The Torah’s Essence Does Not Lie in Its Origin
Those who have spent time in yeshiva know that Thursday afternoons/evenings are somewhat relaxed, giving students time to review the week’s shiurim (lectures) or study parshat ha-shavuah (the weekly portion). One such Thursday, my chavruta (study partner) and I were at logger-heads about the meaning of a scriptural verse. We decided to ask the Rosh Yeshiva (head of the yeshiva) for advice.
We approached him and each offered our views. He stroked his beard and said, “What difference does it make what the verse really means? We only care what Rashi says the verse means.” It so happened that this Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Brovender, also has a doctorate in Semitic languages from the Hebrew University. His answer was only half serious. I want to address the serious half.
There is little doubt about tradition’s view on the origin of Torah. And there is little doubt about the critic’s views on the development of Torah. But how far apart are they? Professor Moshe Greenberg once told us that there is not one question the critics raised about scripture that medieval exegetes did not already recognize. The difference is only how each solved the problem. Thus, critics do not invent anything new; rather, they shift the premises about origins and offer us a historicized Torah as opposed to a transcendent one. This does not by definition deny revelation, it only complicates our access to it.
One of the more curious aspects of the historicized Torah is why it became such a touchstone for Orthodoxy and a mark distinguishing tradition from modernity. That is, why is it traditionalists could not reconcile biblical criticism with tradition the way Maimonides reconciled Aristotle and medieval science with tradition? It is true that the Maimonidean project was initially rejected by many, and it is true some traditionalists have indeed come to terms with biblical criticism and Orthodoxy. But the question remains as to why biblical criticism became a line in the sand for so many.
I suggest that in some way Orthodoxy’s rejection of biblical criticism, or its view that it undermines traditional belief in the sacrality of Torah, emerges from a Protestant mind-set, one that equates origin with essence. Viewing essence through the lens of origins suggest that if the myth of origins of Torah is subverted, its sacred essence is undermined. Of course, the ancient sages did not have this particular challenge, but they had others that were equally vexing. And they solved their problems with scripture by inventing creative, often startlingly radical, exegetical procedures that enabled them to get the text to say what they wanted it to say.
If one dares to look at midrash, or Kabbalah, from outside its orbit of authority, one can see what the sages could do to a verse; how they can get it say the very opposite of what it appears to say. One can see that the sages were not apologists for scriptural maculation but creative inventors of scriptural manipulation. It is this manipulation we call “Tradition.”
If we can separate origin from essence and conceive of sacredness outside any historical claim made about origins, the challenge of biblical criticism becomes a fact of life as opposed to a mark of heresy. And it is in that spirit that our Rosh Yeshiva could say that what matters is only what Rashi says the verse means.
This, of course, does not mean only Rashi. Rashi is simply a synecdoche for the chain of interpretation. If scripture is truly holy, and by holy I mean it carries within itself a repository of meaning toward the good life as a response to an indecipherable, but also accessible, divine call, its origins are irrelevant. What is relevant is only that we engage in the age-old exercise of extending that holiness forward.
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Prof. Rabbi Shaul Magid is the Distinguished Fellow in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, and the former Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies at Indiana University/Bloomington. He is also the rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue in Seaview, NY. His M.A. is from Hebrew University, his Ph.D. from Brandeis, and his ordination from rabbis in Israel. He is the author of American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society (Indiana University Press, 2013), Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity, and the Construction of Modern Judaism (Stanford University Press, 2014), Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism (Academic Studies press, 2019) and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik's Commentary to the New Testament (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).
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