Torah is the Jew’s user manual for achieving humanity’s mission to be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Bereshit 12:3).
Is Torah story or history?
Story. Or, at best, historical fiction.
People live by stories, build nations by stories, find life-purpose and meaning in stories, and create art and music because of their stories. We are not rationale creatures, but emotional animals capable of some level of rational thought. And stories pull at our emotions far more powerfully than bald facts.
The problem with grand narratives such as Torah arises when the story is taken as history, and used to justify behavior that is harmful to self and others.
Is Torah true?
Asking if Torah is true is like asking if Harry Potter really attended Hogwarts School of Magic and Wizardry? The answer to both questions is “yes,” but only in the context of the books themselves.
Inside the world created by J.K. Rowling Harry Potter really attended Hogwarts School of Magic and Wizardry. Outside this world the answer is no.
Why make this distinction? So you can enjoy reading Harry Potter without having to prove that Harry and company exist in the same realm as you exist.
Harry Potter is fiction, you know it’s fiction, you have no problem admitting that it’s fiction, and you can find insights and teachings in this fiction that are applicable in the world outside this fiction.
The same is true of Torah. It’s fiction conveying wisdom. What more can you ask for?
Where does Torah’s authority come from?
Torah’s authority comes from those who benefit from Torah being authoritative. That would be rabbis.
At what age should I start teaching my kids Torah?
Torah is not a children’s book. It is a book of parables and stories for exploring the light and dark sides of the human psyche. When we dumb Torah down so that it meets the needs of preschoolers we so damage Torah in our minds that we fail to find Her compelling as adults.
Torah, like Hamlet and King Lear, was written by adults for adults, and only those who can ask hard questions and wrestle with hard truths should engage with Her. This begins, I suspect, around the age of sixteen. (Or sixty. It depends on the person.)
Prior to sixteen we should teach our children how to use Jewish tradition to be a mensch, a decent human being, and only introduce them to Torah study when they are old enough to handle it.
What is the proper way to study Torah?
Jews don’t study Torah, we turn Torah. The first century sage Ben Bag Bag taught, “Turn Her and turn Her for everything is in Her” (Pirke Avot 5:26). The Her is Torah.
We turn Torah by reading and reading Her stories and parables to find new insights and meanings. There are four levels for turning: Peshat, Remez, Drash, and Sod. Taking the first letter of each level together we have the anagram PaRDeS or Orchard, a euphemism for the Garden of Eden or what Buddhists might call the Pure Land.
Peshat is the hyper literal reading of Torah often revealing anomalies in the text. These anomalies are seen as Remezim (hints, remez, singular) inviting us to reimagine the text are turning. Drash is the act of reimagining Torah using a host of tools including numerology (Gematria) and letter substitution (Atbash). Sod is a secret or hitherto unknown meaning arising from our turning.
What is a good example of turning Torah?
Reb Nachman of Breslov’s turning of “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is among my favorites.
Noting that Torah is written with consonants only, and that vowels are applied according to tradition rather than the text itself, Nachman noticed that “your neighbor” ray-echa can also be read as “your evil” rah-echa. The peshat “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” can also mean “You shall love your evil as yourself.” What do we make of this remez, this hint?
Drash-ing (investigating) what it might mean to love your evil as yourself, I find Torah saying we must realize that yetzer ha-rah, our capacity for self and selfishness, is not something to be expunged but embraced. Digging further, Torah offers this hidden teaching (Sod): If we don’t love our dark side as a legitimate part of our selves, we will project it on to another and scapegoat that other as a means of avoiding our own projection.
It isn’t that Torah means one of these options or the other. On the contrary turning Torah reveals both and, over time, many others as well.
If Torah has multiple meanings, how do I decide which is correct?
You don’t. The point of turning Torah is to continually generate new insights into Torah that will reveal new insights into life and how best to live it.
The pedagogy at the heart of Torah turning—and Judaism as a whole—is elu v’elu, literally “these and these”. The term comes from a bitter Talmudic dispute between Hillel and Shammai (Eruvin 13b). Since their disagreements could not be resolved, a Voice from Heaven or Bat Kol (literally the Daughter’s Voice referring to Chochma, Lady Wisdom of Proverbs) intervened saying, “elu v’elu divrei elohim chayim: “These teachings and also those teachings are the words of the living God.” Elu v’elu allows for endless argument without necessitating that either side win the argument. But still one has to act, so the Bat Kol continued saying, v’ha-halachah k’vet Hillel: “but the with regard to behavior live according to the school of Hillel.” Why Hillel?
A man once came to Shammai with a challenge: he would convert to Judaism if Shammai could explain the entire Torah while the man stood on one foot. Insulted by the challenge, Shammai drove the man away. The man then presented the same challenge to Hillel who promptly responded, “What is hateful to you do not do to another. That is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary. No go study the commentary” (Shabbat 31a).
Hillel’s Torah was compassion. His rulings were guided by compassion. And it is because of this that the Bat Kol urged the rabbis to side with Hillel in practice even as She urged them to welcome all sides to the endless argument that is rabbinic Judaism.
In line with Hillel you must ask yourself regarding every aspect of Judaism: Does this promote compassion? If it does, do it. If it doesn’t, don’t.
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