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In the Beginning

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Opinion

Reading from a Torah scroll in accordance with Sephardi tradition. Photo: Sagie Maoz via Wikimedia Commons.

We begin the yearly cycle of the Torah by reading in Genesis about the Garden of Eden — such an innocent idealized world before human beings started to mess things up. And yet the story helps us answer the fundamental question of how to live an ethical and spiritual life.

I do not think that all people need to think the same way — or respond to the text in the same way — as I do. Amazingly, and unlike other religious texts of its time, the Torah addresses everyone –man, woman, and child. It is a document for humanity, not just for priests or rabbis. But there are many ways of reading and understanding the text.

One can look at the Garden of Eden as a myth, in the sense of a fairy-tale story. But many myths usually carry important messages with them, both for society and the individual. One can look at the Bible historically, critically, anthropologically, and comparatively. One can construct and deconstruct.

All texts need amplification and interpretation. A law that says “Do not kill” seems clear, but there is still room to argue about the difference between murder as opposed to manslaughter, killing for revenge, or killing in self-defense.

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As a person, I can respond to this ancient text in its original language as a magnificent document, perhaps the most important in human history. Composed of poetry, prose, legislation, documentation, and exhortation — of recorded speech and narratives that document human error and suffering, as well as the struggle to come to terms with forces beyond one’s control.

As a Jew, I respond to it on another level, as a religious document that is the basis of my ethical and experiential life — a document of an encounter with God and the constant struggle to establish contact and understand how to live a good life. The Torah speaks to me not as a history book or a science book. I look to it for inspiration and guidance, and sometimes I feel God speaking to me through it. There is something very special in the text that stimulates my spiritual senses, and the Torah’s laws and rituals reinforce this relationship.

We choose the degree of commitment to it, and the evolutions of its laws and customs from the range of texts and customs that have accrued over time.

Particularly on the narrative side, there are so many options. The Talmud says (Sanhedrin 34a) that the text has different meanings and (Bamidbar Rabba 13:16) that “there are seventy different facets to the Torah.” Does this mean that all and any explanation is equally valid or legitimate? Not really. After all, Jews and Christians revere the same Biblical text, if in different degrees and ways. But on many occasions, we read the same text and come to very different conclusions — as indeed do different rabbis and different traditions within mainstream Judaism. Each one of us who cares should make the effort in his or her own way, to make sense of the text. And over the years, this is what has happened. Different people, scholars, saints, and ordinary people have looked at the text, some rationally, some mystically, and some symbolically.

To appreciate it to its fullest, one needs to savor the words and detach oneself from certain modern notions of how we expect a text to be judged.  I only take issue with those who say that these are primitive texts, simply of use only as archaeological, anthropological texts, and material to be used to be held up to ridicule.

I have inherited and affirm my loyalty to the rabbinic approach to Torah, in its variety and complexity, which allows for disagreement once certain essential positions are accepted. I use it as my primary ethical source (though not the only one).  The Torah combined with the Talmud is the core and the foundation of our nation, our tradition, and our culture.

The author is a writer and rabbi, currently based in New York.

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