How to Read the Torah
After the Shoah—and after modern secularism's fall from privilege—it is time for Jews to return to reading the Torah as God's guiding word to them. It is time for Christians, too, to reconnect to the roots and thus the Jewishness of their own scriptural heritage. And it is time for biblical scholars, in particular, to recover the Torah as their subject matter: the Torah, that is, as sign of the living word of the living God rather than as static literary document of some religion of the past. Richard Elliott Friedman's new translation and commentary on the Torah provides profound routes of return for scholars and laypersons, Jews and Christians alike.
Friedman's translation offers crisp clear English that guides the reader to the text of Torah as entrée, at once, to the "plain sense" of the biblical text, to traces of the text's 2,000-year life as guide to Jewish understanding and practice, and to the text as guide to active Jewish life today. In one sense, Friedman fits the model of the sort of historical-critical scholar who has defined the modern academy's style of biblical studies for the past 100 years: a student of Frank Cross at Harvard and a scholarly technician attentive to philology and of the academic art of reading texts by pulling them apart into their possibly antecedent sources, pjde and such. But as readers of his earlier works already know, Friedman is a new breed of academic. In books such as The Hidden Face of God and (my own favorite) Who Wrote the Bible? and now in this commentary, Friedman contributes to biblical scholarship all the resources of academic techne. But, like a highly trained conventional physician who has also mastered complementary medicine, Friedman situates his scholarship within a holistic practice that is attuned both to the Bible as a whole word and to the biblical reader as a whole person.
Friedman introduces his work as the academic scholar's means of recovering the tradition of Rashi, the medieval exegete par excellence, who gathered all the philological and rabbinic interpretive evidence he could to help his reader see the plain sense of the biblical text in all its simplicity and in all its richness. Unlike Rashi, however, Friedman sifts through the evidence he has gathered and tells his reader a much less cluttered as well as less-multilayered story than Rashi tells. Rashi often brings various rabbinic midrashim to a particular verse, leading us perhaps to the one that speaks best in the plain sense, but leaving a few of the others there as well. Friedman displays a keen sense of textual multivalence, but he offers the reader a more direct route to plain-sense understanding. He selects for us the reading that best fits the text, occasionally letting us glimpse other possibilities but, for the most part, saving such comparative work for another occasion. That singularity is a strength of the commentary as presented to its intended readers, but it could also be a snare if readers, once having returned this way to Torah, are not pushed to the next step, joining communities of interpreters surrounded by layers upon layers of commentary.
For the most part, Friedman sticks with his own voice; his own books are the subject of most of his few citations, along with the wisdom of some of his own colleagues and teachers. His commentary is, in that sense, very much at home in this American culture. It draws richly and eclectically on its literary past, but it doesn't belabor the point, allowing its reader to live more fully in the present, retrieving the Bible as if it were only one interpretive step away from being a voice that could, by itself once again, guide our day-to-day lives in this world, now.
I have rarely encountered an exegetical voice like this. This kind of contemporizing finds its place, more often, within the confines and vocabularies of sectarian religious circles, for whom the Bible (or some comparable text) always speaks as if it were addressed right to us, albeit in the oddly anachronistic voice of the speaker of Yiddish or Ladino and so on. But this voice of Friedman's, while clearly the voice of an academic scholar, speaks as if directly to our contemporary American English-speaking heart.
Five Themes of Friedman's Commentary
1. The holistic character of the biblical narrative, or what he calls "the historical flow of the Torah." Friedman introduces each one of the five books of the Torah with a brief but lovely introduction that identifies the theme and style that he believes gathers that book. As he stresses in his general introduction, every narrative, and often each verse, of the Torah should also be read as anticipating and remembering every other narrative and verse: "to read the Torah at any level beyond 'Sunday School,' one must have a sense of the whole when one reads the parts. To comprehend what happens in the exodus and in the revelation at Sinai, you have to know what happened in Genesis 1."
Genesis, he suggests, sets the context of the entire Torah. It teaches that the purpose of the covenant between God and Israel, and thereby the broader setting of the commandments that define that covenant, is God's relation to all of humanity and all of creation. When focused on the Exodus narrative of Israel's own liberation, therefore, Friedman wants his reader always to remember the universal and cosmic backdrop and purpose of those events. Sometimes a link between two narratives will illustrate the Torah's movement from universal to particular: "the story of the Tower of Babylon (and the dispersal of humanity) prepares the way for a shift … away from dealing with the fate of the species, and, instead dealing with individuals." The focal individual, of course, will be Abraham and the individual people he sires. At the same time, the last words of Moses, and the last words of Deuteronomy—"happy are you, Israel"—"are an assurance that Israel will survive to fulfill the destiny that was the first promise to Abraham to be a source of blessing to all the earth's families."
Friedman's holistic reading also discloses the theodicies that might otherwise remain hidden in the details of the Torah. On Genesis 16:6, for example, he comments that "Sarai's treatment of the Egyptian Hagar foreshadows (or is reversed in, or governs) Israel's experience in Egypt." (In 16:6, "Sarai degraded her"; and in Exodus 1:12, "Egypt degraded them.") Introducing the Book of Exodus, Friedman writes that while "Genesis involves a continuous narrowing of attention from the universe to the earth to humanity to a particular family; Exodus begins to broaden the circumference of attention again as the family grows into a nation … [and as] it introduces a theme of YHWH's becoming known to the world."
2. Enough critical, academic scholarship that the reader may learn not to read the text fundamentalistically. Commenting on God's command to Abraham, "Go forth from your father's birthplace" (Gen. 12:1), Friedman offers one of his few explicitly historical-critical analyses. Abraham, he notes, is in Haran, and Ur of the Chaldees was his birthplace! Friedman samples the explanations of medieval Jewish commentators: stretching the grammar, Ibn Ezra suggests that the text should read, "God had said, … go forth"; Nahmanides suggests that Haran and not Ur was Abraham's birthplace. But Friedman sees no alternative in this case to a text-critical conclusion: "This is a case in which the contradiction is a result of the fact that the Torah was composed from several [contradictory] sources."
Employing less visible critical tools, he peppers his commentaries with historical clarifications. Contradicting some recent scholarly claims, for example, he comments that the Red Sea described in Exodus was the Red Sea even if the Hebrew term could be translated "Sea of Reeds" (yam suf) (Ex. 13:18). I most enjoy his tendency, once every book or so, to declare about a biblical term that "we must admit it, we just don't know what it means" (for example, what the Urim and Tummim were, in Ex. 28:30).
3. Enough attention to the philology of the Torah that contemporary readers can begin to appreciate its literary allusions, its love of puns, in fact its love of language. Once in a while, for example, Friedman delights us with a brief study of wordplay and punning in the biblical text. Gossiping about Moses, Aaron and Miriam ask, "Has YHWH only just spoken through Moses?" (Num. 12:2). In other words, how about us? Explaining the awkward wording of "only just," Friedman suggests that the Hebrew harak should be translated emphatically ("only just" rather than just "only"), because it plays on the intensive use of the word "spit" (yaroq yaraq) in God's angry response to Miriam's sarcasm, "If her father had spit in her face, wouldn't she be humiliated seven days?"(Num. 12:14). Friedman then shows us, at length, "the elaborate chain of puns that are stitched through this section of Numbers," playing no fewer than 14 variations on the root letters ('SP). By this device, "we are brought from the crisis that is generated by the 'gathered mass' " (ha'SPSuP) of Israelites who plague Moses with their grumbling "to resolution when Miriam is 'gathered back'" (he'aSeP).
4. A legal apologetics or what I take to be Friedman's efforts to offer American readers a sympathetic understanding of the Bible's religious and ethical wisdom. Friedman comments on legal texts, for the most part, when he suspects that contemporary readers might be unnecessarily critical or suspicious of the Bible's intention. For example, when Exodus warns Israel "not to let a witch live," Friedman asks, "why does the text mention only women?" Noting that the feminine form of the word for "witch" is used uniquely in this one verse, while the text of the Septuagint uses the masculine plural, he concludes that "the original text forbids the practice of magic by either men or women." When Leviticus proscribes priestly use of alcoholic beverages—"it is an eternal law … to distinguish between holy and secular" (Lev. 10:10)—Friedman makes his heuristic concerns most explicit: "Rabbi Simchah Weiser quoted an expression to me: The problem with American Jews today is that they know how to make kiddush (the blessing over wine), but not … habdalah (the ceremony ending the Sabbath and beginning the secular week). That is, they do not know how to distinguish between the holy and the secular."
5. Throughout, enough attention to the contemporary force and relevance of the words of Torah that the commentary might help an American reader, Jewish or Christian, to actually love this book again and maybe even love the traditions to which it gave rise. Thus, in response to Lev. 21:23, Friedman displays his concern to re-speak the words of this Torah directly to his readers, acknowledging why they may have a difficult time returning to these texts, but egging them on: "At the time that I am writing this, we have lost the sense of zones of holiness, impurity, and so on. The Torah contains the element of awe for the sacred, inspiring great care regarding who enters the zone, what fits the zone, and what the zone's boundaries are."
Commenting on the Blessings and Curses of Leviticus, he reassures the reader, "The God of the Hebrew Bible is not the 'Old Testament God of Wrath,' but rather a deity who is torn between mercy and justice, between affection for humankind and regret over the continuous conflict with them. The curses are a sad outcome of a certain kind of human behavior. But, then, the blessings are an outcome of the other kind" (on Lev. 26:29). And, in the last word of his epilogue to Deuteronomy, he writes that "The Torah … is the first known work of history on earth: telling a record of events through a progression of time on a line. Yet we read that record in a cyclical manner, always returning to the beginning. And so Returning becomes one of the central concepts of Judaism." And one of the central and worthy goals of reading Torah!
Commentaries for the American Heart and More
Through these five themes, Friedman succeeds in offering a broad American readership what Rashi offered a medieval Jewish readership. Resisting the dominant tendency in academic biblical studies, Friedman attends to the parts precisely in order "to show how united and connected the whole Torah is, and to try, like the [traditional rabbinic] commentators who are our starting point, to relate it to life." In this way, he speaks to what the American reader needs to hear: the whole message that speaks to the whole heart, the one that has an intellect, an individual as well as social body, and a soul.
At the same time, Friedman works and writes as a scholar within the broader community of university scholars, not as the sage of some particular community of Jewish worship. To read Torah as Torah, both Jews and Christians need to "find themselves a sage," as the classical rabbis put it. But sages must themselves teach from the peshat, or plain sense of the Torah text, not from their own community of wisdom and practice: "a reading must not depart from the peshat of God's word" (lo yotze mide peshuto). This is perhaps the most important lesson for readers of Torah to learn, and it is also the one that American readers, including very pious ones, seem to have the most difficulty learning.
The classical Jewish rule for reading Torah is that not merely the words but the literal graphemes (otiot), the black-on-white of the Torah scroll, must be received literally as the word of God (dibbur hashem). But—and this But seems to be the stumbling block—the words and graphemes do not legislate by themselves. One does not read the book, claim to understand what it commands, and then go off and do what it commands and insist that others do the same. The written black-on-white is an irreducible and authoritative element of the commanding Word of God, but it is not the only element.
The two other irreducible elements of the commanding Word are God and Israel: that is, the living Presence of the divine legislator in and over against the life of the community of Israel as the community that reads now, in its immediate historical situation and in its immediate context of living, suffering, and asking— asking, that is, how God will speak now, which is "to search after the Word of God" (l'drosh et dibur hashem). For the rabbinic tradition, the plain sense of the words, black-on-white, does not refer to "the meaning of the text for the authoritative community of informed readers." The term peshat comes from the root psht, "to spread out"; the plain sense is the place of any verses in the "spread" or literary context of the verses in the Torah. By itself, this plain sense therefore refers explicitly only to other parts of the Torah; its meaning for our world and our lives is not explicit.
This meaning is made explicit only through the process of interpretation (midrash) through which each community of Israel, through the grace of its prayerful relation to God, uncovers the commanding voice of Torah for its time and for each context of living in its time. The wisdom of the ages has taught the Jews (when they remember their wisdom) that communities may not always hear this commanding voice in its full force and subtlety and that it is good for them to check their hearing against the records of 2,000 years of listening—as recorded in the books of Prophets and Writings that were canonized alongside the Torah, in the books of rabbinic Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, and in the many layers of commentaries that have been recorded since.
As a scholar of the plain sense, Friedman's responsibility is to enable readers of his day and age to hear the black-on-white of the Torah clearly enough that they will be ready and able to gather communities of study and interpretation around what they hear. He has fulfilled his responsibility admirably. It remains his readers' responsibility to take the next step: locating their own communities of interpretation, gathering the wisdoms of ancestral communities, and, in the presence of all these, listening, studying, and praying until the plain sense yields its commands.
Peter Ochs is Edgar M. Bronfman Professor of Modern Judaic Studies at the University of Virginia and a coeditor of Christianity in Jewish Terms (Westview).
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.