Torah study has become nearly impossible, and the problem lies not with the Torah but with man. To read the text requires courage. Not courage to open the Book and start reading, but courage to confront oneself. To learn Torah requires human authenticity; it means standing in front of the mirror and asking oneself the daunting question of who one really is, without masks and artificialities. Unfortunately, that is one of the qualities modern man has lost. Man has convinced himself to be an intellectual, removed from subjectivity and bowing only to scientific investigation. As such, he has disconnected from his Self. Because man is a bundle of emotions, passions and subjectivities, he cannot escape his inner world, much as he would like to. Still, modern man formulates ideas. He may proclaim the rights of the spirit and even pronounce laws. But they enter only his books and discussions, not his life. They hover above his head, rather than walking with him into the inner chambers of his daily existence. They don’t enter his trivial moments but stand as monuments – impressive, but far removed.
Man is no longer able to struggle with his inner Self and therefore cannot deal with the biblical text. It stares him in the face, and he is terrified by the confrontation. All he can do is deny it, so that he may escape from himself. Since he knows that he must come to terms with himself before he comes to terms with the Book, he cannot negate it or disagree with it, as this requires him to deny something that he doesn’t even know exists.
Does that mean that this man is not religious? Not at all. Even the religious man is detached from the spirit. He has elevated religion to such a level that its influence on his everyday life, in the here and now, has been lost. It is found on the top floor of his spiritual house, with its own very special atmosphere. It has become departmentalized. But the intention of Torah is exactly the reverse. Its words, events and commandments are placed in the midst of the people, enveloped in history and worldly matters. What happens there does not take place in a vacuum but in the harshness of human reality. Most of the Torah deals with the natural course of man’s life. Only sporadic miracles allow us to hear the murmurs from another world that exists beyond. These moments remind us that God is, after all, the only real Entity in all of existence. But the Torah is the story of how God exists in the midst of mortal man’s ordinary troubles and joys. It is not the story of God in heaven, but of God in human history and personal encounter.
The art of biblical interpretation is far more than just knowing how to give expression to the deeper meaning of the text. It is, after all, impossible to treat the biblical text as one would any other classical work. This is because the people of Israel, according to Jewish tradition, are not the authors of this text. Rather, the text is the author of the people. Comprising a covenant between God and man, the text is what brought the people into being. Moreover, despite the fact that the people often violated the commanding voice of this text, it created the specific and unique identity of the Jewish nation.
That is precisely why reading the text is not like reading a conventional literary work. It requires a reading-art, which allows the unfolding of the essence and nature of a living people struggling with life and God’s commandments.
This calls for a totally different kind of comprehension, one that must reflect a particular thought process and attitude 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, then, must be approached in a way that reflects a human commitment to ensure that it indeed will not be broken or refuted. This has become a great challenge to modern biblical interpretation. Many scholars and thinkers have been asking whether the unparalleled calamity of the Holocaust did not create a serious existential crisis in which the text by definition has been invalidated. Can we still speak about a working covenant by which God promised to protect His people, now that six million Jews, including nearly two million children, lost their lives within a span of five years under the cruelest of circumstances?
The reason for raising this question is not just because the covenant appears to have been broken, but also because history—and specifically Jewish history— was always seen as a living commentary on the biblical text. The text gave significance to history and simultaneously 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?
Not for nothing have modern scholars suggested that there is a need, post-Holocaust, to liberate ourselves from this covenantal text in favor of shaping our destiny and history in totally secular terms. The Holocaust proved, they believe, that we have only ourselves to rely on, and even the return to Israel is to be understood as a secular liberation of the galut experience.
It is in this context that “commentary” needs to take on a new challenge: To show not only how the covenant, as articulated in the text, is not broken or refuted, but how in fact it is fully capable of dealing with the new post-Holocaust conditions of secularity. Without falling victim to apologetics, biblical interpretation will have to offer a novel approach to dealing with the Holocaust experience in a full religious setting, based on the text and taking it beyond its limits.
It will have to respond to the fact that God is the most tragic figure in all of history, making the life of man sometimes sublime while at other times disastrous. The biblical text is there to tell man how to live with this God and try to see meaning behind the absurdity of the situation.
But above all, modern commentary must make sure that the Torah speaks to the atheist and the agnostic, for they need to realize that the text is replete with examples of sincere deniers and doubters who struggled all of their lives with great existential questions. The purpose is not to bring the atheists and agnostics back to the faith, but to show that one can be religious while being an atheist; to make people aware that it is impossible to live without embarking on a search for meaning, whether one finds it or not. It is the search that is important, the end result much less so. The art is to refrain from throwing such a pursuit on the dunghill of history throughout the ages. The struggle of homo religiosus is of greatest importance to the atheist.
That secular people no longer read the Torah is an enormous tragedy. The Torah is too important to be left to the believer. The beauty of day-to-day life takes on a different and higher meaning through the Torah, and that will evoke in the atheist a faintly mystical anticipation, which he will experience when he is alone or when he watches a sunset at the beach. A voice is born, and it speaks to him; he feels a melancholy that calls forth something far away and beyond. He happens upon a situation that suddenly throws him over the edge, and he gets taken in by the experience of a loftier existence. He realizes that the god he was told to believe in is not the God of the Torah. The latter is a God with Whom one argues; a God Who is criticized and Who wants man to search even if it results in man’s denial of Him.
This issue is related to other crucial problems. 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 near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, for you to carry out” (2). God may be unimaginably far away, but His voice is heard nearby and it is the only way to encounter Him.
At a later stage the Word evolved into a written form. Once this happened, there was a process by which the spoken Word was slowly silenced and gradually replaced by the written form. With the eclipse of prophecy, God’s word was completely silenced and could then only be read. As such, the Word became frozen and ran the risk of becoming stagnant. At that stage it was necessary to unfreeze the Word, which became the great task of the Sages and commentaries throughout the following centuries.
Subsequently, a third element gained dominance. The text must be relevant to the generations that study it, while at the same time remaining 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 commentators were children of their time and clearly read the text through the prism of the period in which they lived. This being so, the perspective of eternity became critical. It was often pushed to the background so as to emphasize the great message for the present. Much of the aspect of eternity was thereby compromised, and that caused a few to wonder how eternal this text really is.
Others wrote as if nothing had happened in Jewish history. That reflected the remarkable situation of the Jewish people in galut: its a-historicity. After the destruction of the Temple, Jewish history came to a standstill. While much happened, with dire consequences for the Jews, they essentially lived their lives outside the historical framework of natural progress. It became a period of existential waiting, with the Jewish people anticipating the moment when they could once again enter history, which eventually came about with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
Inevitably, then, some commentators wrote their exegeses in a historical vacuum. They hardly emphasized the relevance of biblical texts to a particular generation. Therefore, the student was often confronted with a dual sentiment. While dazzled by a commentator’s brilliant insight, he was forced to ask: So what? What is the implication of the interpretation for me, 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 their ancestral homeland, Jews are confronted with an unprecedented situation, which has serious consequences for biblical commentary. Due to a very strong trend toward secularism, caused by the Holocaust as well as other factors, the issue of relevance versus eternity has become greatly magnified.
Today, more than ever before, there exists a greater and more pressing need 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 on how to present to the reader the possibility of the Torah’s eternity. With minor exceptions, the religious world has not come forward with an adequate response.
Most worrisome is the fact that the majority of Jewish commentary books published today in Orthodox circles comprise compilations and anthologies of earlier authorities without opening any new vistas. It is as if new interpretations are no longer possible. The words of God are treated as if they have been exhausted. It clearly reflects a fear of anything new, or an inability to come up with fresh and far-reaching ideas. This phenomenon has overtaken a good part of the Orthodox scholarly world. Judaism is turning more and more into a religion in which one writes glosses upon glosses, instead of creating new insights into the living covenant with God.
No doubt, not every person is equipped with the knowledge and creativity needed to undertake the task. Years of learning are an absolute requirement before one can make a genuine contribution in this field. Still, one must be aware of the danger of “over-knowledge.” When the student is overwhelmed by the interpretations of others, he may quite well become imprisoned by them and so lose the art of thinking independently. Instead of becoming a vehicle to look for new ideas, his knowledge becomes detrimental.
What is required is innovation in receptivity, where fresh ideas can grow in the minds of those willing to think creatively about the classical sources, without being hampered by preconceived notions. Only then will we see new approaches to our biblical tradition that will stand up to the challenges of our time.
Bishop Thomas cargill says
this article is wonderfully correct but although it speaks of the TORA it is also true of the New Testament. So many people sit down to read and study it and they will try to apply NT Greek and Hebrew. However their mind is made up as to the meaning of the text and they forget they are dealing with something that lives. For this reason their lives are not enriched and they dont hear or see the Living God as He seeks to be known in their lives. So we get interpretations and sermons on the dead letter of the word.
Freyda Lopes Cardozo says
Dear Bishop Cargill,
Thank you for your observations!
Yes you are right. Any religious text needs to be read and studied by different criteria than literature.
This has caused much confusion and misreading of those texts.
With many thanks,
Nathan Lopes Cardozo