It is perfectly OK to say the blessing in English. Some of you may know slightly different English words. That’s all right. Many of the Hebrew words in the blessing have multiple choices for English translation. I used the ones that I like; please feel free to do the same for yourself!
“Torah” in this case refers to all sacred texts, whether they are from Tanach or rabbinic texts. It might apply to a modern text that we are reading with the intention of Torah study: for instance, a modern commentary or even a work of fiction or poetry.
I am always a little amused by the word “la’a-sok.” The first time I heard it, it sounded like the English word “soak” and I pictured the study group, sitting in a hot tub, soaking in the words of Torah. The more Torah I study, the more apt that image seems: we marinate in the words of Torah.
“[God] sanctifies us with commandments” – what do those words mean to you? How can a person be made holy by a commandment? How do they apply, in the case of this particular blessing?
Tonight a group of us observed a very old Jewish custom. A dear friend and student of mine is moving away, and I invited him to put together a list of people he’d like to study with one more time. We gathered around the table with some good food and our books. Some had never studied Gemara before, and some of us were a bit rusty, but it didn’t matter.
We read a famous passage, Shabbat 31a from the Babylonian Talmud. (Click the link if you’d like to read it in English.) It’s a group of stories about Hillel and Shammai and three men who wanted to become Jewish.
What I loved most about this evening was that even though I have read that passage more times than I can count, our group found something new in it, several new ideas. (They were new to us, anyway.) That’s the beauty of studying together with others: while I might wonder about something, in the process of wondering together, we become more than the sum of our parts. We were at best an average bunch of Jews, but our study was extraordinary, because we studied together.
Some of us went back twenty years. Some of us met for the first time over this table. We are all old friends now, regardless. We’ve studied Torah together, and in the process uncovered bits of ourselves.
Here’s the recipe for an evening like this:
Invite 2-10 people who enjoy learning.
Have a few nice snacks, preferably finger food. Also coffee and tea.
Agree ahead of time on the text you will study. Keep it smallish: remember you are going to read and ponder together. (Our guest of honor chose the text.)
Have copies of the text so that every person has one. Unless all of you are fluent in Hebrew and/or Aramaic, use a translation, at least as an aid.
Many Jewish texts are available online; if you meet somewhere that wifi is available, it can be done from laptops, tablets, or even smartphones.
The beginning of Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:2 – 22:16) is interesting on a couple of counts.
First, the parashah begins on verse 2 of chapter 21 of Exodus. Students sometimes ask, “Why does it begin on the second verse?”
If you look at a Torah scroll, there are no divisions into chapters. There are also no vowel markings, and nothing to serve as punctuation. Anyone preparing to chant Torah has to use a book called a tikkun to memorize these things beforehand.
Jews divide the text into verses, the length of which were handed down to us from the Masoretes, rabbis who specialized in the text from the 6th to the 13th centuries. They transmitted the knowledge of where the verses end and begin.
The books of the Torah are also divided into parshiyot [portions]. These are rather like chapters, but they are not the chapters in modern Bibles. They are marked by gaps in the Torah text, and we see those gaps very early, even in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Modern-day chapters of books were not a Jewish innovation. Rather, an Archbishop of Canterbury named Stephen Langton set chapter divisions for the books in 1227. Wycliff’s English Bible translation (1382) was the first Bible to appear with the chapters, which quickly became standard in all Bibles. Since neither Stephen Langton nor John Wycliffe were interested in Jewish opinions about the text, their chapters do not always match up with our parshiyot. Mishpatim is just such a parashah, which begins on verse 2 of chapter 21 of Exodus.
The second interesting item in the beginning of this parashah is its first letter. Here is the full first verse:
It may be translated: “And these are the rules you shall put before them.”
Look at the far right end of the line, at the little vertical line with two dots below it. That’s the Hebrew letter “vav,” which can be translated in many ways but here is best read “and.” Such a tiny word – only a letter! And with the rest of the word to which it is attached, “V’ehleh,” it means “And these are.”
We are taught (by Rashi and others) that this word “v’ehleh” in Biblical Hebrew tells us there is continuity between what went before and what follows. That is, the rules that follow are of one piece with the rules that came before this word. What came before? The Ten Commandments. So with one little word, the writer is letting us know that not only were the Ten Commandments given at Sinai; so were the other laws [mishpatim] that follow.
Every tiny detail of the Torah is significant. This is why one of our earliest sages, Joshua ben Perachyah said: “Get yourself a teacher and find yourself a friend” with whom to study. (Avot 1.6) For those who must study by themselves, a good commentary can be a help: through the commentaries we hear the voices of many teachers.
Do you study with a teacher or a friend? Is there a commentary with which you particularly like to learn?
My wife and I were discussing this topic just the other day. We both recognize that there is a tradition of the miraculous healing in both Jewish and Christian tradition. But we live in a post-scientific age. So either (1) God does not intervene and miracles in the Bible are just misunderstood natural events, (2) God does intervene, with miracles, some of which could be described in the Bible. But doesn’t the knowledge that science gives us relativize what we can say about whether or not miracles have occurred?
I once heard Rabbi Arthur Green speak about conflict between science and religion. He said that the forces of religion fought two great battles in the twentieth century, one against evolution and the other against Biblical criticism. Religion lost both battles. He went on to say that if both science and religion are a search for truth, then perhaps it is more useful to consider that they are concerned with different aspects of human experience, and therefore with different truths. (If you are curious about Rabbi Green’s views, I recommend his book, Radical Judaism.)
Anyone who attempts to use the Torah as a physics or biology text will have to choose between disappointment and delusion. Even when we read the text literally, it hints that it is not talking about the kind of truth one can establish with scientific method. The fact that houses and clothing can “catch” a “disease” in Leviticus 14 points towards the possibility that tzara’at is not a physical disease, for example.
Similarly, all the interesting theories attempting to establish natural causation for the plagues in Exodus are beside the point. It may be that volcanic eruptions in the Mediterranean gave rise to experiences for which we have traces in the descriptions of the plagues. But the narrative is about a battle between two powers, Pharaoh and the strangely named god of Israel. Pharaoh rules the kingdom Mitzrayim (Egypt, but it translates nicely as “narrow place” in Hebrew). He keeps slaves and he hates foreigners. And since he is Pharaoh, a god on earth, no one dares argue with him about it. The god of Israel has a name that is four vowels; the deity’s name is a breath, and it is a form of the verb “to be.” The god of Israel wants the people to be free of Mitzrayim, free of Pharaoh. The newcomer god doesn’t keep slaves. This god is a life-affirming deity, insistent that the people called B’nai Israel [the children of Israel] will go out into the midbar, the wilderness, which is the exact opposite of a narrow place. Wonders happen. Things get broken. In the end, people die. The champion of freedom wins in the end, and the people go out into the wilderness, which scares the dickens out of them.
[If I have upset some readers by lower-casing the word “god” understand that I’ve done so to make a point, that in the Exodus narrative as written, Pharaoh is one of the gods of Egypt. A newcomer god fights with him over a bunch of slaves. I’m talking narrative here, not contemporary theology.]
If you read this story as a description of the ultimate values of the Jews, as what theologian Rabbi Michael Goldberg has called their “master narrative,” then the details of the plague are interesting only in the way that the details of special effects are interesting in a 21st century movie blockbuster. If the movie is any good, the special effects are not the point of the film. The plagues are not the point of the Exodus story. The point of the story is that the Jewish People understand themselves to be a people united with a deity who has taken them as partners in a project to heal the world. The values undergirding this project are freedom, loving-kindness, wisdom, goodness, truth, and more.
Yes, it is a chutzpadik [outrageous] idea. Notice, though, that under this master narrative, no one is obligated to buy into the Hebrew/God-of-Israel worldview. No one is blasted for failing to leave Egypt. At Sinai, where the deal is sealed (in another scene with great special effects) everyone enters the covenant freely. There are some midrashim that say otherwise, but notice that they are in effect minority opinions, not in the Torah itself. And in later centuries, while there’s no applause for a Jew who assimilates and simply leaves the project, no one is saying she will “go to hell,” either. She’s free to go, even as it pains us to see her go, because freedom is a key value. (Yes, some families will refuse to have anything to do with an apostate Jew. And others will still love them and have them to dinner.) As any rabbi tells people who inquire about conversion, they don’t have to become Jewish to be acceptable to God in the Jewish narrative.
OK, back to miraculous healings: I prefer to look at all supernatural goings-on in the text as special effects in the narrative. Maybe they are based in an experience someone couldn’t describe in other terms, or maybe they are there to make a particular point via metaphor. But the truth in the text requires me to work. I have to study the text, ask questions about it, dig around in it to find the values that lie underneath. I’m still free to argue with some aspects of those stories, such as the passages that seem to set women as unequal to men. For instance, I find it easier to read the Daughters of Zelophechad narrative than from the Lot’s Daughters narrative. But notice that in the rabbinic literature and since then, Lot’s daughters have come in for more nuanced readings. Many scholars have taken the trouble to look for underlying values in their story, difficult as it is. When I’m struggling with a text, I look to see what others have found in it.
It’s a truism that Judaism is more about doing than about belief. Science is good at describing and explaining our world in such a way that we are able to manipulate it. I can’t and won’t speak for all religions. Judaism is about making choices about our actions, including those actions made possible by science. Judaism often uses narrative and metaphor to talk about those choices, thus our texts require study.
But really, are the texts of science any different? If you don’t bother to learn, a smartphone is a miracle, is it not?
Midrash is often spoken of as literature that fills in the gaps in the Biblical story. For instance, what does the Bible tell us about Abraham’s childhood, or for that matter, what does it tell us about why God picked Abram for the covenant?
If you said, “nothing,” that was the right answer.
If you said, “What about the story about his father Terah’s workshop?” then you are referring to a midrash from the 5th century collection Genesis Rabbah.
If you are an eager beaver and want to find books of midrash, you can do so but you may find that they are somewhat daunting. The colorful stories are embedded in sermons, ethical debates, and legal discussions. Classic rabbinical midrash took very specific literary forms which are foreign to modern readers. For a little taste of this sort of midrash, you can find Genesis Rabbah (also called Bereshit Rabbah) online.
Sometimes people refer to films and stories as “modern midrash.” It doesn’t carry the authority of the classical rabbinic midrash, but it is also an elaboration on a Biblical story. A film can include midrashic elements (see Noah and The Prince of Egypt.) Novels like The Red Tent can be built completely of the writer’s speculations about the Biblical story.
You can also do this sort of informal midrash on your own. In fact, you probably already do. Have you read a passage from the Torah and thought to yourself, “But what about….?” or “Why did he…..?” If you began to speculate about possibilities that are not actually IN the text, you were engaging in a midrashic process.
Here’s an interesting exercise: try to read a Biblical text and NOT add anything to the text. If you start filling in details, stop. If you start wondering about something, stop. Just deal with the words on the page. It’s tougher than you might think.
Midrash reflects a very human impulse. We want to understand the text, and when what’s there seems awfully skimpy, it’s natural to speculate. It’s just important to keep track of what is really IN the text and what isn’t.
I’m happy. I launched two classes this morning at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. I think it’s going to be a very good year.
Even with classes I teach again and again (this is my third round with “Exploring Judaism”) the people in the class make the experience different. Jews don’t do a lot of solo learning; we learn in groups and in pairs, noisily. When I see a room full of people (19 of them!) and I think about all the Torah I’m going to learn, I get happy. Beginners are fantastic, because they ask questions I’m too routinized to ask for myself. Beginners are a precious resource.
“Money & the Mensch: Jewish Ethics and Personal Finance” is especially exciting. We’re not sure whether it will happen as an official class yet, since we have low numbers, but they’re excited and I’m excited and I’m going to give them the class reader anyway next week. This was the topic of my rabbinic thesis, and I’m practically itching to teach it, because it is a wonderful, practical subject with some great stories in it. We’re going to learn about the terrible Men of Sodom and Maimonides’ Torah Scholar and Munbaz II of Adiabene and some other interesting tales. We’ll use those stories to figure out the questions we need to ask about money: how to give charity wisely and well, how to make choices about investing and consumption, how to decide when a boycott is a good idea. We’ll have a blast.
If you are interested in reading the Bible as a Jew, then you need to find Jews with whom to study. Those Jews might be a real live study group, such as you can find in any synagogue, or they might be Jews in books, any of the many writers of commentaries on the Bible. We read the books of the Bible together in a Jewish framework. (Christians read in a Christian framework, atheists in an atheist framework, and so on.)
Sometimes I hear people say, “I don’t want interpretation. I just want to know what it says.” My point is that who you are is going to be a factor in “what it says” to you. To pick a very famous example, Isaiah 7:14:
First, a Jewish translation: “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign: behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
Then, from the King James Christian translation: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
The obvious difference is that they translate the word almah differently, Jews as “young woman” and Christians as “virgin.” But there is a subtler difference, too, which colors the choice of words for translation. Jews understand the Prophets, like Isaiah, to be called to speak for God to the Jews about events at the time of the prophet, who also warns about consequences in the near future. A Jew would say that this line refers to a time when Isaiah the prophet was talking to Ahaz the king of Judah. It foretells the birth of Hezekiah, Ahaz’s heir, who will throw off the Assyrians who are oppressing the Jews under King Ahaz. Many of the things about which the prophets warned the ancient Jews are still very much with us: injustice, inequity, the plight of the poor, hypocrisy, and so on. So even though the events they refer to are long ago, the words of the prophets stay fresh as this morning’s newsfeed.
The Christian reading is quite different. Traditionally, Christians read the Jewish prophets as foretelling the life of Jesus, centuries later. They translated almah as “a virgin” because of a side-trip in translation. In Matthew 1: 18-25 the origins of Jesus are thus:
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”
“Virgin” in the Greek New Testament is parthenos. The quotation is from Isaiah, filtered through the translation used by many Hellenized Jews and early Christians. Almah (young woman in Hebrew) became parthenos (virgin in Greek, as in the title Athena Parthenos.) So a “young woman shall conceive” – nothing remarkable, really – became “a virgin shall conceive” – something entirely different.*
One line, two completely different readings of it! The two readings aren’t about the same person (Hezekiah or Jesus?) and the understanding of “prophecy” is completely different. Each tradition has its own point of view on the “correct” reading. This is only one example, one of the simplest to explain in a short article.
If you want to read the Bible as a Jew, find yourself a Jewish teacher or some Jews to learn with.
If you want to read the Bible as a Christian, the same logic follows: find yourself a Christian teacher or study partners.
Reading alone is a good preparation, but to participate in a tradition, you need to take the second step and learn with others.
* My thanks to @DovBear, who reminded me of the Septuagint connection. An earlier form of this article was in error.