Op-ed

Drawing Contemporary Jews Closer to the Torah

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September 27, 2016

Dr. RabbiLawrence Grossman

Dr. Rabbi

Lawrence Grossman

Drawing Contemporary Jews Closer to the Torah

Preparing to Lift the Torah Scroll. Photo credit Avital Pinnick / Flickr  cc 2.0

The Centrality of Torah

The Torah is central to our lives as Jews. The way we conceive of ourselves as a people, our conception of God and God’s ways, how we are commanded to live our lives, and the nature of our connection to the Land of Israel are all rooted in the Torah—and of course in the rest of Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) as well. Its phrases suffuse our daily, Sabbath, and holiday prayers, and the cycle of weekly synagogue Torah and prophetic readings inextricably link up the Jewish calendar with the Bible.

No written text interprets itself—and certainly not one as complex as the Hebrew Bible.[1] Over the centuries Jews have developed a multitude of different interpretive frameworks to understand their foundational work. One approach is midrashic, using the text as a springboard to reach religious insights that are often vary far from the literal meaning; another is peshat—the search for contextual understanding; yet another is mystical/kabbalistic; then there are the allegorists; and the rationalists in the tradition of Maimonides. All produced commentaries reflecting their particular approaches. The existence of many legitimate vantage points for understanding Tanach enabled Jews living in different societies to explicate their Scripture in ways that made sense in their particular cultural milieus.          

Yet today, much of the Jewish community faces a crisis in its relationship with the Torah.

A Three-Hundred-Year Crisis in the Making: Authorship and Ethics

Beginning in the 17th century and continuing in our time, innovative ways of studying ancient texts have been applied to the Bible. Archaeology, comparative study of ancient Near Eastern societies, textual and linguistic analysis, sophisticated historical research, and literary approaches have cast new, sometimes challenging light not only on isolated passages (some of which were noticed by medieval commentators) but on the composition of entire books of Tanach including the Torah. In fact, the contemporary educated world approaches the Torah as a composite work reflecting many of the values, ideas, and institutions of the generations in which it took shape.

In addition, emerging ethical insights about slavery, animal sacrifices, the status of women and homosexuals, and other matters treated in the Bible have unsettled the conscience of many Jews who are serious about their religion and proud of its history. On the one hand, the Hebrew Bible’s positive impact on humanity has been vast. Over time, its ethical and legal underpinnings led to the concept of human equality and the imperative to care for the downtrodden; its monotheistic worldview set the stage for the scientific and technological advances that have raised the standard of living for millions; and its vision of history leading toward messianic realization introduced to the world the ultimate goal of universal brotherhood and peace.

On the other hand, its ethical shortcomings cannot be hidden from modern readers suffused with contemporary western ethical sensitivities.

Can We Afford to Turn a Blind Eye?

These two problems—the composite authorship of the Torah and its ethical failings—have posed a challenge to Jews of a traditionalist bent who, though differing among themselves over many interpretive issues, have been educated to accept the divine authorship of the Torah quite literally, and to assume that any infringement upon or reinterpretation of that doctrine places one “outside the camp.”

This is unfortunate for two reasons. First, it cuts off meaningful dialogue with the Western educated public about the Hebrew Bible—the pivotal Jewish contribution to civilization—and virtually ensures severe stress and discomfort for young Jews when they first confront modern approaches to the Bible, usually when they reach college. Second and even more important, turning away from the findings of biblical scholarship over the last three centuries impoverishes the traditional Jewish community by keeping it ignorant of powerful tools to understand Torah in greater depth and with greater accuracy. Foregoing these tools is equivalent to studying astronomy as it was taught in the Middle Ages, before Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein.               

In fact, many young scholars who are entering the field of academic biblical studies are traditionally observant Jews who see no contradiction between the religious imperatives of halakhic Judaism and the latest and most sophisticated modes of scholarly analysis. Yet the vast majority of religiously serious Jews aren’t even aware of these sophisticated modes, and so continue to relate to Torah on an elementary-school level.   

Taking TheTorah.com to Shul

That’s where Project TABS (Torah And Biblical Scholarship) comes in: Project TABS is a unique and indispensable treasure. Through its website, TheTorah.com, it presents “a historical and contextual approach” to the Bible with the goal of enabling its readers to integrate academic perspectives into Torah study.  Since its inception, it has been opening the eyes of the Jewish laity and rabbinate to the intellectually and spiritually vibrant world of academic biblical studies, enriching and making more relevant then ever the timeless truths of Torah.

There are those who look forward eagerly each week to see the latest offerings on TheTorah.com, print them out, and bring them to shul to enhance their understanding of the Torah reading. There should—and hopefully will—be many more people seizing the opportunity and expanding their Torah horizons!

Lawrence Grossman is Director of Publications at the American Jewish Committee. He received smicha from Yeshiva University and a PhD in American History from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Grossman was editor of the American Jewish Year Book (2000-2008).

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