Last week’s reading was Nitzavim, which begins in Deuteronomy 29:9 (10 in Christian Bibles). Moses has gathered the second generation, all of them, before entering the land. Gathered are the men, the women, the children, and everyone from the woodcutters to the water-carriers.
Torah is your responsibility Moses tells them. And not only yours, but it is the responsibility as well of those who are not here today — the future generations who have yet to be born.
I am trying to impress upon my synagogue the joy and responsibility of Torah learning. I held a party at my house this week with an in-depth class for beginners in the study of Torah.
In preparing for that class, I thought about different ways of reading Torah. I wanted to introduce my students to a quick summary of different kinds of reading they might be exposed to.
Because Messianic Judaism is closely related to Christian communities, it is natural that my synagogue members might own and read reference materials prepared by Christian authors. So a Christian approach to Torah was the first one I wished to summarize for them. It might seem, when you read it below, that I am being highly critical of church readings of the books of Moses. While I respect the various denominations that follow Jesus in their own traditions, I have yet to find one which has its strength in respecting the books of Moses. I think it is fair to say this is a weak spot in virtually all forms of Christianity.
Because my synagogue members are likely to use reference materials prepared by the Orthodox Jewish community, I prepared them to understand the Orthodox-Mystical way of looking at Torah. As you will see below, I take issue with and yet learn from the Orthodox view of Torah.
Also, it is likely that my members will read, see, or hear the modern, rationalist way of looking at Torah, which I describe as the Scientific-Historical view.
Finally, I tried to sum up my own view of how Torah is to be read. I call it the Community-Covenant view.
I hope that you enjoy the chance to consider these different ways of reading. Please do not hesitate to correct me or ask me for clarification if you think I have been unfair. I am frequently wrong and it would not surprise me.
WAYS OF READING TORAH
A Popular Christian Model: The Outdated Manual
A collection of stories pointing to Christ and useful for character building combined with laws and procedures for Israel that have little to do with living for God today.
An Orthodox-Mystical Jewish Model
The Torah contains within it answers for every area of life. Written Torah is combined with Oral Torah, the teachings of the sages filtered down through the years which are said to have their basis in God’s unwritten instruction to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Although written Torah is granted the greatest authority, in this model, all of the rabbinic teachings become authoritative like Torah. When an answer cannot be found in the literal (p’shat) interpretation, other more mystical interpretations can be found to justify traditions (remez or hint, d’rash or comparative, and sod or mystery). Studying Torah means reading the written Torah as well as Talmud and other rabbinic literature.
A Scientific-Historical Model
Different authors or groups over a long period of time wrote the Torah. The documentary hypothesis has variations but generally sees a Yahwist writer (J) from the time of the kings, an Elohist writer after him (E), followed later by the Priestly writer (P), and the Deuteronomist (D). Later the idea of Holiness writer (H) was added. In general, J and E wrote the older stories. P added rituals and regulations for a temple whereas the pure worship of old had been spontaneous and on quickly made altars. D added the idea of a covenant and blessings and curses. H amended P and was concerned with purity and holiness laws. In this view, the Torah is Israel’s philosophy of religion as it developed over centuries.
A Community-Covenant Model
The Torah is the foundation of God’s revelation to his community (Israel and through Israel to the nations). The Torah establishes a covenant and a community. The covenant is with Israel but has in view spreading to the nations through Israel as the priestly people (therefore, it is no surprise that Torah has different requirements for Jews and Gentiles regarding some matters). The community is important in understanding Torah, since many details are omitted. It is not possible to keep Torah in isolation from the community. Thus, the traditions of Israel, broadly interpreted, are part of Torah. Whereas the Orthodox-Mystical approach grants too much authority to rabbinic literature, a more moderate community-covenant model recognizes and finds answers within rabbinic literature. Whereas the Orthodox-Mystical model always adds more layers of tradition and insists on the strictest rulings, the community-covenant model looks for consensus in tradition and is more open to variation and local traditions.