The Intertwined Tree of Torah and Wisdom
My Dual/Duel Education
I am the product of a secular culture and education, and it would be a betrayal of that part of myself to deny what I derived from it. At the same time, I am the child of an, admittedly attenuated, Jewish tradition. So I live in a kind of Buberian Zwischenseins, an in-between state, each part of me feeding and challenging the other.
I am disturbed by the assumption that the term emet, “truth,” refers to some kind of eternally valid intellectual proposition. The biblical root אמן has the sense of “firm,” “reliable,” so I understand its cognate אמת as something that can be “trusted,” that is to say, based on and validated by experience, and therefore subject to constant re-evaluation and potential revision. I trust until that trust is questioned or challenged by new knowledge or experience.
Peace Prevails over Truth
I can even claim some authority for the pragmatic relativity of emet from the confluence of or tension between two rabbinic comments, one from the Mishna and one from the Bavli:
m. Avot 1:18
רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר על שלשה דברים העולם עומד על הדין ועל האמת ועל השלום.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: “On three things the world endures: on truth, on judgment and on peace.”
b. Yevamot 65b
וא"ר אילעא משום רבי אלעזר בר' שמעון: מותר לו לאדם לשנות בדבר השלום
Rabbi Ila said in the name of Rabbi Eleazar ben Simeon: “One may deviate from the truth for the sake of peace.”
This juxtaposition suggests that the world may stand on the pillars of peace and truth, but when conflict arises, we choose peace over truth.
Incorporating עץ חיים, the Tree of Wisdom into Torah
The phrase “torat emet” is part of the Torah service during which we sing etz hayyim hee, “it is a tree of life.” Since we are holding the scroll at the time, it is evident that Torah is what is meant here. The source of this quote, however, is Proverbs 3:17-18 (in reverse order) and the referent is actually chochmah, “ (secular) wisdom” and tevunah, “(secular) discernment” (3:13). Identifying wisdom, i.e., empirical knowledge, with Torah, i.e., revelation, allows the two to be in constant debate with one another, the balance between them shifting in changing circumstances.
A Hymn to Torah Read Backwards
Psalm 19:8-10 is a hymn to Torah.
יט:ח תּוֹרַת יְ-הוָה תְּמִימָה
עֵדוּת יְ-הוָה נֶאֱמָנָה
יט:ט פִּקּוּדֵי יְ-הוָה יְשָׁרִים
מִצְוַת יְ-הוָה בָּרָה
יט:י יִרְאַת יְ-הוָה טְהוֹרָה
מִשְׁפְּטֵי יְ-הוָה אֱמֶת
19:8 The teaching (Torah) of the LORD is perfect,
restoring the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are enduring,
making the simple wise;
19:9 The precepts of the LORD are just,
rejoicing the heart;
the instruction of the LORD is lucid,
making the eyes light up.
19:10 The fear of the LORD is pure,
the judgments of the LORD are true,
These six half verses form a ladder linking the macrocosm of the universe (vv 1-7), to the microcosm of the inner world of the individual with our doubts and mistakes (vv 11-15). As we read the Psalm, we begin with Torah and then descend the ladder.
But I prefer to read the section backwards, for it is by acknowledging and personally validating the attributes of Torah listed from verses ten to eight that we can ascend to affirm that, indeed, “the Torah of the Eternal is perfect, restoring the soul.”
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September 7, 2015
June 2, 2022
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Prof. Rabbi Jonathan Magonet is the former Principal of Leo Baeck College and Emeritus Professor of Bible. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg and his ordination from Leo Baeck College. Magonet is the author of A Rabbi Reads the Torah, and is the editor of ‘Seder Ha-Tefillot‘ Forms of Prayer: Daily, Sabbath and Occasional Prayers as well as the journal, European Judaism. His latest book is, How Did Moses Know He Was a Hebrew?: Reading Bible Stories from Within (Hakodesh Press, 2021).
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