Torah's Dynamic Truth
The Distraction of Verifiable/Empirical Truth
I don’t know, nor am I overly concerned with the question of, how much of the Torah is historically or scientifically true. On one hand, it is clear to me that some of the Bible’s claims, if taken literally, are at odds with scientific truth. For example, given what we know about origins of the universe, it would be impossible to support a literal reading of the Bible’s account of a world created in six days. On the other hand, it is also clear that the Bible does include a good deal of verifiable “truth”: we have ample archaeological evidence to support the existence of several rulers mentioned in Kings, biblical cities, and much else.
But I believe that an emphasis on verifiable/empirical truth—a tendency exhibited by both traditionalists and critics—largely misses the point.
Rigorous Study Uncovers Multidimensional Truths
I believe that at its core, the Bible’s truths are religious and moral; in profound ways, the Bible’s truths address the complexities of the human condition. Do we need to claim that serpents once had the power of speech in order to understand the deep meaning and eternal workings of human temptation?
Long ago, biblical commentators suggested that we do not (Seforno, Gen. 3:1). When Rambam (Guide 3:22), based on a Talmudic opinion (b. Bava Batra 15a) claimed that the biblical character Job never existed as a historical figure, he did not deny, nor in any way diminish, the enduring truth of the story, in which God’s creatures cry out in pain and outrage in the face of unjust human suffering.
To me, torat emet means that the Bible is comprised of multi-dimensional, eternal truths about humanity in relation to itself and in relation to God. I believe that these truths are accessible on many levels and in different ways depending on the skills and sensibilities brought by its readers. The more rigorously one studies and the more one’s authentic self is brought to the effort, the more of the Bible’s truths will be uncovered.
Disturbing Passages in the Bible
But sometimes the messages we uncover do not seem to be true in the sense described above, and dissonances arise between ethical sensibilities and the literal meaning of the text.
Legal Texts and Torah she-b’al Peh (Oral Law)
When such dissonances are legal in nature, the Oral Law steps in, often interpreting laws in radical ways. A prime example is the law of the “rebellious son” who must be put to death, which has been interpreted in such a way so as to have no practical application whatsoever. But disturbing messages are found not only in the Bible’s legal sections; at times, they are evident in the narrative portions as well.
Tanach at Eye Level: Reading Narratives without Preconceived Notions
One approach is to re-read the difficult narratives in as straightforward a way as possible: before approaching them, we set aside all preconceptions, even those that stem from traditional readings from earlier generations, whose observable truths were very different from our own. In Israel, this approach is called “Bible at eye level (תנ"ך בגובה עיניים).For instance, throughout much of history, God’s pronouncement to the woman in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:16), was viewed as prescriptive, or even axiomatic:
וְאֶל אִישֵׁךְ תְּשׁוּקָתֵךְ וְהוּא יִמְשָׁל בָּךְ
To your husband is your desire (el ishekh teshukatekh—your teshukah) and he shall rule over you.
Such reading was supported by the discernible realities of most readers. Yet when the same words are reread through a more modern prism, in which gender equality is not only possible, but desirable, we are likely to note the descriptive, rather than prescriptive nature of the pronouncement (especially given the context of a descriptive pronouncement to the man in the Garden). With this new lens, God’s declaration of man’s domination of woman may be seen as a persistent, yet lamentable reality, open to appeal and reversal.
Narratives as Conversation Partners and Subversive Sequels
Another helpful approach is to view certain stories as conversational partners. Often, narratives borrow each other’s language and themes, sometimes to reinforce and interpret one another, and sometimes to challenge and even overturn one another. I have termed these inversions “subversive sequels.” When we tune in to the Bible’s internal discussion, we note that the Bible often revisits its difficult statements and then broadens the conversation on the subject by reworking them in new directions. The Bible thus refuses to offer a static truth.
To return to the example of man’s control over woman as presented in Genesis 3, Unitarian Bible scholar Phyllis Trible finds the Bible’s own subversive rejoinder in the Song of Songs.In the Song’s new and revised garden, the woman declares (7:1)):
אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְעָלַי תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ
I am to my beloved and his desire is for me.
The teshukah (desire) presented in Genesis—that of woman for man-- is now reversed: it is now the man who has teshukah for the woman. But more significant is the redefinition of the teshukah itself. No longer is desire used as a means of control; it is now presented as a vehicle for greater mutuality and passion in the male-female relationship. Viewed in this light, God’s statement in Genesis of man’s control of woman is now part of a larger and deeper biblical conversation on the topic of gender relations.
A Dynamic Work
To my mind, both the legal and narrative sections of the Bible are wonderfully dynamic. We, the Bible’s readers are called upon to do our part in carefully reading and re-reading the text and in uncovering its artfully constructed internal dialogue. While not all questions will find answers, we are bound to discover ever-increasing layers of fresh and relevant meaning. The more we mine for meaning, the more likely we are to agree with the words of the Psalmist, who declared the Torah’s words to be enduring, enlightening, and abidingly true (Ps. 19:8-10).
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September 7, 2015
February 18, 2021
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Judy Klitsner is a senior lecturer at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, where she teaches Bible and biblical exegesis. She is the author of Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other.
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