Torat Emet: Treating Torah with More Veneration than Secular "Truths"
For many years, I had the pleasure of team teaching a course at York University with a Catholic colleague, an accomplished historian. After one of his lectures, a student approached him and told him that she felt her Catholic faith was challenged by some of the things that he had said. My colleague answered:
You would let the words of a historian challenge your faith? Don’t you know that what I teach is radically different from what historians taught fifty years ago and I am certain that fifty years from now historians will teach something different from what I now teach? How can you let such changing ideas affect your belief in the timeless teachings of our Church?
We like to think that what we learn in history classes is true or at least as close as possible to truth. But we constantly abandon historical truths and replace them with new ones. In other words, we declare ideas to be true and then abandon them as time goes on. Accordingly, a declaration that the Torah is “true” is not a strong statement. It is, in fact, insufficient.
Reinterpreting Torah over Time
The more crucial question is whether understanding of the Torah always stays the same. It would be foolish to readjust our reading of the Torah to every change in historical theories and every change in societal values when we know that these theories are always changing. But then again, it would be benighted and smack of know-nothingism to hermetically seal our thoughts about Torah and ignore modern advances in knowledge.
When we encounter outdated historical theories, we appropriately reject them, at times with an air of superiority. But our belief that our Torah is true and eternal means that when we encounter difficulties, we reinterpret Torah instead of rejecting it—it is this ability, indeed necessity for biblical interpretation and reinterpretation that makes and keeps the Torah true. As Rambam wrote in a slightly different context (Mishneh Torah, Me’ilah 8:6):
ראוי לאדם להתבונן במשפטי התורה הקדושה, ולידע סוף עניינם כפי כוחו. ודבר שלא ימצא לו טעם, ולא ידע לו עילה--אל יהי קל בעיניו... ולא תהא מחשבתו בו, כמחשבתו בשאר דברי החול.
People should contemplate the laws of the holy Torah and understand their ultimate meaning as best as they can. And if they cannot understand a law’s purpose and cannot see a reason for it, they should not dismiss it. . . . Their thinking about the Torah should not be like their thinking about secular matters.
When history contradicts it, tradition does not get a free pass. But Torah merits being treated more seriously and more respectfully than outdated secular theories, values and “truths.”
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September 7, 2015
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Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
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