Deriving Truths through Honest Inquiry and Torah Study
I believe the Torah is true – Torat Emet – in the sense, that via study of Torah and reflection on its meanings, we are able to reach deep, crucial insight(s) and understanding(s) with regard to major aspects of reality that are of great concern to us as human beings and as Jews.
These aspects include, among others:
- Human nature
- Relations between human beings (on the various levels of individual/couple/family/(Jewish) People/humanity)
- Human-Divine relations
- Mitzvot (divine commandments)
Furthermore, my personal experience is that the insights and understandings that we reach via Torah are not static. As we continue to study over the years, Torah reveals itself to us as all the more complex, fascinating and illuminative, especially as additional facets of Torah become known to us.
This occurs both owing to our increased knowledge of how a wide variety of scholars have understood Torah, as well as from our own insights into additional possible meanings of Torah. As a result, our perceptions and understandings of the contents of Torah and the insights to be derived from it develop and transform.
Bringing Our Full Selves to the Study of Torah
It is thus crucial to come to Torah with the totality of who we are and of what we know and understand about the world. All our life experience, and all our knowledge – about science, history, human nature, literature, etc., and about how Torah was understood by commentators from ancient times to the present – are relevant to the study of Torah. Our capacity for critical thought, asking questions, not accepting facile answers etc. – are relevant and important for the comprehension of Torah.
The Torah is not a weak entity in need of our defense and protection. Torah is a powerful entity with tremendous inner strength and vitality, that has become all the more powerful thanks to the creative thinking of scholars over the generations, who frequently disagreed with each other.
Torah need not be fearful of any human question or critique. Indeed, honest questions and critiques can and should bring us to delve even deeper into Torah, and (not infrequently) to realize and acknowledge that this or that understanding of Torah that we had thought were obvious and self-evident are not so, and that significant reconsideration of our understanding of Torah is called for.
The Enriching Challenge of Modernity
The notion that modernity is inherently antithetical to Torah is simplistic. Aspects of modernity may challenge conventional views of how Torah should be understood and applied to life. But striving for an insular Jewish existence that attempts to shut out the manifold voices of contemporary life is a sure recipe to impoverish Torah.
If we can come to experience Divine wisdom and creativity through knowledge and contemplation of nature, we should be able all the more to do so via knowledge and contemplation of human culture and life in all its manifestations, for these ultimately derive from the tzelem Elokim (image of God) present in every man and woman.
The Reciprocal Wisdom of Nations: Reflections of Rav Uzziel
I conclude with words of Rabbi Ben-Zion Uzziel (Jerusalem, 1880-1953), the first chief Sephardic rabbi of the State of Israel:
כל מדינה וכל לאום המכבדים את עצמם אינם מסתפקים ולא יכולים להסתפק בגבולותיהם הצרים ותחומיהם המצומצמים, אלא הם שואפים להכניס את כל הטוב והיפה, המועיל והנהדר אל אוצרם הלאומי, ולהוציא משלהם מקסימום של שפע ברכה לאוצר האנושיות כולה. ליצור קשר של אהבה וידידות בין העמים כולם, להעשרת אוצר האנושיות בדעות מחשביות ומוסריות, ובגלוי מצפוני הטבע.
Each country and each nation that respects itself does not and cannot be satisfied with its narrow boundaries and limited domains; rather, they desire to bring all that is good and beautiful, that is helpful and glorious, into their national [cultural] treasure. And they wish to give the maximum flow of their own blessings to the [cultural] treasury of humanity as a whole, and to establish a link of love and friendship among all nations, for the enrichment of the human storehouse of intellectual and ethical ideas and for the uncovering of the secrets of nature.
אשרי המדינה ואשרהו הלאום שיכול לתת דין וחשבון לעצמו ממה שהכניסה לאוצרה משל אחרים, ויותר ממה שהוציאה משלה לגנזיה של האנושיות כולה. ואוי לה למדינה ולאומה שמתקפלת בארבע אמותיה ומצטמצמת בגבוליה הצרים, מאין לה מה לתת משלה, ומאין לה כלי קבול וכח קליטה לקבל משל אחרים.
Happy is the country and happy is the nation that can give itself an accounting of what it has taken in from others; and more important, of what it has given of its own to the repository of all humanity. Woe unto that country and that nation that encloses itself in its own four cubits and limits itself to its own narrow boundaries, lacking anything of its own to contribute [to humanity] and lacking the tools to receive [cultural contributions] from others.
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September 7, 2015
January 30, 2023
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Prof. Zvi Zohar is Chauncey Stillman Professor of Sephardic Law and Ethics at Bar Ilan University, where he teaches at the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Jewish Studies. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of Advanced Judaic Studies in Jerusalem. Zohar holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from the Institute for Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University. Among his many books are Transforming Identity (with Avi Sagi, Hebrew), The Luminous Face of the East – Studies in the Legal and Religious Thought of Sephardic Rabbis of the Middle East [Hebrew], and Rabbinic Creativity in the Modern Middle East.
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