Torah from a Second Perspective

by Rabbi Lee Friedlander

Dear Friends,

As attendees of our by-monthly Bible Seminar can attest, my approach to the study of Torah can be categorized as ‘critical’ or ‘scientific.’  Contrary to the belief that the Torah was given, as we have it, by God to Moses on Sinai, I understand the Torah to be a product of evolution and redaction.  Scholars have shown that different Torah texts vary widely etymologically,  grammatically, and culturally revealing differences that span several hundred years.  The literary construct of the Song of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds ascribed to Moses in the Book of Exodus, for example, differs significantly from the account of the Ten Plagues, which appears a few chapters before.  (That there are two alternative accounts of the plagues in the Book of Psalms, which vary in the order and the number of the plagues, speaks to the evolutionary nature of the rest of the Hebrew Bible, too.)

The Torah tells us that every Israelite – past, present, and future – stood at the foot of Sinai to receive the Torah. Our Rabbis teach that God’s ‘revelation’ didn’t stop there and then, which is “historically” evidenced in the Hebrew Bible itself.  Although most scholars date the revelation on Sinai to be around 1250 B.C.E., the first public reading of the Torah doesn’t occur until the time of Ezra in Jerusalem eight-hundred years later.  The final editing of the text as we have it in the scrolls in our ark wasn’t completed until the eighth century of the Common Era when a group called Masorites added the “dot-and-dash” vowels together with the cantillation signs.

I believe that each generation’s fingerprints adds sanctity to the scroll.  This includes every b’nay mitsva who ‘touches’ the scroll with their yad/pointer.  It is seen in the chipping of letters and the loosening of the stitching of the folios.  Wear and tear are an indication of a well-loved and well-used scroll.  I learned this year ago when a scribe took me on a tour of what we call our  “White Oak Torah.”  It was clear that parts of the scroll. were compromised enough to render the scroll pasool, or unfit for ritual use.  And so began the search for a scribe and the task of transporting it and raising the funds for the necessary repairs which you have read from Eileen Rosendahl, our Ritual Director.

That’s how Rabbi Bec Richman happen to come to our synagogue about a month ago as reported by Rabbi Jodie.  Having worked on the scroll for several months, she completed her sacred work with us.  For me, the experience was truly a spiritual experience. There was none of the pyrotechnics as there were at Sinai when Rabbi Bec unfurled the scroll.  On the contrary, her niggunim and soft-spoken words were guides to a more peaceful revelation.  I felt transported when she called me forward to sew the scroll onto the roller on behalf of a generous family who had elected me to perform this mitsva on their behalf.  That sense of elevation was repeated when Rabbi Bec helped me write a letter in memory of Ruth Harris whose family underwrote the cost of much of the scroll’s restoration.  And I felt it again when Rabbi Bec pronounced words of blessing on me after which she guided my trembling hand after I had been called forth to write the last letter of the afternoon, which Rabbi Jodie had lovingly choreographed.

When the scroll is held aloft after the Torah reading in the traditional synagogue, the congregation proclaims, “This is the Torah that Moses placed before the Israelites by the word of YHWH and by the hand of Moses,” implying that the Torah we have is the same as what was revealed on Sinai.  Mordecai Kaplan, who shared my critical approach to the composition of the Torah, replaced that saying with a line from the Book of Proverbs: “This is the Torah.  It is a Tree of Life to those who hold fast to it.  Those who uphold it may be counted as fortunate.”  With her skillful and gentle guidance, Rabbi Bec merged these two verses enabling our community to continue the process of revelation.

As Rabbi Bec explained, the process of repair was still incomplete.  She assured us that another scribe would probably find still more work to do.  Even with her careful eye, there were letters that someone else might deem necessary to repair. Yes,  the work of the Torah can never be complete, she explained.  There is always work to be done by the next generation.  But as Rabbi Tarfon (d. 130 C.E.) taught in the Mishne, “We are not obligated to finish the work, but neither can we desist from it.”  How fortunate we are that we had Rabbi Bec’s hand to help us move the work forward.

With warmth and still in awe,