saw God, others that they heard only a voice. In some parts of the story, the people are itching to climb the mountain, in others they are too afraid even to listen to God talk. In some texts, the mountain is called Sinai, in others Choreb. There are variations in the sequence, in the responses of the Israelites, and in what actually was received or given on Sinai.
The “critical” explanation for the above discrepancies is well-known and similar to what we saw above with the names of Shavuot. Simply put, there are different versions of the Sinai story, with different names for the mountain, since the various authors or communities knew different versions of the story. The editor/collator/redactor put them together, but without ironing out the differences.
As before, the strength of this approach is that it deals with the textual problem in an intuitive way. The weakness is that, as readers, we are left with a revelation account that has no gestalt, parts with no whole.
Traditionalists’ respond that the name varies to intentionally emphasize different characteristics of the site, the spiritual versus the physical. They add that the style of the Torah is to repeat narratives and commands in ways that add layers of complexities and nuances such as the threefold version of “No Sir she’s not my wife, she is my sister” (Genesis 12, 20 and 26) with the differing ways in which the truth is revealed and the different responses of the rulers.
Sometimes, traditionalists claim, repetitions signify importance and dignity - the repetitions concerning the construction of the Tabernacle or the gifts of the princes are adduced as examples. Sometimes repetition and variation add something that a single word cannot, such as the zachor and shamor variation in the law of Shabbat as presented in the two versions of the Decalogue. God really wishes to communicate all these ideas at once but, to use the Talmudic principal (b. Rosh Hashanah 27a), “two voices simultaneously cannot be heard.” The human ear and the human brain have certain limitations and these include the various ways in which data is assimilated. Thus, there would have been no other way to communicate these ideas other than retelling them in different ways.
The weakness of the traditional response is that, as a factual explanation of how the differences came about, it doesn’t ring true. Saying that God is complex and that God’s message has many facets doesn’t fully explain the fissures and fractures in the factual layers of the Sinai accounts.
On the other hand, the traditional readings are very powerful. By attempting to answer the contradictions, the concept of revelation and encounter with God receive layers of complexity that they did not already have. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Isn’t a Shabbat imbedded with both zachor and shamor greater than a Shabbat with only one? This may not explain the origin of the two versions of the Decalogue, but it does give us a richer commandment and a richer Torah in the end.
Akdamut Milin – Adding Color to a Medieval Poem
The well known piyyut (liturgical poem), Akdamut Milin, is associated with Shavuot and is read in many synagogues on Shavuot just before proceeding with the Torah reading. It is a poem in a difficult style of Aramaic, written in eleventh century Worms. Its subjects are God, Heaven, Torah and Israel.
It is an acrostic and each line ends with a word whose last syllable is TA. Now anyone who knows Aramaic will tell you that if the author wanted a consisted ending, TA was an easy choice, since it is a grammatical ending that can be found on many words. Thus, the use of this ending may simply be a stylistic and linguistic artifice. As explanations go, this is no doubt reasonable, but isn’t there more to say about this haunting poem?
Some commentators have suggested that TA (תא) stands for the alphabet, as it incorporates the last and the first letters. This, in turn, is reminiscent of the concept in kabbalah that God used the letters of the alphabet to create the world.
It could also be a reference to the chamber behind the Holy of Holies in the Temple (see e.g. Ezek. 40:7) and serve as a reminder of the lost past and the hopes for a rebuilding in the future. I have even heard it said that the title Akdamut is a play on the Greek academy, suggesting that the Torah is its Jewish equivalent.
Even if all of these more mystical explanations are a stretch (and in this case, who knows, it is a piyyut after all), these kabbalistic and philosophical interpretations add even more color to the already polychromous hymn, something its pious author would have almost certainly smiled upon.
Summing Up: Is Academic Study the Enemy?
These four examples demonstrate that whereas the academic perspective has an explanatory power that is difficult to deny, the traditional response has a power of its own. Does the former take away from the latter? Does allowing for unfettered and open academic exploration of our holy stories and customs ruin our appreciation of and attachment to traditional Judaism and Torah studies? For me, the answer is a resounding no.
I believe that the visceral initial Jewish objections to the Documentary Hypothesis as popularized by Wellhausen were less less because of his attempt to describe the Torah as stemming from different styles and authors, but rather because of its anti-Jewish claims that Judaism had devolved rather than evolved into rabbinic Judaism with its laws. Of course we must jettison this (unacademic and unfair!) disrespect for texts and traditions that is over a century old, most modern academic Bible scholars of all religions have done so. After rejecting this late nineteenth century anti-Judaism (and anti-Catholicism), we may accept the notion that the Torah is composed of sources. We have little to fear, in my view, from gaining new insights into the origins of our tradition.
Derrida and the Subjectivity of Interpretation
How we understand what it means to read and interpret a text has gone through radical changes in modern times. This is true in general; it is not just a feature of the world of biblical scholarship, but academic Bible scholars have begun to deal with this as well. Thus in addition to the “classic” approaches of source/redaction criticism or tradition history associated with luminaries such as Kaufmann and Gunkel, newer academic fields such as reception history and reader-response theory have come into their own. These latter are not meant to contradict the academic study of the origins of the text, but are meant to complement this study by dealing with other questions, such as how readers react to the text before them and how the text has been understood by readers and communities over time.
One of the theorists that has made this kind of breakthrough possible is Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). The school associated with Derrida and “theory” seeks to clarify the nature and the reliability of how we approach texts. It rejects the notion that we can find a stable intrinsic meaning and it rejects the idea of absolute truth. This question of what we can know, of whether there is a single “truth” is a universal problem of literature as well as religion. Just as the phenomenological approach of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) led to the appreciation of individuality of experience, so Derrida allows us to appreciate the instability of meaning and the legitimacy of multiple perspectives as we engage intellectually with texts and ideas, including religious texts and ideas.
To me, an ideal balance in Torah study allows for both critical study of the text as well as traditional study, ideally putting the two in conversation with each other. For this reason, I enjoy reading TheTorah.com and support the work of Project TABS. This site exists to maintain respect for tradition while simultaneously encouraging inquiry and an open-minded approach to understanding the Torah in the various ways it expresses itself. “Our minds are all different” (b Berachot 58a) and so inevitably is how we as individuals relate to, regard and respond to texts.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
May 29, 2014
July 16, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Rabbi Jeremy Rosen is the rabbi of the Persian Jewish Community of Manhattan and the Chairman of the Faculty for Comparative Religion in Wilrijk Belgium. He is a graduate of Cambridge University and yeshivot in Israel including Be’er Yaakov and Mir from whence he has his Smichot. He has worked in the rabbinate, education and academia.
Essays on Related Topics: