The Torah is Greater than the Sum of Its Parts
I must admit that I have never been particularly troubled by the tension between the academic position asserting the Tanakh’s gradual formation, and the belief that Torah is from Heaven. When asked about this, I recall one of the scenes from Breaking Bad, a television series about Walter White, a chemistry teacher, who makes a career change after being diagnosed with cancer, and morphs into a cruel drug dealer in an attempt to provide for his family after his death.
In this scene, White, who has just disposed of the corpse belonging to the first of many victims, sits in his car and ponders his college days, back when he was a brilliant student, a prodigy with a glowing future. The camera then pans to a classroom overlooking a misty landscape. There, White and his then-lover contemplate which chemicals make up the human body. He writes on the board: 63% hydrogen, 26% oxygen, 9% carbon… the two continue calculating the lesser elements as well as the trace elements iron and phosphorous…which total 99.888042% of the human body’s chemical components. However, there is still a tiny fraction to account for–0.111958%–to be exact, that they cannot manage to identify. Finally, his girlfriend asks: “What about the soul?”
Indeed, human beings are not the sum total of their quantifiable elements – the immeasurable soul remains. The world is also not simply the aggregate of its components, and the Tanakh is similarly not merely the sum total of its parts. The Tanakh’s hidden magic is the fact that it is never fully revealed to us; it never fully conveys its essence even to those most dedicated to discerning its meaning. No study has ever succeeded in encapsulating its essence in accord with its plurality of perspectives, and it is hard to believe any study ever will.
Even people who have read the entire Torah annually for several decades discover new hidden treasures, that had heretofore remained unnoticed. Likewise, even someone who has taught Tanakh repeatedly will be surprised, when approaching its study with an open heart. This dimension, the soul of the Tanakh, thus prevents it from remaining solely in the realm of one academic investigation or another.
The burning desire to reveal the truth is shared by believers and academics alike. When we take a careful look, we find that faith is not all that dissimilar to academic study – We are not speaking here of two distinct and closed systems. Instead, both contain great multiplicity and variation to the point where one cannot make a categorical distinction between scientific and faith-based inquiry. Just as there are various scholarly approaches to understanding biblical literature and the Tanakh’s history, development, and processes of canonization, so too, it is impossible to speak of one unified understanding of Tanakh.
For many people, the Tanakh is a document that attests to the Jewish people’s right to the Land of Israel, for others it is a philosophical text like many others. Some employ it in order to validate racism, sexism, and nationalism, while others utilize it as a document championing social justice and the love of humanity and the world. Beliefs and opinions affect both the basic assumptions of the academics committed to objective research as well as the fruits of their research, as well as how they understand the Sinaitic revelation. Their temperaments and styles also influence their approaches to academic research and to questions regarding the text’s sanctity.
The web of enchantment that biblical literature weaves around its students and readers emanates, in my view, from that tiny, yet crucial, particle that no theory or doctrine of belief can explain. This particle lies at the very core of the Tanakh, and is the reason why it remains timeless, never losing its radiance.
The desire for absolute truth is an understandable one, common to those who believe in “Torah from Sinai” and to those lauding razor-sharp and impartial academic study of biblical literature. Both, however, are oblivious to the fact that the Tanakh as a literary, spiritual, and religious agent, that has no peer in its extensive influence in shaping humanity (at least in the West), cannot be placed in a clamp, whether by those sitting in the study hall or by those dwelling in the halls of the university.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
February 2, 2022
January 1, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Rabbi Dalia Marx is Professor of Liturgy and Midrash at Hebrew Union College-JIR (Jerusalem). She earned her Ph.D. at the Hebrew University and her rabbinic ordination at HUC-JIR (Jerusalem and Cincinnati). Among her publications are When I Sleep and When I Wake: On Prayers between Dusk and Dawn and A Feminist Commentary of the Babylonian Talmud. Her website is: www.dalia-marx.com.
Essays on Related Topics: