What is Torah? Part 2 - Translating the Claim for Divine Authorship

Comments

8 comments posted
Excellent blog. It is

Excellent blog. It is helpful to understand "oral and written Torah given on Sinai" as a figure of speech for holiness rather than historical fact. Thank you.

Posted by Aaron Finestone on September 30, 2007 8:46 PM
Thanks for the kind words

Thanks for the kind words and the elegant restatement in your own words.

Posted by Shai Gluskin on October 2, 2007 9:13 AM
Fascinating! The analogy

Fascinating! The analogy from your Chinese host as well as the lesson you draw from it.

Posted by peter on October 1, 2007 1:02 AM
All translation is

All translation is interpretation. And I think your interpretation honors the spirit of our rabbinic ancestors who were masters of language and reading!

Posted by Ellen Frankel on October 1, 2007 10:11 AM
Shai, your interpretation is

Shai, your interpretation is cool, as far as I'm concerned. On the other hand, I've found the rabbis' claim, as stated without interpretation, useful in responding to Christian proselytizers who say, "How can you base your religious beliefs on the work of men [sexism in the original], rather than the work of God?" (the implication being that the Biblical text is written by God, the Jewish law written by men). The response is that the oral torah is also given to Moses on Mt. Sinai by God. They don't buy it, but at least I find it important to rebut the fundamental insult to Judaism in the "bible-believing" evangelists' claim. I make the Orthodox Jewish claim, without explaining my own understanding, which might include "whether or not you believe it, and I myself don't take it as literally true, the terms of our tradition hold that...

On the other hand, we have occasion to dialogue with Orthodox Jews who don't interpret the claim the way you or I do. With them I might do a translation in my mind something like the one I thought I got once from Howie Langer. He once gave us a D.T. in which he reported on a dialogue with some Ortho's in Russia. They confronted him, as I recall, asking him if he believed Rambam's Thirteen Articles of Faith. He replied, "yes, but perhaps not 'be'emunah shelemah'" (with a perfect faith). My recollection was that Howie's reply maintained shalom bayit, while giving nothing away. That pretty well re-translates my belief -- yeah, I believe it all, *somewhat*.

I also remember a tale about Dan Kamesar, Z'L. Somebody in Jerusalem got sick or something, and he professed to believe the cause was that the mezzuzoth were blemished, so he arranged to replace all of them. Now Dan may have believed that was literally true, but I find that hard to believe. I take it that he meant what he said with a grain of metaphor, maybe even irony; and maybe if pressed he would have admitted that he didn't really have "emunah shelemah" about it being the literal truth. But like sending the men out to boil water during a childbirth, it was something to busy oneself with while waiting for the outcome of the person's illness, which was out of human control.

Finally, God is infinite and eternal in my understanding, and anything anybody says about him-her-or it must necessarily be other than the literal truth. Everything I ever utter about God -- including that he-she-or it did or didn't give the Torah on mount sinai is really ineffable and therefore incomprehensible in human language. So I'm not very concerned about any particular claim's "truth."

With regard to the claim that the _h_azal guys meant what they said one way or the other (except when you're talking to people who already believe as you do), I think it invites an endless dispute about the authority of one's claim. I'm personally not up for such, but if you are, be my guest.

Those are some of the ways I deal with this stuff.

Best, Steve

Posted by Steve Tobias on October 1, 2007 4:59 PM
Hi Steve, Thanks for the

Hi Steve,

Thanks for the robust reply! I loved the Dan Kamesar z"l story. You wrote:

Finally, God is infinite and eternal in my understanding, and anything anybody says about him-her-or it must necessarily be other than the literal truth. Everything I ever utter about God -- including that he-she-or it did or didn't give the Torah on mount sinai is really ineffable and therefore incomprehensible in human language. So I'm not very concerned about any particular claim's "truth."

Amen, well-stated!

You wrote:

With regard to the claim that the _h_azal guys meant what they said one way or the other (except when you're talking to people who already believe as you do), I think it invites an endless dispute about the authority of one's claim. I'm personally not up for such, but if you are, be my guest.

My goal in writing this stuff out is not about convincing those for whom it doesn't resonate. (However, I would like to give examples and put more "meat" in the argument that proposes that the Rabbis made the claim of divine authorship for the written and oral Torahs with "a wink and a nod".)

My main goal here is to begin a conversation with other like-minded folk about the role of Jewish Law in our lives. In a future post I'm going to write about the generic benefits of being obligated to a set of behaviors that train one in the delay of gratification as well as the art of celebration. In another post I want to challenge myself and other like-minded liberal Jews to take halakhah out of the closet and define our relationship to it. What I've tried to do in these last two posts is lay a foundation to reject a dismissal of halakhah that is based on theological grounds.

Thanks again for your comments.

Posted by Shai Gluskin on October 2, 2007 9:29 AM
Hello! I don't remember that

Hello! I don't remember that particular toast. But as you kept a journal, you must have a lot more recall!

I think the things you talk about are very relevant in Buddhism too. How to interpret things written in a very different time to a very different audience. My children love the story of how when the Buddha was born, lotus leaves appeared in front of him. He took ten steps on the leaves, raised his forefinger in the air and said something to the effect of "I am the champion!"

Posted by suzanne on October 4, 2007 7:07 AM
As I re-read Shai's

As I re-read Shai's blog(s)and the subsequent comments, I am struck that what Shai is seeking for HIMSELF is the path or meaning of the treasure trove of Torah, not to try to convince others of the veracity of his thoughts, but to share his ongoing journey and to encourage us to do the same.

Posted by Richard on October 4, 2007 9:44 AM