Torah and Being: Finding Ourselves in the Word

by Arthur Hertzberg

Illustration by Ilene Winn-Lederer
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From Hadassah Magazine, October 1997
Reprinted with Permission

From the day the Temple was destroyed the only possession that the Lord has in His world are the four ells in which His Word is studied.

— Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 8A

The Temple no longer exists. That link between God and His people Israel, and between God and the rest of humanity, is severed. The splendor of the rituals and the glory of the priests are now only a memory. But that memory is kept alive by the words of the Torah which prescribed the services in the Holy Temple.

Through the ages of the exile few Jews lived in Palestine, and only that handful was able to obey the rules by which Jewish farmers were commanded to live in the Holy Land. But the words were in the Torah and Jews everywhere repeated the verses which ordained the tithes required from each crop and that what was left on the field should be gleaned by the poor. The commentaries on the laws are perused and refined to this day. These words always have been, and continue to be, the assurance that someday, in some renewed form, dormant traditions will be revived.

Yet the believers have never agreed on the exact meaning of the words of the Torah. In the immediate centuries before the Second Temple was destroyed the Jews were a very factionalized people. The Temple itself was essentially controlled by the priests, almost all of them Sadducees and “strict constructionist” in their interpretation of the Torah. There was continuing tension between them and the Pharisees, the ancient rabbis who were the progenitors of the oral law, rabbinic interpretations of the Torah recorded in the Talmud. Even after the Talmud was completed in Babylonia in the year 600, the authority of the rabbis was not secure. A sect soon arose which denied the right of the rabbis to interpret the Torah text. This faction insisted on absolute fidelity to the plain meaning of the text. (The text was called Kera, that is, the words of the Bible exactly as read, so the members of this sect were named Karaites.) A power for many centuries, the Karaites have almost vanished in recent decades, though a few hundred believers still exist, scattered from southern Israel to California.

Even among the followers of the rabbis, the interpreters of God’s Word never agreed with each other. There were always arguments about the meaning of the injunctions in the Torah; the Talmud itself is largely a record of these many clashing opinions. These very disagreements were regarded as a Jews’s essential activity. Jews were put on this earth not simply to repeat received truths, but to labor with all their might to understand the innumerable meanings and implications of each word — nay, each letter — of Holy Writ. There are at least “70 faces to the Torah,” the sober rabbis asserted, and the much more fanciful kabbalists saw innumerably more meaning and connections. These mystics insisted the Torah had another dimension, that it said much more between the lines, and even between the letters or in permutations of the lines and the letters. To remember the whole of the Torah and the interpretations by the rabbis and to abide by them is only a beginning. It is the introduction to sacred knowledge and to wisdom, but true understanding requires unremitting effort. In the quest for the hidden meanings of the Torah, one must bend heart and mind far beyond their normal limits.

It would be wrong to deduce from this account that Jews have always used the Torah to suit themselves, to provide some seeming justification for the all-too-prevalent contemporary notion that anything goes. This is simply not true. Throughout the centuries, even as Jews disagreed with each other on the meaning of the text of the Torah, they stood together unshakably on the same foundation: The Torah is the Word of God and the study of Torah exists to discover, in every possible detail, what God wants man to be and to do. The Torah was never studied to find ways of making life more convenient. All the factions and all the opinions were moving toward the same goal: to find out how each Jew could become more godly.

This attitude changed radically in the modern era. The temper is still dominated by the definition given it by Alexander Pope early in the eighteenth century. He wrote (quoting Protagoras) that “man was the measure of all things.” Many discarded classic Jewish learning because it did not help them achieve their main purpose: to advance themselves, to achieve success.

Yet everywhere in the Jewish world these days a growing number are willing to find in the Torah some uplift and self-help as they labor to come to terms with their inner struggles, insecurities and even emptiness. But the bent is still on the human agenda of wants and needs. On the other hand, those who insist the true measure of life is in the Word of God are moving to ever more rigid and exclusive definitions of what God intends. The growing consensus in such circles seems to be that the Word of God commands Jewish believers to separate themselves from the larger society and to live, by choice, in an enclave. Though they are not made of bricks and steel, the walls are ever more impenetrable.

One of the most striking examples of those who once walked away from Torah on ideological grounds and are now part of the new tide studying the ancient texts came to my attention a few hours before the festival of Shavuot. I was phoned from Tel Aviv by a friend who is one of the principal leaders of Mapam, the most secular of the major political parties in Israel. He told me he and his associates would be following the traditional custom of having an all-night session in Torah study. As he named the teachers, I recognized that without exception they were people who had deep knowledge of the classic texts. Obviously the interpretations would differ from those heard in the city’s all-night synagogues, but the texts were the same. I asked my friend whether he was not afraid that such a study session might lead some who took part to become more traditionalist in their outlook. He did not feel threatened by such possibilities.

At the very beginning, in the Torah itself, we were commanded to teach its words diligently to our children. This commandment was given to all Jews, to be obeyed under all circumstances and all conditions. This learning is the transforming experience that makes us Jews.