Torat Emet – A Challenge, Not a Given
In what sense would I consider the Torah to be torat emet? First, let me state unequivocally in what sense I would not. The Torah is not “true,” in my view, in the factual, historical sense. Nor do I consider all of the Torah “true,” at least not absolutely so, in the ethical sense. I do not believe that a woman who seeks to save her husband’s life by grabbing his opponent’s private parts should have her hand chopped off (Deut 25:11—12), or that it is an abomination for a man to have sexual relations with another man and that such a man deserves the death penalty (Lev 18:22; 20:13).
Bringing the Torah Closer to the Truth
I would interpret the concept of torat emet as applying, first of all, not to the written Torah on its own, but to the Torah as continuously read, interpreted and reinterpreted by the Jewish people. It is only the Torah that is brought into dialogue with the spirit of the Jewish people in their struggle to do what is right in the eyes of God that approaches the status of “truth.”
When the rabbis determined that the law of the rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:18—21) applies only for the three months after he turns thirteen, only if both parents are living and agree to prosecute him, only if he eats gluttonously in the company of a group without a single worthy person, etc. (see Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Mamrim, 7) – they brought the written Torah closer to “truth.” The implication of this is that what is “true” about Torah is not necessarily the content of the interpreted Torah at any given time as much as the process.
Pursuing the Truth in Torah with Sincerity
It is worth emphasizing that biblical אמת often refers to sincerity and authenticity rather than “objective” truth. Thus, when Jethro recommends that Moses appoint אנשי אמת as judges (Exodus 18:21), he means to recommend people of integrity. Thus, what makes Torah “true” is the sincerity and integrity with which one pursues the process of searching and interpreting.
This is why, some interpreters argue, God commends Job above his friends at the end of the book (42:7). The friends of Job did not speak נכונה כעבדי איוב, which can be taken to mean, “truthfully, as Job did.” The point is not that Job’s harsh accusations of God’s cruelty were truer than the pious affirmations of the friends in the objective sense. Rather, Job has struggled deeply and heroically for truth. He did not simply accept traditional truths on the basis of their authoritative status when they did not cohere with his deepest convictions—and for this he is rewarded by God.
The Challenge of Torah Emet
Finally, if the truth of torat emet depends upon the sincerity with which one struggles with both the written and oral Torahs and with one’s inner soul to find what God wants from us today, then we must say that torat emet is more a challenge than a given. The Torah, then, is “truth” only to the extent that we make it so.
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September 6, 2015
January 28, 2023
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Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).
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