Lynellen Perry Judaism April 29, 1992
The Joy of Torah
In Christian churches, the Bible is used for teaching, disciplining, correcting, and for training in righteousness. God's Word is held in high regard and considered infallible by many. However, we usually regard the words that originate from the Pastor, though based on the Bible, to be open to discussion and interpretation-- they are not infallible because, as a human, the Pastor is not infallible. Modern Judaism takes quite a different approach to the Torah and to the lessons that are derived from it by sages and Rabbis. We shall see that this approach is contradictory to Jewish values and is even un-Biblical.
Jacob Neusner has said that "the central, dominating motif of the Judaic consciousness is Torah" (23). In fact, the Torah scroll is the "holiest ritual object in Judaism in that it contains both the name and message of God" (Eckstein, 27). There are many rules about how to handle the scroll with utmost reverence and respect so as to not defile it. In addition, reading the Torah is such an important part of Judaism that there is a day set aside for rejoicing over the Law--Simchath Torah. The initiation of celebrating this day began soon after the establishment of the system of reading the Law through in the period of one year in the synagogues. It is on this day that the reading of the book of Deuteronomy is finished and the reading of Genesis is begun again (Buksbazen, 56). During the Simchath Torah ceremony, a blessing is said before the reading of the Law and the scrolls are then carried seven times around the assembly while they sing joyful hymns in honor of the Torah, kissing the coverings of the scrolls (Buksbazen, 58).
Since the Torah is so highly revered, the study of Torah is very important for proper training and education--just as Christians consider the study of the Bible to be. Indeed, "the Jews hold their devotion to study of the Torah. . .to be their chief glory. This sentiment is repeated in song and prayer, and it shapes the values of the common society. The important Jew is the learned man" (Neusner, 83). Rabbi Heschel says of education in general, "Genuine reverence for the sanctity of study is bound to invoke in the pupils the awareness that study is not an ordeal but an act of edification; that the school is a sanctuary, not a factory; that study is a form of worship" (Heschel, 42).
How much more a form of worship, then, is the study of Torah. The Talmud (Abodah Zarah 3b) supports this when it states, "As the fishes in the sea immediately perish when they come out of the water, so do men perish when they separate themselves from the words of Torah" (Wilson, 311). Eckstein says, " For while all other holy writ in the Tanakh are sacred and divine, none carries the same authoritative force as the Torah, wherein every word is regarded as divine and inerrant and, consequently, is to be interpreted by man. In the case of the rest of Scripture, only the concepts are sacred and divine. Laws cannot be derived exegetically from every word or letter" (30). But the Torah does not have to be meticulously poured over to be of value, for "repeating the words of the oral revelation, even without comprehending them, produces reward" (Neusner, 83). If the necessary study of Torah produces a great reward, then one may wonder how women could achieve merit in this area, since the study of Torah was closed to them until very recently. Neusner says that, in the past, "women acquired merit when they arranged for their sons' education in Scripture and Mishnah and when they waited for their husbands to return from the schools" (85). In our day, however, many schools of Hebrew learning allow women to attend and even to be ordained as Rabbis.
Despite the high reverence for the word of God in the written Torah and the importance of it's study, modern Judaism manages to undermine its own values concerning the Torah. This is accomplished by believing that, at Sinai, God divinely made a dual revelation of the written and oral Torah. It is this oral Torah that is the problem since its existence allows that "whatever the most recent rabbi is destined to discover through proper exegesis of the tradition is as much a part of the way revealed to Moses as is a sentence of [written] Scripture itself" (Neusner, 81). In essence, this makes man's word of equal importance as God's word!! This is an un-Biblical position, for how can this be when God's Word says, "'For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,' declares the LORD. 'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts' " (Isaiah 55:9).
Neusner also says that,
in heaven God and the angels study Torah just as rabbis do on earth. God dons phylacteries like a Jew and prays in the rabbinic mode. He carries out the acts of compassion Judaic ethics call for. He guides the affairs of the world according to the rules of Torah, just as the rabbi in his court does. One exegesis of the creation legend taught that God had looked into the Torah and created the world from it. . . It is therefore possible to participate even in the giving of the law by appropriate, logical inquiry into the law. God himself, studying and living by Torah, is believed to subject himself to these same rules of logical inquiry. If an earthly court overrules the testimony, delivered through miracles, of the heavenly one, God would rejoice, crying out, "My sons have conquered me! My sons have conquered me!" (81-82)
This passage raises many theologically important questions. Why does God need to study the Torah? Did He not create and write it in the first place? If He did not, then who did? And is this "being" then more powerful and in place of higher glory and honor than God such that God would study this "being's" works and obey this other "being"? Why does God study as the rabbis do--instead of the rabbis studying as God does? To whom is it that God is praying? Why does God follow Judaic ethics? Is the Torah greater than God that God follows Torah as His authority? How can man prove God wrong and thus "correct" His revelation? Just who is God the Creator and who is Man the Created here, anyway???
Perhaps Judaism's problem is seen most clearly in Neusner's statement that "Honor is due to the learned rabbi more than to the scroll of Torah, for through his learning and logic he may alter the very content of Mosaic revelation. He is Torah, [emphasis mine] not merely because he lives by it but because at his best he forms as compelling an embodiment of the heavenly model as does a Torah scroll itself" (82). Eckstein confirms this Judaic principle when he says, "It is man who assumes the prominent role of final arbiter of God's will and intent (40) . . . God revealed himself and gave his Torah to Israel . . . It is now the rabbis' right and obligation to interpret that divine word according to the proper hermeneutical principles of the oral tradition that God himself ordained. Biblical authority rests not with God, but with the rabbis who were given that authority by him" (41).
It is very strange that a high respect for God's Word as holy can co-exist with the ability, yea even obligation, of a mere human to alter that Word and have it be considered as valid and as truthful as the original, no matter how a human claims they got authority. Unfortunately, this reversal of authority positions is not a new one. The embellishments of the Law by the Pharisees and Sadducees (rabbis of Jesus' day) were condemned by Jesus in Matthew 15:6, Luke 11:46, 52, and other similar verses. Not only do all the extra rules just make the worship and obedience of God into a legalistic system, but they violate the Law itself for in Deuteronomy 4:2, God's Law says, "You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you."
Holding God's Word in reverence, reading and studying it are good things. But we have seen that Judaism has greatly exaggerated man's role and authority in the interpretation of that Word. The resulting attitude that Biblical interpretation rests with man, and not God who wrote the Scriptures, is contradictory to the respect Judaism gives to the Torah, and is un-Biblical. The oral Torah, as an integral part of the idea of Torah, is a major falling away of Judaism from it's Biblical roots, and Neusner's statement is sadly true that "Judaism begins in the Hebrew Scriptures, which Christianity calls the Old Testament, but Judaism is not the religion of the Old Testament . . . [it] is the religion of the dual Torah" (2).
Buksbazen, Victor. The Gospel in The Feasts of Israel. Fort Washington, Pennsylvania: Christian Literature Crusade, Inc., 1954.
Eckstein, Rabbi Yechiel. What You Should Know About Jews and Judaism. Waco, Texas: Word Books Publisher, 1984.
Heschel, Abraham J. The Insecurity of Freedom. New York: Schocken Books, 1972 .
Neusner, Jacob. The Way of Torah. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1988.
Wilson, Marvin R. Our Father Abraham. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989.
Note: Biblical references from The Open Bible (NASB), New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985.