Reclaiming the Multi-Genre Perspective
Reclaiming the Multi-Genre Perspective
Time to Reevaluate the “Necessary Belief”
In presenting the Torah as uniform and equal, Maimonides made an important contribution to Jewish belief. His view affirms the exalted and binding status of the Torah—a status that I would certainly never contest. In light of what we have seen, however, it seems to me that the time has come to revive the predominant view of the Rabbis, a view that also emerges from the words of the poskim and is alluded to in the words of the commentators. This view identifies different genres in our Torah that testify to diverse facets of revelation and different levels of importance.
When I discovered the basic elements of these ideas at a young age, about forty years ago, I kept them secret out of a sense that they would severely harm those around me, even though in my case they led to great spiritual growth. But now I sense that there are many people, young and old, who thirst for this kind of statement of belief.
In a passage that appears in Orot ha-Emunah and in Kovetz1, Rav Kook distinguishes between two types of beliefs:
All beliefs can be divided into the two systems that Maimonides identified: true beliefs and necessary beliefs. The true beliefs are the foundation that sustains the principles of faith, and the necessary beliefs are like a peel protecting the fruit…
At times, one of the “necessary” beliefs becomes extraneous, and it may even harm true belief:
Sometimes it becomes imperative to banish one of the “necessary” beliefs from the sphere of faith, because the collective has already arrived at a level at which it no longer needs to be supported by this “necessary” part of the belief system. Then a kind of turbulence begins: from one angle, it looks like a breach of the foundation of the faith, while from the other it looks like a light appearing on the horizon of faith and a reinforcement of its foundations. And in fact, there is truth to both perspectives.
Rav Kook acknowledges that innovation is not always appropriate for all people and all groups and that it may even hurt those who do not need it. Nonetheless, he maintains that new perspectives are worth articulating because they are vital to those who have already come to recognize that the previous belief was merely “necessary.”
Not all people or groups are chosen for such enlightenment at every point in history. At times, one group has already reached a stage in the development of its collective consciousness and culture at which it no longer needs a given “necessary” belief, which becomes a burden on its spirit and the holiness of its soul and its flight. But in circles that have not yet reached this stage, for whom the necessity remains, banishing it uproots and destroys faith.
My prayer is that the publication of these ideas will strengthen the foundations of faith in its “more exalted, eternal, and true” form.
A Note on Educating Children
It seems to me that if we begin at an early age to educate students from a perspective that views God’s Torah as a composite of diverse divine revelations, we will greatly alleviate many difficult struggles, including those that result from the encounter with biblical scholarship. Granted, we will not resolve all difficulties this way, but we will soften the shock from this encounter, a shock that is heightened when we educate students in the dogma of the Torah’s dictation.
It is commonly said in the yeshiva world, regarding the verse ‘but the wheat and the emmer were not hurt, for they ripen late’(Exodus 9:32), that a gentle, flexible stance better contends with a harsh storm than a rigid stance: “Let a man always be soft as a reed and not hard as a cedar. In the case of a reed, all the winds come and blow it and it goes along with them, and when the winds quiet down it returns to standing in its place.”
Maharal: Two Views of Torah
I believe that the perspective of Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (Maharal, 1520-1609) can serve as an opening to a broader view of the arc of literary genres found in the Torah of Moses based on a complex picture of divine revelation (Tiferet Yisrael, 43):
The intention of this is not, God forbid, to say that Moses said something himself, even one letter. Only [to observe] the distinction between Deuteronomy and the rest of the Torah. For the Torah that blessed God gave to Israel contains two points of view: one point of view is that of God, who gave the Torah. The other point of view is that of Israel, which received the Torah. If one person gives something to his fellow and they are of equal standing, there is only one point of view, since both are at the same level. But when blessed God, who is above everything, gave the Torah to Israel, and they were on earth, it was impossible for there not to be a special point of view from the perspective of the giver and a different point of view from the perspective of the receiver. Therefore, the entire Torah except Deuteronomy, which is the last book, is told from the point of view of the giver. Because the receiver receives at the end, after the giver has finished his decree; only then does the receiver receive. This is why Deuteronomy is called “Mishneh Torah”(reiteration of the Torah), as if it were a distinct thing, which is from the perspective of the receiver. And there is a particular point of view on the receiver’s end, as it says in Deuteronomy: ‘Moses undertook to explain this teaching (torah)’(Deuteronomy 1:5), for the receiver needs more interpretation and explanation. And this is the distinction between the “Torah” (the first four books) and the “Mishneh Torah” (Deuteronomy).
The Maharal sees in prophecy, and even in Moses’ prophecy, an encounter between God and humanity, a phenomenon that will always have a divine facet and a human facet. On the basis of these words, albeit not necessarily their original meaning, I would like to propose the following perspective, which allows us to read the Torah and to be impressed by the full variety found in it.
Between God’s Torah and Humanity’s Torah
The entire Torah is situated between the point of view of the giver and the point of view of the receiver, and the various genres that we identify in the Torah express particular points along the continuum of communication between the Infinite and human beings. (Of course, this is only a schematic description, designed to simplify complex phenomena that cannot truly be simplified.) This observation enables a “close reading” of the Torah, free of apologetics, but guided by a fear of heaven in which “there is no place free of Him” and “there is no thought that apprehends Him.”
I admit that these views are meaningful mainly to those who live their lives in relationship with God. All reality stands between that which is given from heaven and human observation. Therefore, a human being can experience various points of contact between these two poles. Nonetheless, I do not claim that these encounters, even sublime experiences of self-nullification or inclusion, are true prophecy. Prophecy is a special phenomenon in which the prophet succeeds in expressing the will of God in an edict designed to shape and direct the behavior of all people; in contrast, other inspirational experiences are expressed morally, poetically, or artistically, but not normatively. In biblical prophecy, the prophet receives verbal messages that can be translated into practical guidelines.
A plain reading of the Torah, without prior assumptions, requires the conclusion that the Torah does not present itself as uniform, but rather the opposite: its various parts take the form of diverse literary genres that embody different facets of revelation.
This reading accords with the care the Torah takes to note the context of a given revelation, for example, ‘God called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying’ (Lev. 1:1); or the context of a prophetic speech, such as ‘These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel’ (Deut. 1:1). It likewise accords with the absence of any such indication when the Torah narrates in its usual manner. That is to say, the care the Torah takes to distinguish genres reveals the significance of their different revelatory characters.
This understanding continues the path of the Rabbis in many places, as well as the words of the Rishonim and Acharonim, who saw the whole Torah as “Torah from heaven” or “Torah from Sinai” but did not espouse the “equal-uniform” approach of Maimonides, and who intuitively sensed the singularity that our Torah attributes to particular sections, and especially to the Sinai revelation and the Decalogue.
Conclusion – The Value of Modern Biblical Scholarship
My view on these matters developed from an impression made by the plain meaning of biblical texts and the words of the Rabbis and poskim, even before I was aware of biblical criticism. When I was introduced to modern biblical scholarship in all its fields, I was amazed at its potential as an interpretive tool. With the help of this tool, I was able to understand several biblical texts that had seemed closed off to me, and I experienced the same excitement and joy of uncovering the truth as I had when learning a solution to a contradiction in Maimonides’ writings that Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik proposed in a general lecture in the yeshiva.
At present, I am convinced that the different view of the Torah that I formed back then caused the religious doubts that accompanied my encounter with biblical scholarship to be overshadowed by joy and excitement. But beyond the natural excitement in solving problems, I believe that truths are realized in this process; and even from a more pragmatic point of view, I think that we should recognize the methods of biblical scholarship as important interpretive tools in the toolbox of the student of Torah, which can shed light on the Torah’s composition and formation. On the other hand, we must not forget that these tools cannot evaluate the revelation in our holy Torah. Science does not deal with the value and meaning of the things it investigates. Science is a technical tool; it does not have the capacity to evaluate the human encounter with the surrounding world.
An analysis of the historical formation of our Torah can never touch on the secret of its formation as a document based on the encounter between humanity and God. Even after many years in which cultures changed and new scientific tools were developed, the individual who ties his soul to Torah is able to experience something of this encounter. Biblical scholarship does not touch on the exalted stature of the Torah, just as the study of art is not able to evaluate the inspiration behind painting, musical composition, literature, and poetry.
What theology, then, is relevant in our generation, and how can we direct our students toward it? It seems to me that there is no other option but to let go of the narrative of the dictation, which does not even accord with the simple meaning of the biblical texts, let alone with the findings of biblical scholarship. Prophecy is communication between God and humanity, so it is inevitable that our Torah should have echoes of the language and culture of the time when it was given. The level of human involvement in prophecy differs from one prophet to the next, and even from one prophecy to the next. Even the Torah, which was given as a foundational and binding document, is not an exception to this rule.
Rabbinic literature offers a key to an appropriate view of revelation: “The Torah speaks in the language of human beings.” We can understand this statement as merely a comment on the literary style of our Torah, but it can also be understood in a broader and more fundamental way. This insight points to the fact that communication between the Infinite and humanity is tied up in human language that by its nature has human limitations, especially the limitations of time and place. This view causes bewilderment only where there is a notion of absolute difference between God and humanity.
This notion, which is pervasive in many circles of Western philosophy in our time, need not discourage us from expressing the view that there can be encounters with the sublime, the mysterious, and the wondrous. There is no reason to renounce the traditional view that our Torah is a prophetic document with no peer in human history. Our Torah is a faithful expression of God’s will translated into human language, with everything that comes with that. The process of its creation is complex and includes different prophetic moments, which occur in the wondrous course of communication between God and the human beings created in His image and likeness.
It is fitting that the process of the Torah’s creation remain somewhat obscure, only because excess engagement with the “technicalities” of revelation almost inevitably leads to associations from the sphere of human communication. This is an illusion from which it is proper to refrain, in keeping with the words of the Torah, ‘Moses approached the darkness where God was’ (Exodus 20:21).
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May 14, 2014
October 3, 2019
Rabbi David Bigman has been the Rosh HaYeshiva at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa since 1995. Before becoming Rosh HaYeshiva at YMG, he served as the Rabbi of Kibbutz Maale Gilboa, and as the Rosh HaYeshiva in Yeshivat haKibbutz HaDati Ein Tzurim. He was one of the founders of Midreshet haBanot b’Ein Hanatziv.
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