The building blocks of Torah
The Christian generally regards the surface text of scripture, namely, its normal linguistic and communicative properties, to be the best guide to its meaning. There are, of course, parts of scripture where the surface text (p’shat) shuts up; for example, some of the visions of Ezekiel and parts of the book of Revelation. Christians who believe scripture is God-breathed (theopneustos – breathed out by God) also believe, as a corollary to its divine expiration (breathed out), that there are no deeper meanings lurking below the surface text of scripture. So, if Christians differ in their interpretation of a text, they lay the “blame” on the interpreter not on the text. In contrast, Orthodox Judaism views the surface text as superficial, as nothing but bed-time stories; as Rabbi Akiva Tatz said in one of his lectures, “any six-year-old can understand” the Written Torah. For the rabbis, one has to excavate below the surface to the pardes (the deeper levels) of Torah to find anything of lasting good.
Scripture, for the rabbis, is like a walnut where the literal meaning is the shell that hides the secret truth deep within its flesh. Rabbinic interpretation may read with or against the plain meaning. Although, views differ on how bound one should be to the text, the consensus is that there is wide room for speculation on meaning. The deeper you go, though, the more – ironically – lost you become. The rabbis, of course, would say the opposite: the deeper you go, the less lost you become – because you find more of God above – of whom you are a piece.
The Torah has seventy faces: “There are seventy faces to the Torah: turn it around and around, for everything is in it” (Midrash Bamidbar [Numbers] Rabba 13:15). And it means everything in the sense that it contains the building blocks of everything in and under heaven. This principle is the basis of rabbinical theology, which Neusner compares with grammar. Language, like all structures consists of a hierarchy of parts consisting of progressively larger wholes.
1. Basic sounds (phonemes) or written symbols (letters) – meaningless in themselves (Hebrew letters for the “de facto” Jew do have meaning) are the building blocks of progressively larger meaningful units ranging from: 2. Structural elements such as number (singular – plural), gender (masculine – feminine -neuter), tense, and so forth, which are traditionally referred to”grammar” (the cement of language), to 3. Words, to 4. Sentences, to 5. Discourse (paragraphs, and larger chunks of language). (See Jacob Nuesner and the Grammar of Rabbinical Theology (Part 2): What is grammar?).
Here are two faces of (Oral) Torah:
“Here, writes Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, is the “standard narrative” of Judaism up to advent of the Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria. Until the Ari, the standard narrative scripted the human being into a passive role in his own redemption: G d had made a magnificent world; human beings had messed it up. You now had a choice of doing mitzvahs, cleaving to G d and being good, or continuing to contribute to the mess. Better to be good, because the day will come that G d will take retribution from those who were bad and dispense reward to those who are good…The Ari stood all that on its head, providing humanity a proactive role: G d made the mess, he said; we are cleaning it up. (Italics added) (Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, “Eighteen Joyous Teachings of the Baal Shem Tov,” p. 18). (See When the Jew cleans up the Holy One of Israel’s Mess, Messiah will he come?). It must be so gratifying to help God clean up his mess. Sometimes I clean up my mess, sometimes God cleans up my mess, sometimes I help God clean up His mess, and sometimes He helps me clean up my mess.
There are words and there are concepts/things that words are meant to represent. If you want to understand a bit about rabbinical Judaiam you need to understand that it does not distinguish between words and things. The Hebrew root davar (means “word/speak” as well as “thing.” A famous book in introductory linguistics is Roger Brown’s “Words and things.” In Hebrew the plural of davar is devarim. So, in Hebrew, “Words and things” is not merely “Devarim and devarim”; it has no divine power. ”Devarim squared” is better where devarim is raised to the second power – the first power is human; the second, divine.
For the Kabbalist, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are the basic building blocks of the universe. So, Hebrew is not merely a natural language, but a supernatural language, the language of God. Also, it is not merely a language but the “table of elements” out of which all things in the earth and in the heavens were created. It is easy to see that in such a view, God’s speaking creation into being is given added poignancy – Poignancy to the Second power: Rabbi squared.
- Jacob Neusner and the grammar of rabbinical theology (5): the marrow of unintelligibility (onedaringjew.wordpress.com)
- Jacob Neusner and the Grammar of Rabbinical Theology (Part 3): Torah, Philosophy and Theology – Basic concepts (onedaringjew.wordpress.com)
- Jacob Neusner and the grammar of Rabbinical theology (4): God wants the Jew to create his own history and live in the now. (onedaringjew.wordpress.com)