What Jews believe

Republican candidates were asked if they believe the Bible's every word. I asked rabbis the same thing.

torah scroll 88 248 (photo credit: courtesy)
torah scroll 88 248
(photo credit: courtesy)
There's a famous story in the Talmud about a smart aleck who asks the sages Hillel and Shammai to teach him all of Torah while he stands on one foot. Hillel's response is well known: "What is hateful to you, do not do unto others. All the rest is commentary." Shammai, however, wasn't nearly as solicitous. "Do you think I have time to waste on people who mock our holy Torah?" he asks, and swings a stick at him. I wonder if any of the Republican candidates felt an urge like Shammai's during last week's CNN-YouTube debate, when Joseph Dearing from Dallas asked his question. "How you answer this question will tell us everything we need to know about you," said Dearing, brandishing a Bible. "Do you believe every word of this book? And I mean specifically this book that I'm holding in my hand. Do you believe this book?" It was kind of fun to watch the candidates squirm. You could guess they were struggling between the urge to pander to the evangelical "base" and their own intellectual honesty, or whatever is left of it after months on the campaign trail. I imagine it is a more difficult question for Christians than it is for Jews, whose tradition of interpretation and exegesis puts less emphasis on the "literalness" of the Five Books of Moses than it does on the authority of the Torah's subsequent interpreters. But I wasn't sure, so I decided to ask a few friends, rabbis all, how they might have answered the question in the candidates' place. I gave them a little more time than the candidates (about 12 hours) but no more space. None of them shook a stick at me. Their answers appear below. Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America: I believe that every word in that book (assuming it's a Hebrew Jewish Bible) is holy. The Torah represents the word of God as transmitted to Moses. But if by "believe every word" you mean "believe that all of its words are intended by their Author to be taken literally or in their simplest sense," then no, I do not believe that. Because my belief - the Jewish belief since Sinai - is that, in addition to the Written Law of the Torah, there is an indispensable Oral Law that accompanied it and has been handed down by Jewish scribes and scholars through the generations. That Oral Law acts as the key to unlocking the intent of the written word, and its teachings underlie how Jews like me endeavor to live their lives to this day. But I have a question for you, Joseph: What does your question have to do with my qualifications for the presidency? Rabbi Richard Hirsh is the executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association: I don't like the way the question is worded. It is, as Lenny Bruce might have said, a "goyish" question. First, whether traditional or modern, Jews assign different degrees of sanctity to the Pentateuch than we do the entire Hebrew Bible (gee, I'd love to hear that in a debate: "Rev. Huckabee, do you believe in the TaNaCH?"). The Prophets and the Writings contain sacred literature, but tradition does not claim Sinaitic origin for them. Second, Jews don't "believe" in the Torah, we try to live by it as it is interpreted and applied. The whole point of Halacha is to spell out what it means - for example, to honor one's parents, or to observe the Sabbath, or what constitutes "murder" as in "Thou shalt not murder" (note to those who can't read "The Bible" in the original language: It's "murder," not "kill"). Third, since the Tanach is an anthology of collected writings of human beings over a period of a thousand years, we should not expect and will not find consistency, and we often find contradictions, which sort of makes it hard "to believe" in every word. And last, there are parts of scripture from which I happily dissent, such as stories that imagine God commanding the Israelites to commit genocide (see Deuteronomy 20:17) or parents to stone a rebellious child (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). A better question would be "What rights and respect should a president ensure for those Americans who do not believe in this book?" Rabbi Alan Brill holds the Cooperman/Ross Faculty Chair in Honor of Sister Rose Thering at Seton Hall University: "When the blessed Holy One gave the Torah, it was entirely of fire." (Tanhuma) When Jews point to the Bible, we tend to show a special reverence to the written form of Torah and write the Torah as a scroll to show its special holiness. However, Jews believe in the Bible as understood through the intrinsically interpretive Oral Rabbinic tradition. The Bible and the rabbinic texts are further explained by scholars of the law, biblical exegetes, philosophers, kabalists, and contemporary rabbinic figures. We also assume that the text has "70 facets," an intellectual range of opposing opinions, and even the potential for opposite interpretations in certain cases. Judaism usually distinguishes between different levels of authority of the rabbinic tradition and the commentaries. We ask how the text is related to the interpretive community and the status of the interpreter. Belief in the Bible, as much as it does point to divine will and wisdom, also points to Sinai, the formative event creating the Jewish people, and to the potential to experience Sinai through the study of Torah. According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the infinite contradictory potentials of Torah are not just found in the fullness of the community, but also in the individuality of the soul. Rabbi David W. Nelson is associate director of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America: I think the sense of the question, though it was not made explicit, was, "Do you believe the Bible literally?" If that is the question, my answer is: Certainly not. I believe that the Bible is a product of human authorship, and to the extent that all human creativity is driven by God, then I see "God's hand" in its pages. But that does not make it all "true." On the other hand, I do believe it is all sacred, or holy, by which I mean that it has become the foundation of Jewish society, narrative, history, culture, and law. The sanctity of the book comes in how it is read by later generations, not by who (or Who) wrote it. When we sit around a table on a Shabbat morning and argue about the meaning of a verse of Torah, digging deep to understand how, if at all, it can apply to our contemporary world, or trying to understand ourselves by understanding the words of the text, that discussion sanctifies us, our lives, and the words. This notion that the sanctity comes from us, in our use of the text, is an ancient Jewish notion. I believe that few (if any) Jews have ever believed that the entire Tanach is of supernatural origin and literally true. Rabbi Joyce Newmark is a Conservative rabbi who formerly led congregations in Leonia, NJ, and Lancaster, Pa.: I believe the Torah is true, that it is God's book, that no matter how it came to be it is the book God wants us to have. However, I don't believe that the Torah is necessarily factual. I certainly don't believe that the world was created in seven days some 6,000 ago. I do believe that God created the world and everything in it and that the specific process He used and the exact time frame aren't really important. As a student of Torah I also know that it is not a book that lends itself to literal, simple, or superficial understanding. Jews read the Torah through the eyes of the rabbis. We have been studying the Torah for millennia, and we still continue to find new subtleties and insights. So yes, the Torah is true, but it is also much greater than what is found on the pages of a single book. The writer is editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.