Understanding Chumash (the Five Books of Moses) is far more than knowing how to give expression to the deeper meaning of the biblical text. After all, it is impossible to treat the Chumash as any other classical work since, according to Jewish Tradition, the People of Israel are not the author of this text; rather, it is the author of the people. The text, which consists of a covenant between God and man, brought the People of Israel into existence, and despite the fact that they often violated its commanding voice it created for the Jewish nation a specific and unique identity.
Therefore, reading and studying the Chumash is not like reading a conventional literary work. It requires a reading-art, which reveals the nature and essence of a living people struggling with life and with God’s commandments. This completely different kind of comprehension must reflect a particular attitude and way of thought on the part of the student.
George Steiner expressed this well 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.” (1)
The text must be approached in such a way that it reflects both God’s and man’s will that it indeed never will be broken or refuted. This has become a great challenge in our days. Many scholars and thinkers have been asking whether the unparalleled event of the Holocaust did not create a most serious existential crisis in which the text by definition was invalidated. After six million Jews, including nearly two million children, lost their lives within five years under the cruelest of circumstances, can we still seriously speak about a viable covenant in which God promised to protect His people?
The reason for bringing up this question is not just the issue of the covenant being broken but also because history – and specifically Jewish history – was always seen as a living commentary on the biblical text, while the text simultaneously gave significance to history and so took on its religious meaning.
Can the text still be used in that sense, or has it lost its significance because history violated the criteria for its proper and covenantal elucidation?
There is a reason why modern scholars have suggested that following the Holocaust we need to liberate ourselves from this covenantal text in favor of shaping our own destiny and history in totally secular terms. The Holocaust, they believe, proved that we have only ourselves to rely on, and that even the return to Israel is to be understood as a secular liberation of the galut experience.
It is in this context that biblical commentary must take on a new challenge: to show how the covenantal text is not only not broken or refuted but is in fact fully capable of dealing with the new post-Holocaust conditions of secularity. Without falling victim to apologetics, biblical commentary will have to recognize the impossibility of explaining the Holocaust but at the same time offer a novel way of understanding the experience in a religious setting based on the text and taking it beyond.
This is related to some other crucial issues. 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, Moshe received the Torah through the spoken Word. “The Word is very close to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, for you to carry it out.” (2) God may be unimaginably far away, but His voice is heard nearby and is the only way to encounter Him.
At a later stage, the Word takes on the written form, the biblical text. Once this happens, there is a process in which the spoken Word is slowly silenced and gradually substituted by the written Word. With the eclipse of prophecy, God’s Word was altogether silenced and from then on could only be read. As such, the Word became frozen and ran the risk of becoming stagnant. At that point it became necessary to unfreeze the Word, a great task undertaken by the Sages during the next few thousand years.
An important element then emerges and becomes dominant. The text needs to be relevant to the generation that studies it, but at the same time must remain 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 of the commentators were children of their time and clearly read the text through the prism of the period in which they lived. The question of eternity then became critical. It was often pushed to the background so as to emphasize the great message it held for the present. But then much of its eternity was compromised, which caused a few to wonder how eternal this text really is.
Others wrote as if nothing had happened in Jewish history. In that way, it reflected the remarkable a-historicity of the Jewish people in galut. After the destruction of the Temple, Jewish history came to a standstill. While much happened around the Jews (with the necessary consequences), they essentially lived their lives outside the historical framework of natural progress. It became a period of existential waiting, anticipating the moment when they could once more enter history. This didn’t happen until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
Given the above situation, some commentators wrote their commentaries in a historical vacuum. They rarely discussed the relevance of biblical texts to a particular generation. Therefore, the student is often confronted with a dual sentiment. While dazed by a commentator’s brilliant insight, he is forced to ask: So what? What bearing does this interpretation have on my life 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 its ancestral homeland, Jews are confronted with an unprecedented situation that I believe has serious consequences for biblical commentary. Due to a very strong trend of secularism caused by the Holocaust and other factors, the issues of relevance and eternity have become magnified many times over.
Today there is a greater and more pressing need than ever before 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 convincing the reader of the Torah’s eternity as well. With few exceptions, the religious world has not come forward with an adequate response to this need.
Most worrisome is the fact that the vast majority of commentaries published today comprise anthologies of earlier authorities, often with a novel slant but without new methods that will turn everything on its head and open fresh horizons. It is as if radical interpretations are no longer possible. This clearly reflects a fear of anything new, or an inability to come up with original and far-reaching revolutionary ideas. This phenomenon has overtaken a good part of the Orthodox scholarly world. As a result, these Jewish scholars are generating more and more scribal glosses instead of offering completely new ways of understanding the living covenant with God.
No doubt, not every person is equipped with the knowledge and creativity needed to do so. Years of learning are an absolute requirement before one can make a sincere contribution in this field.
Still, one must be aware of the danger of “over-knowledge.” When the student is overwhelmed with the interpretations of others, he may quite well become confined by them and so lose the art of thinking independently. His knowledge then becomes detrimental, instead of serving as a vehicle to look for new ways to grow.
What is required is innovation in receptivity so that not only fresh ideas but also revolutionary insights are the result of ground-breaking thinking unhampered by preconceived notions. Only then will we see new approaches to our biblical tradition that will stand up to the challenges of our times.
New biblical studies in non-Orthodox circles that have turned their backs on the classical interpretations may well be the forerunners of an altogether new way of looking at the divine text. At the present time, these studies are far removed from anything that will indicate the divinity of the Torah. But it may well be that they are, unawares, opening avenues to radically new ways of understanding the existence of a divine text.
Time will tell.
1. George Steiner, “Our Homeland, the Text,” Salmagundi 66 (Winter-Spring 1985) p. 12.
2. Devarim 30:14.
A new feature in the TTP is Questions to Ponder, formulated by members of the Think Tank. You are invited to share these with the people at your Shabbat table or in your life as a springboard for discussion – and to make up some of your own.
Questions to Ponder:
1) Do you experience the commentaries you read as relevant and preserving the eternity and freshness of the Bible’s Word; or, as confining in some way?
2) Do you believe that after the Holocaust our attitudes toward Torah, covenant, and history’s relevance to Torah have been irreversibly transformed?
3) On one hand, we are told, “Hear, Israel, God our Lord is One.” On the other hand, God tells the people (through Moshe), “See, I have put before you good and evil, and you must choose good.
a)What is it about hearing that made it appropriate for the first message, and what is it about seeing that made it appropriate for the second?
b) Given that we emphasize the Shema by reciting it three times every day, does that mean that we must preserve the art of hearing above that of reading?
c) Does this open up a way for us to “hear” the rest of the Torah, rather than merely to “see” it?