Academic Study of the Torah Is Essential, Not Just for Academics
On seven years of TheTorah.com
Congratulations to TheTorah.com, its staff, contributors and supporters, on completing its first Shemittah! We now have a substantial harvest of learning and wisdom to contemplate and enjoy, freely accessible to all who seek.
This is not a time to sit back and rest, but rather to reflect on what we are trying to do and whether our aims are being achieved.
Our task is not easy. On the one hand many of us are part of the community of Orthodox Jewry, a community largely defined by a traditional self-contained language, the language of Torah and mitzvot. At the same time we are citizens of an increasingly inter-connected world, where knowledge is no longer the possession of an elite, and no one tradition can claim a monopoly on learning. If the new knowledge concerned only things that lay outside our tradition, such as how to grow coffee crops, or what forms of religion were practiced by pre-Columbian Americans, we could simply add this to our store of information.
However, much of the new knowledge available is directly relevant to, and even contradictory to, what we have been taught. We can pretend it is not there, as is commonly done in fundamentalist circles such as those at whom ArtScroll publications are aimed, or we can acknowledge the truth whatever its source, which is the way of TheTorah.com, and face up to the consequences.
This is not as novel as it may seem. When Rashi, or Rashbam, carefully distinguishes דרש from פשט, reminding us that in matters of הלכה we are bound by the former, he is addressing the same problem; new knowledge—in this case, of the Hebrew language—challenges conventional understanding. But for us the problem is far more acute, since the store of available knowledge is now so much greater. No longer can we shelter in blissful ignorance of the age of the earth, the evolution of humankind or—to come to the most difficult point—the ways in which ancient texts were compiled, handed down and interpreted.
Historical study of Bible or Talmud is not just an optional extra for academics, it is an essential for all who are concerned with the meaning of these texts. It is futile to pretend that what results is perfectly consonant with the medieval traditions of Judaism as articulated by Rashi, Rambam and their successors. We respect and build on the foundations they laid down for us within the limits of the knowledge available to them, but we must move beyond.
From the point of view of traditionalists, what we are doing may appear both dangerous and destabilizing. While we must acknowledge their fears, we must have the courage to proceed with our vision of where truth lies, and in our conviction that we retain the essence of our tradition more faithfully than those who resist the new knowledge. After all, even the most traditional among us have learned to live with the knowledge that the earth is neither flat nor the center of the universe, and (contrary for instance to Rambam) matter consists of atoms and blood circulates around the body. Equally, we must come to terms with the new knowledge of history, literature and society. TheTorah.com shows us how.
Let us look forward בע'ה to many more שמיטות and a great יובל!
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Dr. Rabbi Norman Solomon was a Fellow (retired) in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He remains a member of Wolfson College and the Oxford University Teaching and Research Unit in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was ordained at Jews’ College and did his Ph.D. at the University of Manchester. Solomon has served as rabbi to a number of Orthodox Congregations in England and is a Past President of the British Association for Jewish Studies. He is the author of Torah from Heaven.