Torah, Torah, Torah

Aron: We’ve spoken before (or at least I have) about problematic parts of the Torah. These aren’t limited to gleeful descriptions of violence; there’s also the prohibition on homosexual sex, the death penalty for Sabbath-transgressors, and a host of other bad things. Each week, though, we read the Torah aloud, bad things included. As liberal Jews, then, we have a choice to make: do we stop reciting these parts of the bible and only recite the parts that we “agree” with, or can we come up with a coherent explanation for why we should read the whole thing?

Richard Rubenstein, who coined the term “Holy Nothing” and emphatically rejected the God of the Torah or any conception of a God who plays an active and conscious role in history, still insists on the necessity of retaining all of the Torah. He writes:

If we are no longer entirely convinced that God has commanded the Torah, we are nevertheless grateful that it remains the inheritance of the house of Jacob. It has become a part of the very fabric of what we are… No division of the Torah into “essential” and “inessential” elements will offer an altogether convincing rationale for a new security in religious life… Some of the contents of the Torah will be an embarrassment to every age… We do not know whether Moses received any of all of the Torah on Sinai. It hardly matters. The Torah is for us the record of Israel’s encounter with God in His holiness… the Torah, which is a book of words, points to a reality before which words are utterly helpless.

Despite the wishy-washy-ness of the phrases “no longer entirely convinced” and “we do not know whether,” Rubenstein has made it clear elsewhere that he definitely doesn’t believe the Torah to be the word of God, literal or otherwise. What, then, do you think of his justification? Are there alternatives you can offer? If not, how do we liberal Jews continue to extol the entirety of the Torah without falling prey to hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance?

Allen: Rubenstein’s right on a few points. First, the Torah’s worth preserving for no other reason than that it belongs to us — a family heirloom, if you will. I’d no more leave behind the Torah than I’d flush my great-grandfather’s copy of Josephus down the toilet. Secondly, any arbitrary distinction between the dispensable and indispensable portions of a text is bound to lead to an artificially sanitized and much less interesting work. A few years back, Auburn professor Alan Gribben tried removing the n-word from a new edition of Huck Finn, arguing that its attitudes “repulse modern-day readers.” One colleague’s response could just as well apply to the Bible: “These changes mean the book ceases to show the moral development of its characters. The whole point of literature is to expose us to different ideas and different eras, and they won’t always be so nice and benign.”

That explanation can only go so far, though. It may explain why we should keep a copy of the Torah on hand, but not why we should loudly and publicly sing its words off-key every week.  So let’s consider some alternatives. Is the Torah the word of God? As always, it depends what you mean by “God.” In my view, the Torah records the hesitant yet often magnificent attempts of the Israelites to tell a story about the world and their place in it. They wanted to know what their lives meant; so they blindly groped for a sense of purpose, sometimes lighting up the dark with brilliant insight, other times stumbling flat on their faces. To draw a comparison: My great-aunt, God bless her, still refuses to read Dostoyevsky on the grounds of his anti-Semitism. How could such a compassionate writer hold onto to such a blind spot? she asks. In my view, the real question is more interesting: how could a provincial gambler, the product of a racist society, break through the bounds of his upbringing to understand the suffering of human beings? This is the search for God– a messy, contingent, beautiful affair.

That being said, the Five Books of Moses tend to dominate the liberal conversation in comparison with the more relevant — and usually more interesting — rabbinic sources. Jewish leaders from the Enlightenment onwards have exalted the Torah at the expense of Talmudic discussions; but they’ve had it backwards. It’s the voices closest to our own times, the ones “standing on the shoulders of giants”, that speak most directly to our current concerns. For just one example, check out our teacher Jeremy Kalmanofsky’s treatment of Jewish sexual ethics in The Observant Life. It’s a deeply learned and compassionate conversation, one wouldn’t have occurred if our ancestors had taken a black Sharpie to the Torah scroll.

Where do you fall on this? Does Rubenstein’s account strike you as compelling enough to justify the recitation of, say, the description of homosexual sex as an “abomination”?

Aron: Ultimately, if we cut out the abhorrent parts of the Torah, it might be more “morally” true, insofar as it would accord more consistently with our liberal values. As we’ve readily admitted, though, you and I don’t derive our moral principles from the Torah. We look to the Torah, as you say, to read about a people trying to understand “the world and their place in it.” We want to know the ways in which those people tried to craft ethical ideals, and the ways in which they failed to live up to them. The Torah, as a story, becomes less true as soon as we start redacting it.

As for why Torah over any other text — Harry Potter, for example — I agree with what you said about an heirloom, but it’s also more than that. At its heart, Judaism seems to me to be a particular way in which people have tried to translate universal truths. Sometimes, the translation has been so warped that we’ve ended up with dramatic moral failures. Often, though, Judaism has translated those truths beautifully and profoundly. Between the Tanakh, Talmud, Midrash and the other dozens of texts built around the Torah, we have a wide-ranging mythology and narrative that touches, in one way or another, on all the facets of our lives.

All of these texts, and the spiritual truths they contain, are centered on the Torah. Because of this, the Torah serves two functions. First, it gives us access to those texts. The Book of Daniel, Pirkei Avot, and Richard Rubenstein are all responding, in some way, to the Torah. In order to understand their arguments, we need to understand the thing to which they are responding. Second, it’s the glue that binds these disparate books together. The Talmudic tractate Bava Metziah and the Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah deal with largely unrelated subjects (economic laws and the purpose of life, respectively). What unites them is that they’re different parts of the same conversation: “What’s the Torah trying to say?”

At the end of the day, Judaism is a language — a way of speaking about the world around us — and, for better or worse, the Torah is its dictionary.



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