The Many Languages of Torah

Bo By :  Marcus Mordecai Schwartz Director, Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Beit Midrash; Assistant Professor, Talmud and Rabbinics Posted On Jan 3, 2014 / 5774 | Main Commentary

Sometimes basic questions are the hardest to answer. For example, I know that one plus one equals two, but when asked to prove it logically, I may struggle a bit before I can express it. Here’s another question that you can use to throw rabbis for a loop: “what is the Torah?”

At first blush, this seems like an easy one. The Torah is the Five Books of Moses. But what are they? What are they trying to be? What is the program, the project that stands behind them? Is the Torah a law code, a book of commandments? Is the Torah a narrative, a book of stories? Is it designed to entertain? Or perhaps to rebuke? Or is the answer to all these questions “yes”? Or “no”?

Famously, near the beginning of his commentary on the Torah, Rashi puts forth a tantalizing problem. He proposes that it might have been more appropriate for the Torah to begin at Exodus chapter 12, midway through this week’s parashah, Bo. It is really only at this chapter that the Torah’s commandments begin to appear. Sefer Ha-Hinnukh, a 13th-century listing of the mitzvot (commandments) organized by weekly Torah reading, lists only three commandments in the entire Torah before this week’s parashah. For Parashat Bo, it lists 20, all from chapter 12 on. If we assume that the Torah’s purpose is to be a record of God’s commandments for the people Israel, then Genesis chapter 1 through Exodus chapter 11 seem largely unnecessary. If all these chapters tell us to do is propagate the species, circumcise our sons, and avoid eating the sciatic nerve, it may seem to us that we have a quantity of wasted time (not to mention ink and parchment) on our hands. So, it must be that the Torah’s purpose is broader than presenting the commandments. The mitzvot are a part of Torah, but Torah is not only about mitzvot.

Perhaps a better way to approach this question, for the moment, is to consider the Torah’s narratives. Maybe we should look at the Torah primarily as a book of uplifting stories. So let’s be inspired by the stories: we follow God’s creation of the world with high hopes and see a series of failures, followed by the selection of first Noah and then Abraham to carry out a divine mission. Abraham’s family grows into a nation. Leaving the land God promised to give them, they are enslaved in Egypt. God (and Moses) frees them from slavery and gives them the Torah, which they seem to fail to follow. Repeatedly. Finally, they don’t quite make it to the Promised Land, and Moses dies. This is a strangely large number of failures for a (supposedly) uplifting book, not to mention that downer of an ending.

So maybe we should see it as tragic drama. There’s a bit of a problem with that too, though. From Exodus chapter 12 on, when things get really dramatic, the Torah will often break off the narrative to recite a long list of commandments. For instance, just as Israel is about to dramatically escape from Egypt, here is the long list of commandments that consume the lion’s share of two chapters:

1.    Courts must calculate to determine when a new month begins

2.    To slaughter the Passover lamb at the specified time

3.    To eat the Passover lamb with matzah and maror on the night of the 14th of Nisan

4.    Not to eat the Passover meat raw or boiled

5.    Not to leave any meat from the Passover lamb over until morning

6.    To destroy all leavened bread on the 14th of Nisan

7.    To eat matzah on the first night of Passover

8.    Not to find hametz in your domain seven days

9.    Not to eat mixtures containing hametz all seven days of Passover

10. An apostate must not eat from the Passover lamb

11. A permanent or temporary hired worker must not eat from it

12. Not to take the paschal meat from the confines of the group

13. Not to break any bones of the Passover lamb

14. An uncircumcised male must not eat from it

15. To set aside the firstborn animals

16. Not to eat hametz all seven days of Passover

17. Not to see hametz in your domain seven days

18. To relate the Exodus from Egypt on the first night of Passover

19. To redeem the firstborn donkey by giving a lamb to a Kohen

20. To break the neck of the donkey if the owner does not intend to redeem it

Though this kind of interruption may heighten the suspense for some readers, to me this seems to dampen the narrative flow. Just when things are really exciting, let’s stop and recite some laws(!).

So, the stories are not the totality of the Torah either. Just what is this thing then? What is Torah?

I am convinced that the Torah—paraphrasing Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye for a second—presents an interconnected group of imperatives. The author of the Torah—Moses or God or Whoever—has a series of strong values to convey. These are for Him/God/Whoever the most important things in the world. But the problem, as any parent knows, is that values are very hard to instill using ordinary language. When I express imperative values in ordinary language, it sounds stilted, trite, overly pious. No one will listen to that. So He/God/Whoever uses the powerful symbolic language of story. But really, even this is inadequate for the task at hand. So He/God/Whoever tries to do it in the powerful symbolic language of commandment. But, this is also inadequate for the task. The only way to get close enough is to employ both languages at once. And this gets us closer to the goal. Of course, there is a third, unwritten language that Torah must use to get us even closer. That we call Oral Torah—but that is a matter for another time.

May we find in the languages of the Torah the liberation that the Children of Israel found at the splitting of the sea. And may we sing a new song together.


The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.