Torat Emet: Moderating the Stark Truth of the Written Torah
אשר נתן לנו תורת אמת וחיי עולם נטע בתוכנו.
Who gave us a Torah of truth and planted eternal life in our midst.
As a Levi, called to the Torah frequently, I often say these words and contemplate their meaning.
The Written Torah: The Reading of the Ba’al HaTurim
Rabbi Ya‘akov ben Asher (1269-1343), known as the Ba‘al ha-Turim, offered the following interpretation in his halachic work, the Arba’a Turim, known as the Tur (Orach Chaim 139):
תורת אמת היא תורה שבכתב וחיי עולם נטע בתוכנו היא תורה שבע"פ דכתיב (קהלת יב:יא) דברי חכמים כדרבונות וכמסמרות נטועים
“A Torah of truth” refers to the Written Torah, and “planted eternal life in our midst” refers to the Oral Torah, as is written (Eccl 12:11), “The sayings of the wise are like goads, like fixed nails…”
The Written Torah with the Oral Torah: The Point of the Ba’al HaTurim
It is clear, however, that the Ba‘al ha-Turim does not contemplate the Written Torah as an independent text, unaccompanied by the Oral Torah. This is made clear by the continuation of his remarks:
ושתי ברכות אלו יש בהם מ' תיבות כנגד מ' ימים שעמד משה בהר.
These two blessings contains forty words, corresponding to the forty days Moses spent on the mountain.
The Ba‘al ha-Turim is known for his proclivity to include in his halachic discourse piquant homiletical comments that serve as a window into his religious world. As implied here, he views the Oral Torah as a gift from Sinai, which is why the blessing thanking God for both the written and oral Torah is written in such a way as to recall the Sinai experience. He views the oral Torah as a natural augmentation to the written Torah, not out of naiveté, but with full appreciation of the creativity inherent to it.
His appreciation of the complexity of the oral law’s relationship to the written law is evident from his quotation from Ecclesiastes. Specifically, the Ba’al HaTurim alludes to Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah’s gloss on this verse found in the Tosefta (Sotah 7:11) and the Bavli (Chagigah 3a):
"דברי חכמים כדרבונות וכמסמרות נטועים" - מה דורבן זה מכוין את הפרה להביא חיים בעולם אף דברי תורה אינן אלא חיין לעולם שנ' עץ חיים היא וגו' או מה דורבן זה מיטלטל יכול אף כך דברי תורה ת"ל וכמסמרות נטועים [או אינן חסירין ולא יתירין תלמוד לומר נטועים] מה נטיעה פרה ורבה אף דברי תורה פרין ורבין...
“The sayings of the wise are like goads, like fixed nails” – Just as the goad directs the cow so as to bring life into the world, thus words of Torah indeed are life to the world, as is said (Prov 3:18), “it is a tree of life, etc.” Alternately, just as the goad is movable—perhaps even words of Torah are thus? The text states, “like fixed nails.” [Alternately, perhaps they decrease and do not increase? The text states, “fixed.”] Just as that which is planted is fruitful and multiplies, so words of Torah are fruitful and multiply…
In this text, the Oral Torah works as a goad, directing the “fixed” and immovable written Torah to be fruitful and multiply, a delicate balance between conservation and creativity.
Blessing the Written Torah while Acknowledging the Oral Torah
Although this blessing is recited after reading from the written Torah, in the Ba’al HaTurim’s understanding, it seeks to redirect our attention toward the oral Torah, which injects meaning into its written counterpart. Thus, in blessing God after I am called up to the Torah, I am blessing Him for the Torah read at public prayer services—the Written Torah. However, my blessing is an acknowledgment not of an independent text, but of the matrix of the expansive and rich world of the Oral Torah.
By this I do not mean to imply that there is no truth to the simple sense of the Bible, but that its truth is not complete unless supplemented by the Oral Torah.
An Equivocal Torah: Torah Scholars as “Collectors”
In the Written Torah, we frequently encounter severe, unequivocal statements, while in the Oral Torah, we encounter a different reality. The verse quoted above from Ecclesiastes makes mention of בעלי אסופות, literally, “collectors,” an opaque term that the Sages assume refers to themselves, Torah scholars. They explain it as follows (b. Chagigah 3b):
בעלי אספות – אלו תלמידי חכמים שיושבין אסופות אסופות ועוסקין בתורה, הללו מטמאין והללו מטהרין, הללו אוסרין והללו מתירין, הללו פוסלין והללו מכשירין.
“Collectors” (ba’alei asufot)— these are scholars who sit in different groups (asufot asufot) and occupy themselves with Torah. These declare impure, and those declare pure. These forbid, and those permit. These declare unfit, and those fit.
שמא יאמר אדם: היאך אני למד תורה מעתה? תלמוד לומר: כולם נתנו מרעה אחד – אל אחד נתנן, פרנס אחד אמרן, מפי אדון כל המעשים ברוך הוא, דכתיב וידבר אלהים את כל הדברים האלה.
Perhaps a person will say, “Then how can I learn Torah?” The text states, “they were all given by one shepherd”—a single God gave them, a single leader stated them, from the mouth of the Lord of all creatures, blessed is He, as is written (Exod 20:1), “and God spoke all these things.”
Judging Biblical Texts by Western Standards
The Torah contains a number of troubling, harsh laws which force us to think deeply about their meaning and application. Applying Western judgment to these severe scriptural statements without thinking about the context in which they were made is unsound. Sensitivity to suffering is not a uniquely Western value, and thus we need to try to understand why a given law allowed or mandated cruel behavior and what was at stake in that society and in that context.
Moreover, it is often hard to know how a law functioned in a given context: was it merely on the books or practical, is it all legal language or is there rhetorical flourish involved?Rabbinic tradition, in its own way, took on many of these statements, feeling that they called out to us for interpretation or exposition, circumscription or mitigation. For example,
- Priests marrying harlots – The Written Torah states (Lev. 21:7):
אִשָּׁה זֹנָה וַחֲלָלָה לֹא יִקָּחוּ וְאִשָּׁה גְּרוּשָׁה מֵאִישָׁהּ לֹא יִקָּחוּ כִּי קָדֹשׁ הוּא לֵאלֹהָיו.
They shall not marry a woman defiled by harlotry, nor shall they marry one divorced from her husband. For they are holy to their God
This ostensibly refers to any woman who has had intercourse outside of marriage. Nevertheless, Chazal shrunk the category of “zonah” so that, amazingly, it no longer included either prostitutes or promiscuous women. Instead, they limited it to a subset of cases, which were rare in their time.
- Destroying the seven nations – The Written Torah states (Deut. 20:16–17),
רַק מֵעָרֵי הָעַמִּים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לֹא תְחַיֶּה כָּל נְשָׁמָה. כִּי הַחֲרֵם תַּחֲרִימֵם הַחִתִּי וְהָאֱמֹרִי הַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי הַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
In the towns of the latter peoples, however, which the LORD your God is giving you as a heritage, you shall not let a soul remain alive. No, you must proscribe them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you.
Nevertheless, according to the Oral Torah, “King Sennacherib (701 BCE) of Assyria already came and shuffled all the nations,” and as Maimonides notes, “their memory already has been lost.” Thus, there is no room left, according to the rabbis, to enforce this law and slaughter members of the seven nations of Canaan.
- Capital Punishment – According to the Written Torah, capital punishment is meted out to those who violate any number of prohibitions, but according to the Oral Torah, such a penalty is limited to those who flagrantly rebel against a formative ethos, in the presence of witnesses and in defiance of forewarning.
And the list goes on and on. In almost every area, the process of the Oral Torah constructs an image that is complex, delicate, and sympathetic to the human situation far more than is the Written Torah.
The Role of the Written Torah’s Stark Presentation
Even we, who identify with Rabbi Avraham Ibn ‘Ezra, Nachmanides, Rabbi Shemu’el ben Me’ir (Rashbam), and numerous other Judaic luminaries who valued the study of peshat, i.e., the simple sense of the Torah, subscribe to the the need to mitigate severe biblical proclamations, in no small part because of the centrality of the text, which is the source of many a formative ethos in our tradition. Thus, they looked for a balance between acknowledging the peshat but limiting or recasting the application.
Far be it from us to execute people for religious violations! Nevertheless, to choose one example, it is imperative that we understand that violation of Shabbat is a grave derelictions. In our day, in a world in which the rabbis have effectively erased the death penalty and forward thinking modern posqim have even removed the judgmental critique of Jews who are not observant, we need to read the death penalties described in Scripture as a sort of code for significance.
If we approach the Torah’s legal texts as a kind of narrative, we can translate the Shabbat laws in the following way: Shabbat is of serious importance in Judaism. For religious Jews, it functions as one of the pivotal behaviors that solidifies the community and brings God’s presence into our lives. For the world it represents a core value: everybody needs a day of rest from his or her toil.
Scriptural narrative too has a dual role to play. It too calls out to us for interpretation and exposition, and it has its own unique function of constructing worlds of meaning for humanity and for Jews. It is no secret in this day and age that the Bible cannot be treated as a source of literal historical truth. This is true of every text, and it is true even of prophecies, notwithstanding our belief in their authenticity and divine source
I admit that I was somewhat surprised by the emphasis on historicity in the symposium’s questions. To me, the time for discussing the historicity of narratives came to an end at some point in the nineteenth century. Although, the degree of the discrepancy between scriptural narrative and historical events varies between different parts of Scripture, stories about events that have transpired are never identical to the course of events as they happened.
In any case, we do not take historical truth as the litmus test of literary narrative in general, and certainly of biblical narrative. The books of Job was described as a parable as early as the Rabbis, while medieval rabbinic authorities interpreted wide swathes of the Torah as allegorical.
However, I do not think of Torah in terms of parables and allegories, I think that scriptural narratives embody truths that are heavenly gifts to those abiding in human existentiality on this earth wherever they may be, and particularly to the covenantal community.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
September 11, 2015
May 12, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Rabbi David Bigman has been the Rosh HaYeshiva at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa since 1995. Before becoming Rosh HaYeshiva at YMG, he served as the Rabbi of Kibbutz Maale Gilboa, and as the Rosh HaYeshiva in Yeshivat haKibbutz HaDati Ein Tzurim. He was one of the founders of Midreshet haBanot b’Ein Hanatziv.
Essays on Related Topics: