Torah: The unavoidable and disturbing text

Reading the text requires the courage to confront oneself. It means standing in front of a mirror and asking oneself the daunting question of who we really are.

‘IT IS the text that brought the people into being.’ (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
‘IT IS the text that brought the people into being.’
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
Torah study has become nearly impossible. The problem lies not with the Torah but with the reader.
Reading the text requires the courage to confront oneself. It means standing in front of a mirror and asking oneself the daunting question of who we really are.
Unfortunately, that is one of the qualities we, moderns, have lost. We have convinced ourselves that we must be intellectuals, removed from subjectivity and bowing only to scientific investigation. And so our Self got lost because in reality we are a bundle of emotions, passions and subjectivities that we cannot escape.
Still, we proclaim the rights of the spirit. But they enter only our books and discussions, not our lives. They don’t enter our trivial moments, but rather stand as monuments – impressive, but far removed.
Therefore we cannot deal with the biblical text. It stares us in the face. We know that we must come to terms with ourselves before we can come to terms with the Book, because it requires us to deny something that we don’t even realize exists.
Even the religious have elevated religion to such a level that much of its influence on their everyday life has been lost. It is found on the top floor of their spiritual house and has become departmentalized. But the intention of Torah is exactly the reverse. Its words, events and commandments are placed in the midst of the people, enveloped in history and worldly matters. Most of the Torah deals with the natural course of a person’s life. Only sporadic miracles allow us to hear the murmurs from another world that exists beyond. These moments remind us that God is, after all, the only real entity in all of existence. But the Torah is the story of how God exists among mortal human beings, with their ordinary troubles and joys. It is not the story of God in heaven, but of God in human history and personal encounter.
The text is the author of the people
It is impossible to treat the biblical text as one would any other classical work. This is because the people of Israel, according to Jewish tradition, are not the authors of this text. The text is the author of the people. It is the text that brought the people into being. It created the specific and unique identity of the Jewish nation.
Studying Torah requires a reading art that allows the unfolding of the essence and nature of a living people struggling with life and God’s commandments.
George Steiner expressed this well in “Our Homeland, the Text” (1996) when he wrote, “The script… is a contract with the inevitable. God has, in the dual sense of utterance and of binding affirmation, ‘given His word,’ His Logos and His bond, to Israel. It cannot be broken or refuted.”
This has become a great challenge to modern biblical interpretation. Many scholars and thinkers have been asking whether the unparalleled calamity of the Holocaust did not create a serious existential crisis in which the text, by definition, has been invalidated. Can we still speak about a working covenant by which God promised to protect His people, after 6 million Jews – including 1.5 million children – lost their lives within a span of five years, under the cruelest of circumstances?
The reason for raising this question is not just because the covenant appears to have been broken, but also because history – and specifically Jewish history – was always seen as a living commentary on the biblical text. The text gave significance to history and simultaneously took on its religious meaning.
But is the text today still significant after history violated the criteria for its proper and covenantal elucidation?
Modern scholars suggested that there is a need, post-Holocaust, to liberate ourselves from this covenantal text in favor of shaping our destiny and history in totally secular terms. The Holocaust proved, they believe, that we have only ourselves to rely on, and even the return to Israel is to be understood as a secular liberation of the galut experience.
New commentary
It is in this context that “commentary” needs to take on a new challenge: to show not only how the covenant, as articulated in the text, is not refuted, but how in fact it is fully capable of dealing with the new post-Holocaust conditions of secularity. Without falling victim to apologetics, biblical interpretation will have to offer a novel approach to dealing with the Holocaust experience in a full religious setting, based on the text and taking it beyond its limits.
It will have to respond to the fact that God is the most tragic figure in all of history, making our lives sometimes sublime and other times disastrous. The biblical text is there to tell us how to live with this God and try to see meaning behind the absurdity of the situation.
But above all, modern commentary must make sure that the Torah speaks to the atheist and the agnostic, for they need to realize that the text is replete with examples of sincere deniers and doubters who struggled all their lives with great existential questions. The purpose is not to bring the atheists and agnostics back to the faith, but to show that one can be religious while being an agnostic and perhaps even an atheist; to make them aware that it is impossible to live without embarking on a search for meaning, whether one finds it or not. It is the search that is important; the end result much less so. The art is to refrain from throwing such a pursuit on the dunghill of history.
That many secular people no longer read the Torah is an enormous tragedy. The Torah is too important to be left to the believer. The beauty of day-to-day life takes on a different and higher meaning through the Torah, and that can evoke in atheists a faintly mystical anticipation, which they can experience when they are alone or when they watch a sunset at the beach. A voice is born, and it speaks to them; they feel a melancholy that calls forth something far away and beyond. They happen upon a situation that suddenly throws them over the edge, and they get taken in by the experience of a loftier existence. It is the realization that the biblical God is a God with Whom one argues; Who is criticized and Who wants human beings to search for Him, even if it results in their denial of Him.
Surveying Jewish history, we see drastic changes in how the biblical text was encountered. In the beginning, it was heard and not written. At first, Moses received the Torah through the spoken Word: “The Word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, for you to carry out” (Deuteronomy 30:14). God may be unimaginably far away, but His voice is heard nearby.
At a later stage, the spoken Word was slowly silenced and gradually replaced by the written Word. With the eclipse of prophecy, God’s Word was completely silenced and could then only be read. The Word, therefore, became frozen and ran the risk of becoming stagnant. At that stage, it was necessary to unfreeze the Word, which became the great task of the Sages and commentaries throughout the centuries.
Relevance and eternity
Subsequently, a third element entered. The text had to be relevant to the generations that study it, while at the same time remaining eternal. Commentators throughout the ages have struggled with this problem. How does one preserve the eternity of the Word and simultaneously make it relevant to a specific moment in time? Many commentators were children of their time and clearly read the text through the prism of the period in which they lived. The perspective of eternity was often pushed to the background so as to emphasize the great message for the present. Much of the aspect of eternity was thereby compromised, causing a few to wonder how eternal this text really is.
Other commentators wrote as if nothing had happened in Jewish history. That reflected the remarkable situation of the Jewish people in galut: its a-historicity. After the destruction of the Temple, Jewish history came to a standstill.
While much happened, with dire consequences for the Jews, they essentially lived their lives outside the historical framework of natural progress. It became a period of existential waiting, until it was rediscovered with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
Inevitably, then, some commentators wrote their exegeses in a historical vacuum. Therefore, students were often confronted with a dual sentiment. While dazzled by a commentator’s brilliant insight, they were forced to ask, “So what? What is the implication of this interpretation for me, at this moment in time?” Here we encounter a situation in which relevance is sacrificed for the sake of eternity.
With the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland, Jews are confronted with an unprecedented situation, which has serious consequences for biblical commentary. Due to a very strong trend toward secularism, caused by the Holocaust as well as other factors, the issue of relevance versus eternity has become greatly magnified.
Today, there exists a greater and more pressing need to show the relevance of the text. The radical changes in Jewish history call for a bold and novel way of understanding the text as a living covenant. At the same time, the drastic secularization of world Jewry and Israeli thinking requires a completely new approach to presenting the reader with the possibility of the Torah’s eternity. With minor exceptions, the religious world has not come forward with an adequate response.
Innovation in receptivity
Most worrisome is the fact that the majority of Jewish commentary books published today in Orthodox circles comprise compilations and anthologies of earlier authorities with no opening of new vistas. It is as if original interpretations are no longer possible. The words of God are treated as if they have been exhausted. This phenomenon has overtaken a good part of the Orthodox world. Jewish commentary is becoming more and more about writing glosses upon glosses, instead of creating new insights into the living covenant with God.
No doubt, not every person is equipped with the knowledge and creativity needed to undertake the task. Still, one must be aware of the danger of “over-knowledge.” When students are overwhelmed by earlier interpretations, they may quite well become imprisoned by them and lose the art of thinking independently.
What is required is innovation in receptivity, where fresh ideas can grow in the minds of those willing to think creatively about the classical sources, without being hampered by preconceived notions. Only then will we see novel approaches that will stand up to the challenges of our time.
The writer is the dean of Jeruslem’s David Cardozo Academy and is the author of many books, including the bestseller Jewish Law as Rebellion. Find his weekly thoughts at