Thursday, April 15, 2010

Meet the Reform Rabbi: E_Fink's Question

Rabbi Oren Hayon is a Reform Rabbi, who has been answering questions from me and my readers for the last few days.
Yesterday, E_Fink asked a great one:

If God did not give us the Torah [as Rabbi Hayon seemed to say in an earlier comment], what value does it have insofar as a religious text? And if there is no value in its text, then why preserve a culture / lifestyle that is borne out of its study?

Read the answer after the jump.
Very succinctly presented, and posed in a way to really cut to the bone of the issue here. I have to begin with the disclaimer that I'm still struggling to find good ways to put these ideas into words, so if I don't do a good job of explaining myself, I'll apologize in advance. If I don't succeed in enunciating these ideas well, don't flame; just let me know what doesn't make sense and I'll do my best to clarify.

Let's start with a hypothetical situation:

Is it conceivable that the sages would have made a different decision about the Book of Maccabees and decided to include it in the canon? What about Ben Sira? Clearly, our sages knew about these books and could have chosen to make them canonical if they had wanted to. Is it conceivable that history would have turned out differently and the Dead Sea community's "Scroll of Community Rule," or its "War Scroll" would have been preserved as vital - if not sacred - texts for today's Jews? Again, of course the answer is yes.

Before I move on, note that:
I'm NOT suggesting that the Jewish decisions about what was to be included in our Bible were arbitrary.
I'm also NOT suggesting that inclusion in the biblical canon is the same thing as divine authorship.

But I AM pointing out that all of us are already comfortable with the historical truth that human beings, influenced by the social realities in which they lived and worked, made decisions about which texts were to be considered sacred (or, at the very least, using Rabbi Fink's terminology, valuable). The reason we accord the Chumash a higher value than any apocryphal books is because we rely on the decisions of Jewish authorities about what's holy text and what's not; the fact that "Bel and the Dragon" is more interesting reading than Leviticus is irrelevant to its sacredness. Right?

So if we're already comfortable with the fact that human beings decided which books could be included in the Tanakh, and which excluded from it, why are we so unwilling to accept the suggestion that human beings decided which stories could be included in the Tanakh? Or which verses? Or which spellings of words?

Consider these facts:
  • There are differences between the Torah text found in Ashkenazi scrolls and that found in Sephardi scrolls.
  • There are Torah manuscripts that predate our Masoretic Text which look different from our Bible today.
  • Our Torah text has spelling and grammar irregularities that cannot be resolved by ketiv/k'ri correctives.

Given these realities, and given the fact that we already accept as a given the fact that human beings made thoughtful decisions about what our Bible should look like, it is much more difficult (for me, anyway) to believe that the standard Torah text as we have it today (and not, let's say, the Samaritan text or any other manuscript version) was the one dictated (irregularities and all) perfectly, precisely, personally from God to Moses.

It makes much more sense to me - and is, in fact, much more inspiring to me - to contemplate the devotional role that faithful Jews played as editors, curators, and preservers of texts that were (and are) sacred to the Jewish community.

Does this mean that God was uninvolved in the creation of these texts? Of course not. Even though I don't relate to God as an author (but neither, it should be noted, is God presented that way consistently throughout the Tanakh), I do believe that the Bible is the record of our people's literary piety. We used the written word to reach out to God, to praise God, to seek to understand God, and so on (which, by the way, means to me that YES, God is a vital part of the robust transaction which created Torah).

Tanakh is sacred because it is a work created, preserved, and revered by the Jewish community for guidance, moral instruction, intimate connection with God, and the structure of our daily life. This is the same reason that the Mishneh Torah or the Zohar or the great works of chassidut are valuable to Jews (to a lesser extent than the Chumash, of course), and why the Encyclopedia Judaica, Shakespeare's sonnets, and the Book of Mormon are not.

Search for more information about the documentary hypothesis at

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