Partnering with Torah
The person who pronounces the blessing after a section of public Torah reading grasps the scroll’s handles and recites: Blessed are you… who has given us Torat emet/a Torah of truth. The two-fold ritual of publically proclaiming and personally claiming Torah ritually demonstrates the dynamic, larger-than-translation meaning of Torat emet.
A Torah of truth is not a Torah of fact. Truth, emet, at its Hebrew root also means, “dependable,” and “trustworthy.” Torat emet is not defined by strict, contextually bound meanings. Rather, Torah becomes emet in the partnership between the ancient word and those readers committed to Torah as the trustworthy vocabulary of ongoing, unfolding Jewish consciousness and imagination. Torat emet—a Torah that is trustworthy, tried and true— is produced by ongoing communities that strive to make the world intelligible through conversations between living experience and the ancient Torah text.
Nahmanides’ Development of the Principle: “Do What Is Right and Good”
An example of the process of joining the timeless text with a timely reading can be taken from Nahmanides’ (13th century Spain) Torah commentary to Deuteronomy 6:18:
וְעָשִׂיתָ הַיָּשָׁר וְהַטּוֹב בְּעֵינֵי יְ-הוָה...
Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord…
According to its plain meaning (peshat), said Nahmanides, the phrase refers only to conduct regarding God’s explicit commands. Then, he adduced the teaching of Talmudic forebears that right and good referred not only to commandments but to those acts that make for coherent life within the commanded community. To make a contemporary illustration, the honor of aunts and uncles is right and good even absent a specific command.
Nahmanides then applied this “great principle” of living “beyond the explicit measure (לפנים משורת הדין)” of the text to life in his own cosmopolitan world. Right and good, he taught, describes all proper human behavior that follows from the necessarily limited Torah examples of conduct:
לפי שאי אפשר להזכיר בתורה כל הנהגות האדם עם שכניו ורעיו... ותקוני הישוב והמדינות כלם.
For it is impossible to mention in the Torah all aspects of a person’s interaction with humankind… in all societies and countries.
In the spirit of Nahmanides, who emphasizes the importance of the Torah’s truth within a community, I suggest that Torat emet is manifest when the ancient text is held—physically and metaphorically—in the living grasp of those who join the community of previous, present and future generations of Torah interpreters.
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September 7, 2015
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Dr. Rabbi Steven Sager, z"l, was the director of Sicha (sichaconversation.org), a Jewish education project that specializes in rabbinic enrichment and mentoring. He was the rabbi emeritus of Beth El Synagogue in Durham, North Carolina, a senior rabbinic fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, and an adjunct professor at Duke Divinity School.
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