“The Torah is true, i.e. a divinely inspired document. Since God is true, God’s message to us via the Torah reflects divine truth. In what sense/s, though, are we to understand “truth?” The following six criteria’s shape our understanding of Torah as Truth:
1. Truth does not mean literal understanding of the Torah text.
Rabbinic tradition rejected literalism in its presentation of halachot, Jewish law. Instead, the Oral Torah provides interpretations and hermeneutical rules that produce interpretations that frequently defy literal understanding of the text, but form the basis of rabbinic halacha.
We don’t necessarily read all the narrative material literally either. At least since the days of Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204), most commentators do not interpret the anthropomorphic and anthropopathic texts in a literal way; indeed, in Rambam’s view, it is heretical to read these passages as being literally true.
2. Truth does not mean one and only one valid answer/interpretation.
Chazal, the classical rabbis, understood that Torah interpretation provides a range of “correct” answers. There is not one, and only one, correct answer/interpretation to every verse/question. Shiv’im panim laTorah--literally means the Torah has seventy faces, but the point is that there are multiple legitimate “true” interpretations. But, as Nechama Leibowitz wisely reminded us in many of her lectures: there are 70 faces to Torah—not 71! There is a wide range of interpretation, but not an unlimited range. Even in halakhic matters, the Sages recognized that there are 49 ways of permitting and 49 ways of forbidding i.e., truth is not limited to one and only one answer; there is a legitimate range of “true” answers (j. San. 4:2, Lev. Rab. “Emor” 26:2).
3. Truth may be derived from a literary/aesthetic approach to the text.
Rabbi Yishmael taught that the Torah speaks in the language of humans, i.e., its words often need to be understood in a literary fashion. While this statement generally restricts interpretations based on “extra” words or letters in the text, it more broadly provides a way of reading Torah in a literary/aesthetic framework. We need to read the Torah’s narratives with the literary sensitivity to detect when the text is using dramatic language or when it provides seemingly trivial details. While this does not open the gates to any and all interpretations of the text, it provides a wider range of understanding the truth of Torah.
4. Truth of Torah must work with scientific/rational/philosophical accuracy.
Rambam made clear throughout his Guide of the Perplexed that the Torah and science/reason/philosophy cannot be in conflict with Torah. Since God is the Author of both science and Torah, there must be one truth that underlies both. If philosophy and reason conclude that God has no physical or emotional attributes, then the Torah must be interpreted based on this knowledge. If science has proven something to be true, the Torah cannot be interpreted in a way that violates that truth.
For example, if science has demonstrated that the universe is billions of years old, then passages in the Torah that seem to conflict with this truth need to be reinterpreted. Thus, the six “days” of creation are more properly understood to be six “phases” of creation, with each “phase” being of extensive duration. If evolution is proven to be true, then God’s creation of Adam from the dust of the earth can be understood as the beginning of an evolutionary process that took place over vast amounts of time. It is foolish and wrong to interpret the Torah in a way that makes Torah conflict with the unequivocal truths of science and reason.
5. Truth=Divine guidance in the moral realm.
The Torah provides Divine wisdom that explains how we are to conduct our lives morally. Yet, the Sages have already pointed out that the Torah’s moral lessons are not always valid and applicable for all times. Rambam indicated that certain laws, such as those relating to animal sacrifices, were given in the context of what the Israelites of those times could best understand (Guide of the Perplexed III:32). Chazal formulated rules that negated or mitigated literal application of texts dealing with capital punishment and slavery. In select cases, Chazal even interpreted laws out of existence, such as they did with the wayward son, בן סורר ומורה, of Deut 21:18-21 who is supposed to be executed, and the idolatrous city (עיר הנדחת) of Deut 13:13-19, which must be destroyed—declaring that they never occurred, and could never occur (see b. San. 71a).
6. Truth=our best effort to apply the Divine guidance of Torah to our own lives.
God gave us the Torah, and also gave us the human capacity to apply divine wisdom to actual life. The Torah is “true” in the sense that it contains divine wisdom and instruction; but its “truth” is subject to human understanding and interpretation. This is not to grant free reign to human reason to make Torah fit into our personal intellectual and moral predilections; but such an understanding should also not categorically limit the possibility of reasonable human interpretation and application.
Truth needs to be extracted from the rich mine of Torah. It requires human wisdom to properly interface with the divine wisdom of Torah. It requires a deep analysis of text, a knowledge of the teachings and approaches of the Oral Torah, a sophisticated literary tact, a commitment to the truths of science and reason, and a highly developed moral sense. Above all, it requires an abiding faith in the ultimate Wisdom and Goodness of the Almighty God, Giver of the Torah.”
I. Torah is a book of Nevu’a (prophecy), explains Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, -- not a book of history, or philosophy or science or architecture. The root-word (“niv”=lips) relates to speech and spokesmen. The Torah presents a message from God to Man, delivered by His spokesman, the prophet. But the message is often not explicitly stated and requires a critical reading of the text; an understanding of rules of analysis; and the tools to determine and define the flow of themes.
One important way that the Torah conveys its message is through the structure of paragraphs (“Parshios”). There are two types of Parshios:
Ptuchot (open) when a gap of blank spaces exists to the end of the column on the final line of the paragraph. The next paragraph starts at the beginning of the next line.
Stumot (closed) when there is a gap of at least nine spaces after which the next Parsha starts on the same line.
Generally speaking, a Ptucha indicates a major change of topic while a Stumah suggests a subtler change.
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia “The division [of the Torah] into chapters was employed first in the Vulgate [Latin version of the Bible adopted as the official text for the Roman Catholic Church], perhaps by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1228). It was adopted by Jewish scholars for purposes of reference — not only by Isaac Nathan ben Kalonymus in his great concordance, "Meïr Netib" (Venice, 1523) … and was introduced into the printed editions of the Hebrew text, from the Bomberg Bible of 1521 downward”… The Talmud credits the work of the verse-division to the scribes…. In medieval times Judah ha-Levi, Ibn Ezra, and Profiat Duran considered Ezra or the men of the Great Synagogue as the author or authors of this division but although an element of ancient tradition, the verse-division was not permitted to enter the scroll.” Some scholars believe that in 1448 it was a Rabbi Mordechai Nathan who divided the Torah into verses.
In Israel, the Torah was divided into 154 sections so that it could be read through aloud in weekly worship over the course of three years. In Babylonia, it was divided into 53 or 54 sections (Parashat ha-Shavua) to allow for the completion of a yearly cycle with the reading of one Parshah per week.
II. Building on the shoulders of their predecessors, modern scholars use expanded and new tools including…
• Archaeology/history /secular ideas
• Continued emphasis on words and their location, recurrence, juxtaposition and multiple meanings
• Thematic analysis
• Translations using modern concepts (e.g., “lama naflu panecha”, means “why has your face fallen?” but is translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan as “why are you depressed?”)
• Leitwort [a term introduced by Martin Buber], a repetition of a root-word in a section that points to the theme of that section
III. How to Approach Learning Torah
• Clear your mind of previous notions and read it as if it is the first time. (Unfortunately, notes Rabbi Leibtag, too often it is!)
• While there is a need to learn the Torah in depth, this approach brings with it the danger of stagnation, of being tied to a interpretation that has been repeated so often that it does not seem to leave room for an alternate, fresh understanding. “The call for new interpretations, and not just repeating what we or others have said, is fundamental to genuine Torah learning” writes Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, citing Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi (1513-1586) who understood the verse “And not with you alone did I establish a Covenant” to mean that “each one of us, our children and grandchildren, until the conclusion of all generations…are duty-bound to examine the secrets of the Torah on our own…Just as our forebears did not wish to indiscriminately accept the truth from those who preceded them…it is valuable for us…to investigate the meaning of the Torah in accordance with our own mind’s understanding”.
• Recognize that Torah is poetry to be read aloud to appreciate the imagery and soaring emotions that the words can evoke. Poetry (from the ancient Greek word “to create”) is an art of rhythmical composition that through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language evokes pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts. Poetry uses forms and conventions to suggest differing interpretations, or to evoke emotive responses. To achieve musical effects, poetry employs…
Assonance [repetition of vowel sounds to create internal rhyming within phrases or sentences]
Alliteration [repetition of a consonant in any syllables that, according to the poem's meter, are stressed]
Onomatopoeia [formation of a word, as cuckoo, meow, honk, or boom, by imitation of a sound made by or associated with its referent]
Rhythm [… is expressed through stressed and unstressed syllables]
Use of metaphor and simile create a layering of meanings, forming connections previously not perceived.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin ("the Netziv," 1816-1893), dean of the eminent Volozhin yeshiva and author of Ha'amek Davar (A Matter Profound) thinks that the Torah possesses "both the nature and singularity of poetry [shira], which is to speak in lyrical language". Because the essential quality of poetry is its compressed nature and its allusiveness--a kind of symbolic language -- the so-called hidden meaning of the Biblical text is its real meaning! Nechama Leibowitz elaborates that “poetry is essential symbolic and requires constant reading over to taste its full significance. It has many levels of meaning.”
• Knowledge of trup and grammar facilitates feeling the rhythm, the drama, and the flow of the words
• Make a conscious effort to analyze as you read…
• Is there a theme that connects seemingly disparate topics within the Parsha?
• Is there any relevance to the preceding or following Parsha?
• Words, root-words and phrases in other locations can shed light on the meaning of a word or phrase. For example, Rabbi Benno Jacob explains that in the phrase “ayen tachas ayen” (“an eye for an eye”), tachas can only mean something monetary that is a substitute for (or an approximation of) the value of the eye but absolutely not the eye itself. This interpretation is based on the word’s use in other places in the Torah where it can only mean approximate, or substitute for. It never means an exact replacement. For example, during the Akeda story Avraham offers a ram “tachas b’no” not an identical, not an exact equivalent, but something that is “in place of” or “instead of” his son.
• Chiasmic structure provides interpretation. Chiasm is a writing style that uses a unique repetition pattern for clarification and/or emphasis in which two or more clauses or sentences or ideas are balanced against each other by the reversal of their structures to produce an artistic effect. A chiasm is a repetition of similar ideas in the reverse sequence. [For example, suppose that the first topic in a text is labeled by A, the second topic is labeled by B and the third topic is labeled by C. If the topics in the text appear in the order ABC…CBA so that the first concept that comes up is also the last, the second is the second to last, and so on, the text is said to have a chiastic structure.] The importance of the chiastic structure is found in its hidden emphasis.
IV. Some Recurring Themes and Ideas
• The critical importance in our national and personal lives of the Mt. Sinai experience; Mishkan as a portable Sinai
• Always remembering the Exodus experience
• Having a homeland in which to observe our religion
• Mitzvos as educational tool
• Mitzvos as embodiments of social ideals
• Interrelationship between the multiple uses of the number seven:
o Yovayl and Sfira (7 X 7)
o Need for one seventh of our lives (Shabbos) to be spent in introspection and self- development
• Desert wandering necessary to build independence and self-confidence
• Israelites’ rebellious nature in the desert reflected their slave mentality
• Kedusha is holiness or separation or designation--something being set aside for special purpose in our lives…
• in time: Shabbos/Festivals
• in place: Beit Hamikdash/ Eretz Yisroel
• in person: behavior towards others/avoidance of dead
• Book of Vayikra is a “how to” manual to live a life of Kedusha
• Festivals are times of:
o Recognition of God as the ultimate source of our prosperity
o Recognition of our common Jewish heritage
• Overwhelming and repeated warnings about the danger of idolatry. Its prohibition is manifest in both obvious and less obvious commandments
Rabbinical commentaries to the Torah are called Midrash--stories, homilies, parables, and legal exegesis based on the biblical text. Collections that contain mostly stories, parables, and homilies are classified as Midrash aggadah, while collections focused primarily on the derivation of law are called Midrash halakhah. [Note: The word Midrash comes from the Hebrew root 'darash', meaning to search or investigate.] Midrash attempts, through minute examination and interpretation, to bring out the deeper or ethical meaning of the text:
• Midrash Rabbah (meaning “the big Midrash”) contains volumes on the Chumash (Five Books of Moses) and the five Megillot (Five Scrolls, from Ketuvim).
• Mechilta (Tractate) is a Midrash to Shemot (Exodus).
• Sifra (Book) is a Midrash to Vayikra (Leviticus).
• Sifre (Books) is a Midrash to Bamidbar (Numbers) and Devarim (Deuteronomy).