Torah Thoughts, Rabbinic Mind, and Academic Freedom
Many people associate the Bible with synagogues and churches and believe that study of biblical texts to be the sole possession of Jewish and Christian clergy. This, however, is not the case. Academic study of the Bible, a study that takes place outside the confines of any religious group, has been a staple of university education. In addition, there are even a number of academic associations dedicated to sharing new ideas and directions in biblical studies, among other things. I am a member of two of these groups, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the National Association of Professors of Hebrew (NAPH).
Academic Biblical Scholarship in the United States
Founded in 1880, the Society of Biblical Literature is recognized in Academia as the primary scholarly address for the study of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, through its yearly conferences, journals and academic publications. Certainly, its longevity says something about the importance of the Bible even in modern academic settings and is a telling sign of SBL’s success in fostering academic dialogue about biblical studies. What is the SBL mandate? To interpret the Holy Writ objectively, insightfully, critically, creatively, theologically, and respectfully.
The SBL offers a place for people who want to study scripture outside the confines of the synagogue or church. For better not for worse, controversy permeates the rooms and conferences of the SBL annual meetings (and its publications) as divergent positions and persuasions are Solomonically argued. And for the most part harmony in diversity prevails as scholars with different academic approaches and coming from diverse religious backgrounds attempt to learn together under one tent… the tent of both Sinai and Calvary, as it were.
Not all academic organizations are affected by revelation and reason related issues that sometimes come up at SBL. The National Association of Professors of Hebrew (NAPH) is a little different. For years, I have organized and coordinated the sessions of the NAPH at the SBL annual meetings. Since NAPH is primarily interested in Hebrew language and any literature written in it, many of our sessions focus on less controversial minutia, like the linguistics of Biblical Hebrew, methodology, and text. Nevertheless, even sessions permeated by study of traditional exegesis benefit by encountering rationalist thinking and modernist categories of thought. When biblical exegesis (parshanut) and rabbinic eisegesis (midrash) encounter Western modes of thought, holistic learning transpires. And isn’t that what it is all about?
The SBL Shabbat Experience
For more than a biblical generation, I have attended annual and regional meetings of SBL, and I have come to understand—even to endorse—the dichotomy between the purely academic and scholarly tone of the sessions and some of the more parochial or religious practices—or even starkly a-religious practices—that take place in some of the private gatherings. Grace at church sponsored breakfast sessions, lack of grace but kosher food served at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America evening reception, and neither grace nor dietary supervision at the NAPH annual breakfast and business meeting. Like many, I have my own religious commitments, and I attend the Shabbat gatherings of (mostly observant) Jewish academics who eat meals and daven together at the ASOR/AAR/SBL yearly conference, organized by Dr. Joseph Weinstein.
These collegial Shabbat experiences are always pleasant, and this year’s venue was to be no exception. Pleasant, however, does not begin to describe this year’s experience. Generally, we academics are simply guests in the host shul. When, as happens occasionally, one or more of us are asked to speak, we try to keep it interesting, but we keep it pareve. Since we are always hosted in Orthodox synagogues, keeping hot button issues to ourselves seems like the best choice. This year was different as the panelists were asked to speak about the intersection between tradition and scholarship and how they, as Jewishly observant academics, reconcile their knowledge with their practice of Jewish law and tradition.
This year, the group’s hosting shul suggested a panel discussion entitled Tradition and Scholarship, Tension and Complement. It was decided that four top professors would discuss issues relating to the Bible’s presentation, Israelite history and religion. The key questions included, how can academic study enhance and inform our study of Torah? And how do observant academics deal with the tensions that arise from such study?
The panel included four speakers. Prof. Avraham (Avi) Faust, an archaeologist from Bar Ilan University, spoke about the conquest narrative of Joshua and the archaeological picture of the settlement process. Dr. Yigal Levin, a historical geographer also from Bar Ilan University, compared and contrasted biblical and archaeological descriptions of the land of Israel. Dr. Jacob Wright, a Hebrew Bible professor at Emory University, discussed the tensions that exist between academic Bible study and traditional study of Torah and how he, as an Orthodox Jew, balances faith and scholarship and mentors young students in navigating those same questions.
Finally, Prof. Ziony Zevit, of American Jewish University, described early Israelite and Judahite worship practices as they appear in the archaeological record, much of which is reminiscent of the description in the prophets. The panel was chaired by Dr. Michael Carasik of the University of Pennsylvania, who opened it up to questions at the end. This fascinating, two hour exchange of ideas was discussed with interest and positive repartee by those attending the session.
Many of us in the room were moved when it was suggested that we say kaddish derabannan, the kaddish recited after Torah study. The evening was, to my mind, the perfect instantiation of the Jewish concept of na’aseh ve-nishma. The Torah states (Exod. 24:7) that when Moses came down from speaking with God and told the people about all the rules God wants Israel to keep, they responded that they will do and they will hear (na’aseh ve-nishma). Chazal point out that the people are agreeing to keep the rules (na’aseh) even before they hear them (nishma).
To me, that night at B’nai Israel was a paradigmatic example of na’aseh ve-nishma. Our na’aseh was the Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv service, which was followed by the nishma of the panel discussion. Chazal see the “na’aseh ve-nishma” response of the Israelites in a very positive light, and their insight proves correct. When the na’aseh comes before the nishma, the result is a deep and true experience of talmud Torah.
The nishma experience of Friday night was enhanced further by Shabbat day’s Torah studies with Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber of Project TABS/ TheTorah.com and Mrs. Shira Schmidt, from the Michlalah Jerusalem College. The attitude before, during and after these talks remained that of na’aseh ve-nishma.
My Own Journey
The experience of this Shabbat was particularly inspiring to me since it mirrors much of what I have tried to accomplish in my own life as an academic scholar of Jewish Studies on one hand and a tradition-minded, observant Jew on the other. I was born in the Bronx, New York, in the early 1940s to European born, Yiddish speaking parents, who exposed me early to a traditional way of life, exemplified by yeshiva learning and Orthodox Jewish observance. In my early years I studied at Yeshiva Rabbi Israel Salanter. Then followed several years at Manhattan Talmudic Academy (high school of Yeshiva University) where I was immersed in Jewish sacred texts, traditionally divided into Scriptures and Talmud.
At the YU campus in Washington Heights, I was initiated into a virtual Jewish textual experience stretching back two thousand years through modern and medieval Europe to ancient Babylonia and Palestine. Succinctly put, my formative years nourished in me the birth of collective self-respect, pride of heritage, social justice, and what it means to live, sacrifice, and die as a proud Jew for the sake of Heaven and humankind.
My parochial education was religious and spiritual, but at the university and graduate school (Bar Ilan, Hunter College, UCLA, USC), I learned to be academic and critical. For example, I read rabbinic passages not only against broad history but as self-contained literary constructions within a literary gene. By this method, I was able not only to read about Rabbinics but to confront the process itself. This enabled me to discover the wisdom of the rabbinic dictum, ’ein mukdam u-meuchar ba-torah (“there is neither before nor after in the Torah”), meaning, that for the Sages, all of Torah (written and oral), in all periods, is of one piece.
Thus my lectures, teaching, and writing on Jewish matters are more historiosophy than historiography; paradigmatic history not pragmatic history, though the former is tied to the latter. In short, I came to believe that the continuity of the Jews lies more in actual ethnic memory than factual historical details. Faith knowledge and its corollary, “mythicizing history,” was and is the way of Torah, whose teachings I live by.
Reimagining Torah mi-Sinai
Although primarily an academic in training, I respect the doctrine of Torah mi-Sinai. At Yeshiva Rabbi Israel Salanter I learned, in the spirit of musar (moral deliberation), that God’s covenant with the Jewish People is absolute and eternal. The Covenant at Sinai, enshrined in truth and justice, forged a “covenant-people,” whose ideals will lead to a unity of peace among the peoples of the world. “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).
The doctrine of the eternity of the Torah and the covenant between God and Israel—what I understand to be the deep truth behind the mythicized construct of Torah mi-Sinai—is implicit in verses that speak of individual teachings of Torah. Take, for example, phrases such as: “A perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your (lands of) dwellings” (Lev. 3:17) and “throughout the ages as a covenant for all time” (Exod. 12:17).
Although the Sages describe a pre-revelatory Heavenly Torah (see, for example, Genesis Rabbah 8:2), this concentrates, I believe, more on the Torah’s eternal humanistic values than on the specific details of the narrative or the laws. Indeed, the Rabbis speak of two strains: revelation (“everything which a scholar will ask in the future is already known to Moses at Sinai”; see BT Meg. 19b; cf. BT Men. 29b) and the rabbinic understanding of revelation. The latter encompasses strict literalness and liberal interpretation, which sees theophany-related vocabulary and events as literary categories. By twinning the two dialectics of revelation and reasoning, the Sages may have taught more Torah than was ever received at Sinai.
I too try and follow in the footsteps of the Sages in this regard, but I do so with a twist. I combine modern biblical scholarship and classical Jewish learning to make sense of the Tanach in the life of the people then and now. I conflate profane and sacred ways to return to Sinai and back. Source criticism to unravel complexities in transmission (composition, dating, events) and perplexities in thought (Israelite religion, biblical theology) but I remain very much, perhaps wholly concerned with faith questions such as what does the holistic Torah teach?
The Dual Torah: Chazal’s Instrument for Keeping the Torah Relevant
Various biblical verses point to the Pentateuch as “Torah” distinct from the rest of the Scriptures. The verse “Moses charged us with the Teaching (Torah) as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob” (Deut 33:4) suggests the inalienable importance of Torah to Israel: It is to be transmitted from age to age. This transmission has become the major factor for the unity of the Jewish people throughout their wanderings.
The rabbis of the Talmud kept the Torah alive and made its message relevant in different regions and times. This has been done by means of the Rabbinic hermeneutic of a dual Torah read into verses from the book of Exodus. The Rabbis find the hook to their oral Torah in the very words of the written Torah itself. Regarding God’s words to Moses on the covenantal relationship between God and Israel, it is said in Exodus, “Write down (ktav) these words, for in accordance (‘al pi; literally, ‘by the mouth’) with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel” (Exod 34:27). It also says earlier in Exodus, “I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings (torah) and commandments which I have inscribed (ktav-ti) to instruct (by word of mouth) them” (Exod 24:12).
The Sages saw the words “write” and “accordance,” and “instruct” as the legitimate warrant for the written Torah (Torah shebiktav) and the oral Torah (Torah shehb`al peh). In their view, the written Torah of Moses is eternal. The oral Torah is the application of the written Torah to forever changing historic situations, which continues to uncover new levels of depth and meaning and thus make new facets of Judaism visible and meaningful in each generation. In other words, the Rabbis find written and oral word complements, which compliment written and oral Torah in the text of the Torah.
The Laws of Ma’aser: Dual Torah in Action
Take the laws of tithing, for example. Tractates Ma`aserot and Ma`aser Sheni  contain rabbinic rules and regulations in performing scriptural demands for agricultural tithing. That is, these tractates describe when and under what conditions payments are due and by whom and to whom and how a common Israelite may proceed to eat from his own crops after payment of agricultural taxes. The Torah’s laws about tithing are contradictory and, apparently, impossible to understand systemically. Is the tithe supposed to be for the person bringing it to Jerusalem to eat there, in God’s place, except for every third year where it goes to the poor and the Levites (Deut. 14:22-29), or is the tithe a tax that goes to the Levites for their temple service (Num. 18:21-24).
In these tractates the Rabbis attempt to create order out of the disparate strands of Torah law, all the while ensuring that their parshanut retain the character a “living interpretation.” Many of the rules, details and moral lessons discussed in these sugyot (Talmudic passages or rhetorical units) reflect the realities of changing times and events by modifying or reinventing the Torah of Sinai to fit later times, thus morphing it into the torah of the rabbis while maintaining continuity with the past.
Arguably, the crowning achievement of the Sages was the preservation of Judaism following the destruction of the Second Temple and Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The Jewish War against the Romans ended disastrously; and the religious center and national life were in shambles. Nonetheless, the Sages extended the Temple rites into the community and ritualized ordinary acts into sacred activities. Hence, agricultural laws, table fellowship and tithing were seen as supreme religious duties and as a hallmark of the Weltanschauung of the rabbis. Ultimately, the Tanna’im of the Mishna and Tosefta and the ’Amora’im of the Gemara salvaged Judaism from the Roman pillage of Eretz Israel by placing it beyond space and time. They moved Jewish values and thought from the catastrophic events of everyday to timeless wisdom – planting a portable homeland for the fertilization of the mind and spirit. This, in a nutshell, is the theology of the Rabbinic mind.
My Personal Na’aseh ve-Nishma
In sum, I am an academic scholar and a religious Jew. I teach Tanach, critically, at a public college, while, hand in hand, accepting the existential position that God’s teaching was shared at Sinai/Horeb, face into face (Deut. 5:4), with all of Israel, present and future. To me, “present” implies that God’s primary revelation occurred and that the Torah is the memory of this unique theophany, while “future” hints that Israel’s dialogue with God is an ongoing process. To hold to this view means to accept that people know only a part of divine truth and that each generation seeks, makes distinctions, categorizes, and strives to discover more.
My preferential Torah rallying cry remains: Na`aseh ve-Nishma, “We shall do and we shall hear [reason]. [Exod 24:7]). This is what I cried out to the audience after the panel discussion in Baltimore and this is the cry I make now. Na‘aseh alone permits no ultimate questions; nishma alone provides no ultimate answers. Na`aseh and nishma` together ask questions and attempt answers but leave many uncertainties unanswered. Yet uncertainty is truth in the making and the inevitable price for intellectual, academic, and ultimately spiritual freedom.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
January 16, 2014
October 2, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Zev Garber is (Emeritus) Chair of Jewish Studies and Philosophy at Los Angeles Valley College. He is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Studies in Shoah and Shofar Supplements in Jewish Studies and is the editor of the journal, Shofar. Among Garber’s publications are Methodology in the Academic Teaching of Judaism; Shoah: The Paradigmatic Genocide; Perspectives on Zionism; and Double Takes: Thinking and Rethinking Issues of Modern Judaism in Ancient Contexts.
Essays on Related Topics: