Saturday, July 17, 2010

V’zot haTorah

V’zot haTorah asher sar Moshe lifnei b’nei Yisrael al pi Adonai b’yad Moshe.
This is the Torah that Moses placed before the Israelites—the mouth of Adonai at the hand of Moses.

I often tell my 6th grade Bible students that just as their English teachers won’t let them use a word in its own definition, they may not use the Torah as proof that the Torah was written by God. I believe it is a Divinely inspired work, I just don’t necessarily believe in the literal meaning of al pi Adonai b’yad Moshe, from the mouth of God at the hand of Moses.
This morning we begin reading the book of Deuteronomy. It is the last book of the Torah, the fifth of the “Five Books of Moses.” It is mostly a review of the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the bank of the Jordan River on which they stand, poised and ready to go into the Promised Land.

The book of Deuteronomy begins, “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.…” Twelfth Century Spanish Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra comments on the words “on the other side of the Jordan,” expounding on twelve secret verses from the Torah. Like Deuteronomy is a review, he sees it as an opportunity to review what we have learned from the remez, the hints of the hidden meaning of the text.

His comment is incredibly cryptic, so stay with me:

If you will understand the mystery of the twelve [final] verses, “And also Moses
wrote…” (Deut. 31:22), “and the Canaanites were then in the Land” (Gen. 12:6),
“and on the mountain Adonai is seen...” (Gen. 22:14), “and his bedstead of iron
is now in Rabbat Amon” (Deut. 3:11), then you will comprehend the truth.

In his introduction to the Torah, ibn Ezra writes:

The words of the Torah are never less than straightforward... therefore, if
there appears something in the Torah which seems to contradict reason or to
refute the evidence of our senses then here one should seek for the solution in
a figurative interpretation. For reason is the foundation of everything. The
Torah was not given to men who cannot reason and man's reason is the angel which mediates between him and his God.
This means we have to use his method of understanding the Torah to interpret his commentaries.

Ibn Ezra writes of understanding certain verses to comprehend the truth. He points to other verses in the Torah. In looking to these verses alone, no connection is clear. But in looking at ibn Ezra’s commentaries on these verses, he writes about a secret or refers the reader to his comment here. He also writes in his commentaries that “the wise man will be silent,” in reference to the secret he is trying to reveal. The twelve final verses are the end of Deuteronomy. They describe Moses going up from the Steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo. Ibn Ezra comments here, pointing out that the directions Moses takes from Moab to Nebo is not from the Jordan River, but from Jerusalem. Therefore the other textual references he gives, from as early as Genesis 12, are also from the perspective of coming from Jerusalem. This means the Torah at these points must have been written after the Jewish people were already in Jerusalem, already across the Jordan. This gives us internal textual evidence that the Torah was written at a later time than the happenings in the Torah.

This contradicts the belief that Torah was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. We would think that the rabbis who come after him would have hidden away this revelation, but they don’t! We can read it in all of his biblical commentaries. So it seems that not until modern times do we get the insistence that Torah comes directly from God, unchanged through Moses’ hands to Joshua, the elders, the prophets, the rabbis, and to us today. Who would have thought that the concept of Torah MiSinai was a modern construct—a reaction to modernity? It seems that up to the 12th Century and beyond, a faithful Jew did not need to believe that this document was actually handed to us by God. So literary criticism—the view that Torah comes from at least four different redacted sources penned by many authors—has always been a perfectly acceptable, and a completely Jewish principle.

And yet even with our critique, we still sing V’zot HaTorah at the end of our Torah service. We will declare that this scroll is our sacred work that was given to God by Moses.

Not because we literally believe it to be, but because it is the heart of our religion while we provide the head. As ibn Ezra explains, reason is a gift that allows us to understand Torah at a higher level. An angel that mediates between us and God.

So perhaps when we hold the Torah aloft and sing we are not thanking God for literally giving us the Torah. Instead we are thanking God for the angel of reason that helps us understand the words of our sacred text.

Thanks to Rabbi Stephen Wylen for inspiring this post with his article in the CCAR's "Voices of Torah."