An accessible introduction to how to read, study, and understand Torah—the Bible and related sacred texts that have grown up around it.

For everyone who wants to understand Torah, this book shows the way into an essential aspect of Judaism, and allows you to interact directly with the sacred texts of the Jewish tradition.

Guided by Dr. Norman J. Cohen, rabbi and professor of midrash at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, The Way ...

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The Way Into Torah

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An accessible introduction to how to read, study, and understand Torah—the Bible and related sacred texts that have grown up around it.

For everyone who wants to understand Torah, this book shows the way into an essential aspect of Judaism, and allows you to interact directly with the sacred texts of the Jewish tradition.

Guided by Dr. Norman J. Cohen, rabbi and professor of midrash at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, The Way Into Torah helps us explore the origins and development of Torah, why it should be studied, and how to do it.

  • What Torah is. The texts, and beyond: Not simply the Five Books of Moses, Torah refers to much more than written words.
  • The different approaches to studying Torah. The many ways Jews have interacted with Torah through the ages and how, by learning to read Torah ourselves,we can connect it to our lives today.
  • The levels of understanding Torah. How Torah can come alive in different ways, at different times; and how new meanings of Torah are discovered by its readers.
  • Why Torah study is a part of the Jewish experience. How it allows us to experience God’s presence—and why the Rabbis called Torah study more important even than belief in God.

This guide offers an entrance into the world of Torah, and to its meaning for our lives. The Way Into Torah shows us why reading Torah is not the same as reading anything else—and enables us to become a part of a chain of Jewish tradition that began millennia ago, and remains unbroken today.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Cohen, provost and professor of Midrash at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has written a clearly delineated and persuasive guide to studying the Torah (including the Pentateuch, the Bible, and the corpus of classic Jewish texts). He discusses the importance of Torah study, who should study Torah, defining Torah, discovering the meaning of Torah, and the importance of being a part of a community of individuals seeking meaning through Judaism. In the process of explicating selected Torah texts, he demonstrates the power behind the words and encourages readers to study Torah more profoundly and meaningfully. This is the first in the publisher's promising new "The Way Into" series, which will continue to explore other aspects of Jewish faith, people, history, and beliefs. Highly recommended for Judaic collections.--Marcia Welsh, formerly of the Guilford Free Lib., CT Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
From The Critics
The Way Into Torah is a superbly written, highly accessible introduction for the general reading seeking guidance on how to effectively read, study, and understand the Torah, including the other books of the Bible and the related sacred texts that grew up around it. Norman Cohen is Rabbi and Professor of Midrash at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, and brings his expertise and experience to bear in presenting just what the Torah is and how it came about, the different approaches to studying the Torah, the various levels of understanding the Torah, and what the Torah study is an essential aspect of the Jewish experience. The Way Into Torah is an ideal beginning point for commencing a personal study of the Torah.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781580236027
  • Publisher: Longhill Partners
  • Publication date: 1/9/2012
  • Series: The Way Into Series
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition number: 1
  • Sales rank: 866,421
  • File size: 4 MB

Meet the Author

Dr. Norman J. Cohen renowned for his expertise in Torah study and midrash, lectures frequently to audiences of many faiths. He is a rabbi, former provost of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, and professor of midrash. He is the author of Self, Struggle & Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives; Moses and the Journey to Leadership: Timeless Lessons of Effective Management from the Bible and Today's Leaders (both Jewish Lights); and other books.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Importance of Torah Study

From the earliest times, the study of Torah has been the highest ideal toward which the Jewish people aspired. But when we speak of Torah from a Jewish perspective, what exactly do we mean? Is the word Torah synonymous with the word Bible?

What Is the Bible?

The term Bible comes from the Greek Biblion, a translation by Greek-speaking Jews of the term Ha-Sefarim, "The Books," which is how Scripture is referred to by the early Rabbis. Another rabbinic term, Kitvei Ha-Kodesh, "Holy Writings," emphasizes the written nature of the biblical text, in contrast to the oral form in which the rabbinic tradition was thought to have been originally transmitted. Similarly, the term Mikra, "Reading," another rabbinic term for the Bible, underscores both the public reading of Scripture in Jewish liturgy and the fact that this written text could actually be read. The most prevalent term, however, is the acronym TaNaKh, which is derived from the initial letters of the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible: Torah, Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings).

    The earliest name for the first part of the Bible probably was Torat Moshe, the Torah of Moses. Later, perhaps when the five parts of the Torah were transcribed on separate scrolls, it became known in Greek as the "five-volumed [book]," which we know in English as the Pentateuch. In rabbinic literature, the Hebrew equivalent is Chamisha Chumshei Torah, literally The Five Fifth-parts of theTorah. The first section is therefore called the Chumash. The English names for the five books of the Torah—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—are based on the titles in the Latin Bible, which were drawn from the Greek translations of the Hebrew names. These names—B'reishit (In the Beginning), Shemot (Names), Vayikra (And [God] called), Bamidbar (In the Desert), and Devarim (Words or Commandments)—are the first key words mentioned in each book, but they also allude to the content of each one.

    The second part of the Bible, called Nevi'im (Prophets), was later subdivided into the "Former Prophets" and the "Latter Prophets." The former are narrative-historical works: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. The latter are literary creations from the oratory of the Prophets: the many-chaptered books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets (simply an indication of size)—Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nachum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

    The Ketuvim (Writings, also called the Hagiographa), the third section, is a potpourri of liturgical poetry (Psalms and Lamentations), love poetry (the Song of Songs), Wisdom Literature (Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes), and historical compilations (Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles, as well as the Book of Daniel, which is a combination of history and prophecy).

    The tripartite division, Tanakh, as you can see, does not involve a categorization by theme, content, or style. Rather, it reflects historical development, representing three stages in the process of the canonization of the Bible as a whole.

    As we mentioned, the tradition associates the Torah with Moses, calling it Torat Moshe, the Torah of Moses. It is not clear, however, exactly what that means. On the basis of statements such as "Moshe kibbel Torah mi'Sinai" (Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai), some believe that God actually dictated the Torah to Moses. Others believe that Moses wrote the whole of the Torah text except for its ending, the final verses that describe his own death. More modern traditional readers may say that God did not dictate the Torah to Moses but rather that Moses was inspired to write it, since he possessed the divine spirit, ruach Elohim. All of these traditional stances, based on a sense of the infallibility of Torah, underscore the importance and power of the words of Torah, since it is somehow perceived as being God-given. Yet, at the same time, modern scholars and readers who approach the text from either a literary or a historical perspective also discover this beauty and power of the Torah. The personal meaning that Torah offers the individual reader can be enhanced by an understanding and appreciation of how it came to be put together by inspired individuals over centuries.

    The traditional notion of Moses' authorship of the Torah is based on Deuteronomy 31:9-12 more than any other verses, since it is stated, "And Moses wrote the Torah." Yet, as mentioned above, most readers, even very traditional ones, do not understand this to mean that Moses wrote the entire Pentateuch. Two other biblical passages that help us understand where and when the Bible was written down are 2 Kings 22-23 and 2 Chronicles 34. They tell the story of the finding of the "Book of the Torah" in the year 622 B.C.E., which is recognized as authoritative by both the High Priest and King Josiah. The content of the book is not spelled out, nor is it identified directly as the product of Moses, although it is read publicly and accepted as binding upon the people. Since these biblical passages describe reform measures that can be identified with the Book of Deuteronomy, this "book" probably represents the formalization of Deuteronomy and the beginning of the formation of the Pentateuch. The first report of the public reading of the Torah (as a whole) comes in a ceremony conducted by Ezra in Jerusalem nearly two hundred years later, in the mid-fifth century B.C.E., as reported in Nehemiah, chapters 8-10. It is clear that the Torah had already been canonized by this time, since the writer of Chronicles, dated slightly later, frequently mentions the "Torah of Moses" and knows each of the five books.

    The canon of the Nevi'im was probably shaped in the Persian period, by the end of the fourth century B.C.E. This would explain why the prophetic books make no use of Greek words and make no mention of the downfall of the Persian Empire and the emergence of Greek hegemony. It is clear also from Zechariah 13:2-5 that prophecy waned around that time, after the return from the Babylonian exile. A tradition found throughout rabbinic literature is that Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi were the last of the prophets, "the Divine spirit having ceased to be active in Israel with their death."

    Many of the works classified as the Ketuvim (Writings) were compiled during the prophetic period but were not included among the Nevi'im, since they were not seen to be prophetic in nature. Other works, like Daniel and Esther, were simply written after the close of prophecy and were not canonized until later, probably before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

    However, there is ample evidence that the collection of the Writings as a whole was not closed until the second century C.E. The fact that at that time the Rabbis debated the status of the Wisdom of Ben Sira, which was not ultimately included in the canon, shows that the collection of Ketuvim was still open.

Written Torah and Oral Torah

We have seen that the word Torah has two meanings. One is the first part of the Bible, the Chumash, which is read in the synagogue on the Sabbaths and holidays. Another is the entirety of the Bible: what was perceived to be the written record of revelation, in many literary forms, as it was grouped over several centuries. It is this larger category—the group that is also called Mikra or Kitvei Ha-Kodesh—that is also often referred to as the Written Torah, or Torah she-Bikhtav.

    The word Torah, however, is used more broadly to mean not merely the biblical text but rather the whole of the Jewish religious tradition, which is seen as the subject of learning. The commentaries, interpretations, legal writings, and legends that students and teachers have woven around the Written Torah, starting even before the time of its canonization, are known as Oral Torah, Torah she-Ba'al Peh, because, as we shall see later, unlike the Bible itself, they were thought to have been transmitted out loud rather than in writing. The Bible—the Written Torah—pervades all of these rabbinic works; the Rabbis presume that their readers also read and love the biblical text, and they refer to it often. But they also go far beyond it. Indeed, Torah in this broadest sense even supersedes the boundaries of these rabbinic books as well and includes the Jewish religious thinking and writing of our own generation. In that sense, to read this very book is not merely to learn about Torah but actually to engage in the study of Torah itself.

The Preciousness of Torah: The Entirety of Jewish Religious Tradition

It is with this broadest definition of Torah in mind that the Rabbis perceived Torah to be more important than belief in God, since if Israel forsakes the Divine, occupying themselves with Torah will cause the light that it contains eventually to lead them back. Thus, the Rabbis even emphasized that the practice of all the laws of Scripture is worth less than the study of Scripture itself.

    Indeed, Torah study is more precious a crown—a greater source of honor—than the priesthood or royalty. Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher and giant of legal scholarship, goes so far as to cite the sages who note, "A person of illegitimate birth who is immersed in Torah study takes precedence over the High Priest if he is ignorant of Torah, for it is said, `It is more precious than rubies' (mi-peni'im) [Proverbs 3:15]."

    At first glance, it is not clear why this particular verse is cited as a text that proves the importance of study—as a proof text. How does Proverbs 3:15, which speaks about rubies, prove the point that the Rabbis, and Maimonides, are trying to make? The first step in the answer is to read the verse in its original biblical context, and when we focus on this Proverbs verse we see that its subject is Wisdom, which the Rabbis consistently identify with Torah. That explains why this verse glorifies the study of Torah. But what does it have to do with the priesthood? The answer lies in a rabbinic wordplay.

    When we study Torah, we treat every word as a hook upon which meaning can be appended. Here, the difference between the Ketiv, the written form of the word, and the Keri, the way the word should be read despite its written form, provides the Rabbis with a golden opportunity. The text should actually read mi-peninim, since peninim means "rubies" or "pearls." Then the passage would clearly mean, "[The Torah] is more precious than rubies." However, the Proverbs text is written defectively, that is, with a letter missing, as peni'im, which means "those on the inside." As a result, the Rabbis can use this verse as if it were saying, "It [Wisdom, meaning Torah, and by extension, the person who studies Torah] is more precious than [the High Priest who] enters the inner sanctum of the Temple."

    The study of Torah was frequently juxtaposed by the Rabbis to different aspects of Temple worship. Whether they emphasized that when the Temple no longer existed, atonement was possible through an occupation with words of Torah, or that when scholars are immersed in Torah, it is as if they are engaged in the Temple service, an underlying point was that Torah study is an act of religious worship.

Experiencing God's Presence

Since from a Jewish perspective God reveals the divine self through words and can be apprehended through hearing rather than seeing, when the individual is occupied with the words of Torah, the vehicles of divine expression, he or she experiences God's presence. One passage that emphasizes this value is found in Pirkei Avot, literally, "the Chapters of the Fathers," which is actually a tractate of the Mishnah, the first code of Jewish law.

    The Mishnah, which was most probably compiled at the end of the second or the beginning of the third century C.E., is in the main a collection of the Torah discussions of the Rabbis who lived in the generations just before and just after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. These Rabbis are known as the tannaim (sing. tanna), meaning "teachers" or "transmitters." The tannaim faced two enormous cultural challenges: the encounter with Hellenism and the cataclysmic trauma of the destruction of the Second Temple and exile from the Land of Israel. In response, they transformed Judaism from a religion based on land and a sacrificial system to one based on learning and prayer. The synagogue and the bet midrash (the house of study) took the place of the Temple. The literature of the tannaim became the basis for the manner in which future Jews, up to and including our own generation, learn and think about Torah and Judaism.

    Of all the tannaitic literature, which includes other legal writing, a growing body of biblical interpretation, and pieces of rabbinic lore, the Mishnah is the most central. In fact, tannaitic material that is not included in the Mishnah is called baraita, which means "that which is outside [the corpus of the Mishnah]." The Mishnah was probably the first work of the Oral Torah to be actually written down, and both the Babylonian Talmud and its Palestinian twin are structured as point-by-point commentaries on it. Most of the Mishnah consists of legal material, on topics as wide ranging as agriculture and law courts to the ritual observance of the Sabbath and holidays, which is organized by subject into six divisions.

    Avot, by contrast, is the only tractate (or division) of the Mishnah that contains mainly wisdom and the moral teachings of the scholars whose legal opinions make up the remainder of the Mishnah. Because of that, it is a unique source of insight into how the tannaim thought about their own experience of learning Torah: as a result, it is a perennially favorite subject of study.

    In Tractate Avot 3:2, we read:

Rabbi Hananiah benTeradion says: "Two who are sitting and words of Torah do not pass between them, this is the company of the insolent, in accordance with the text, `Happy is the person who has not ... joined the company of the insolent; rather, Torat Adonai [God'sTorah] [should be] his delight and he studies that teaching day and night'" (Psalm 1:1-2).

    Yet, it is not enough for the Rabbis and R. Hananiah b. Teradion to urge that we sit and study Torah ostensibly for its own sake, as the citation from Psalm 1 implies. Rather, the act of studying God's words has greater implications and reward. R. Hananiah continues:

But two who are sitting and words of Torah do pass between them, God's Presence (the Shechinah) is with them, in accordance with the text, "In this vein, those who revere Adonai [God] have been talking to one another. Adonai has heard and noted it, and a scroll of remembrance has been written at [God's] behest concerning those who revere Adonai and esteem [God's] name" [Malachi 3:16].

    The picture drawn in this proof text is that God is present with those who study Torah, attentively listening to their discussion and ultimately rewarding them. Perhaps the point R. Hananiah makes is even greater. Since the prophet Malachi; in the verse that R. Hananiah uses as his proof text, was speaking in eschatological terms at the end of his prophecy, R. Hananiah may imply, by comparing the "people speaking" in this verse with those who study Torah, that those who study Torah will bring redemption.

    One of the most poignant examples of the Rabbis' belief that God's presence in the world depends on the study of Torah is found in Vayikra Rabbah 11:7. Vayikra Rabbah (in English, Leviticus Rabbah) is part of the collection known as Midrash Rabbah, which is made up of ten different midrashic compilations, one on each of the five books of the Pentateuch and the "Five Scrolls": the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. These ten independent works were compiled at very different times—most probably between the fifth and thirteenth centuries—and in different locales, and they exhibit a variety of midrashic styles. Unlike the Mishnah, they are not a code, organized by topic. Instead, their material follows the organization of the different biblical books.

    Midrash is a literary genre focused upon the explication of the Bible. The term midrash comes from the Hebrew root darash, which means "to seek, search, or demand" meaning from the biblical text. It is an attempt to find contemporary meaning from the close study of the Bible, and it is a living art form down to our own day with the creation of contemporary midrashim. But the rabbinic period—the time of the tannaim and their successors, whom we call the amoraim—was a time of great midrashic flowering. Some collections of midrashim focus in the main upon the laws of the Bible, or halakhah, and are the result of a close reading of the biblical text. These compilations of midrash halakhah cover material that may also be found in the Mishnah, but they start with the biblical text and follow its order, verse by verse, rather than being organized by topic as the Mishnah and other later codes are. Midrash Rabbah, by contrast, does not focus upon halakhah. It is midrash aggadah, compilations of nonlegal material.

    Vayikra Rabbah, in particular, is a compilation of sermons on the parasbiyyot of Leviticus, and scholars assume that it was put into its final form at the end of the fifth to the early sixth century in Palestine, though many of its traditions are surely much older. There, as part of a list of five examples of the idea that the term va-yehi ("and it came to pass") implies misfortune, the text cites a biblical verse about the reign of King Ahaz of Judah, who ruled in the eighth century B.C.E.:

"And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz" [Isaiah 7:1]. What was the misfortune [tzarah] that took place at that time? "The Arameans from the east and the Philistines from the west ... devoured Israel." The matter [Israel's situation] may be compared to a king who handed over his son to a tutor who hated [the son]. The tutor thought, "If I kill him now, I will be liable for the death penalty before the king. So what I will do is remove his wet nurse and he will die on his own." So thought Ahaz, "If there are no kids, there will be no he-goats. If there are no he-goats, there will be no flock. If there is no flock, there will be no shepherd. If there is no shepherd, there will be no world." So Ahaz planned: "If there are no children, there will be no disciples. If there are no disciples, there will be no sages. If there are no sages, there will be no Torah. If there is no Torah, there will be no synagogues and schools. If there are no synagogues and schools, then the Holy One, Blessed be God, will not allow His Presence to rest in the world." What did he do? He went and locked the synagogues and schools. This comports with the following verse: "Bind up the testimony; seal the Torah among my disciples" [Isaiah 8:16].

    What is the primary message for the Rabbis who shaped this tradition, who lived some time after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans? The Rabbis attribute to Ahaz actions he could not have performed—the closing of the synagogues and schools (batei midrashot), rabbinic institutions of their own day that didn't exist in his time. In so doing, they confront the issue of why God brought destruction and exile upon them. Note the different historical levels intertwined here: we have a tradition in a late fifth-century compilation (Vayikra Rabbah), which speaks of the actions of an eighth-century B.C.E. king (Ahaz) in order to symbolize the conditions of Jewish life at the end of the first century and beyond. The message is clear: the people of Israel always suffer because of the neglect of Torah study. When the wet nurse is removed, the children will not flourish. What does the wet nurse who provides the child with sustenance symbolize? Clearly, either the Torah itself or the institution in which it is studied and preserved: the bet midrash (the school).

    In trying to understand the analogies used in this passage, we can uncover several powerful ironies. First, in the opening analogy, the king hands his son over to a tutor, for which the Rabbis use the Greek word pedagogos. The Rabbis often used terms, concepts, and symbols from the common culture for their own purposes. In the Greco-Roman culture surrounding the Rabbis at the time of the destruction and beyond, the role of the pedagogos is to raise and educate the child, to insure that he grow up with the proper values and knowledge. He is the consummate teacher. Yet, here, the pedagogos, who symbolizes Ahaz, seeks to kill the son, the people of Israel. The one entrusted with the life of the child functions in a diametrically opposite manner. Second, Ahaz rationalizes that if there is no flock, there will be no shepherd. If the flock represents the people of Israel, who is the shepherd? Perhaps we have an ironic double entendre. If the shepherd is the king who leads the people, surely Ahaz suffers defeat as a result of his actions. Though he intends to remove the source of nourishment of the child, in the end, he himself is killed. Yet, in rabbinic literature, the Shepherd usually symbolizes God. And even though God's presence is no longer among them at the end of the passage, God surely still exists.

    Third, to make their point, the Rabbis have not hesitated to turn the meaning of the proof text from Isaiah 8 on its head. The straightforward intent of Isaiah's words, "Bind up the testimony; seal the Torah among my disciples," is positive. The prophet, in relaying God's words, urges that Torah be ever part of the lives of God's people and its prophets and leaders. In our passage from Vayikra Rabbah, however, it is used to prove that Ahaz, by closing up the batei midrash (the schools), bound up the words of Torah and sealed it away, thus preventing the people from accessing it.

    In the end, this passage's message rings loud: If there is no Torah study, God's presence will not be encountered in the world. Torah study is the key to the people's relationship with God and to their survival.

    In a more extended and florid metaphor, the Jewish mystics of the late Middle Ages went even further, asserting that God's transcendent being Itself is expressed at least in part in Torah; that God's ineffable name is woven into the fabric of Torah, which is a living text. Therefore, not only is the one who seeks after God drawn to Torah, which the mystics describe as God's garmented bride, but he or she can strip away the garments of Torah—its simple, surface meaning—and, plumbing its depth, become one with the Divine:

The Torah [in this world] is robed in a material garment just as humankind [in its corporeal condition]. But when humans will rise up from their physical/material condition to a more subtle [spiritual] state, so will the material manifestation of the Torah be altered and its spiritual essence will be apprehended in ever higher levels of reality.

Standing in the Line from Sinai

From the point of view of the Rabbis, all that is spiritual began with the moment of revelation at Mount Sinai, with the Torah given to Moses. It will culminate with the text of Torah that the messiah will teach at the time of redemption, in the world to come that they picture as a great yeshiva on high. And when we human beings engage in Torah study, a new link is forged in the Chain of Tradition, the Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah, begun at Sinai.

    At every moment when a student of Torah discovers new meaning, the original experience of revelation is re-created, in Midrash Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah, the volume of Midrash Rabbah that covers the Song of Songs, the early second-century teacher Ben Azzai is mentioned in this regard:

Once when Ben Azzai sat and expounded, the fire danced around him. They went and informed R. Akiva ... [who] went to him and said to him: "I hear that as you were expounding, the fire flashed around you.... Were you perhaps delving into the secrets of [Ezekiel's] chariot?" "No," he replied, "I was only linking up the words of the Torah with one another and then with the words of the Prophets, and the Prophets with the Writings. And the words rejoiced as when they were delivered from Sinai, and they were as sweet as their original utterance. Were they not originally given in fire, in accordance with the text, `And the mountain was burning with fire?'" (Deuteronomy 4:11).

    As the contemporary rabbinic scholar Daniel Boyarin points out, Ben Azzai does not claim to have uncovered the original meaning or the inner, deep meaning of Torah, but only to have read Torah midrashically, using one set of verses to interpret another as in the midrashic texts we have read. But by reading Torah in this way he was able to reconstitute the original experience of the revelation at Sinai. The fire that was evident at Sinai, when God conveyed the Torah to Moses, as Exodus 19:18 tells us ("Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord came down upon it in fire"), is again experienced as Ben Azzai joins verses from the three parts of the Hebrew Bible—Torah, Nevi'im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings)—as we have noted, together known by the acronym TaNaKh. Interpreting texts by means of connecting one text to another, or by revealing the link between texts and the historical context in which they are produced, the student of Torah re-cites, according to Boyarin, the word of God, and so re-creates the original moment of revelation.

    Note the following passage from the Babylonian Talmud in this regard. The Babylonian Talmud, like its Palestinian counterpart, is structured as a commentary on the text of the Mishnah. It is made up of the teachings of both the tannaim, the teachers who lived before the compilation of the Mishnah, many of whose opinions are cited in the Mishnah itself, and those of the amoraim, the teachers of the third to fifth centuries. Modern scholars believe that the Babylonian Talmud was completed for the most part by the end of the fifth century. In Tractate Kiddushin 30a, the tractate on marriage law, the Rabbis underscore the notion that in the moment when an individual studies Torah it is as if he or she stands in a line that stretches from Sinai to the messianic era:

Now, is a grandfather under the obligation [to teach his grandson Torah]? Surely it was taught:
"And you shall teach (limadetem) them [the words of Torah] to your sons" [Deuteronomy 11:19], [therefore, the rabbis argue] but not to your sons' sons. But [if this is so], how do I [reconcile this with] the verse: "And you shall make known (vehodatem) to your sons, and to your sons' sons" [the words of Torah] (Deuteronomy 4:9) [which states `sons' sons' explicitly]? It shows that to the one who teaches his son Torah, Scripture ascribes merit as though he had taught his son and his sons' sons until the end of time ... R. Joshua ben Levi said: He who teaches his grandson Torah, Scripture regards him as though he had received it [Torah directly] from Mount Sinai, [because] it is [then] said, "And you shall make known to your sons and your sons' sons," it is followed [immediately] by, "That is the day that you stood before Adonai, your God, at Horeb" [Deuteronomy 4:10].

    As we have seen before, in midrashim like this, the Rabbis create meaning that is not found explicitly in the biblical text. Yet, here, again, what makes that new meaning possible is the close attention that the Rabbis pay to every word of that very text. In this passage, there are two hooks upon which the Rabbis can append their message, both involving the relationship between a pair of biblical verses. The first part of the passage turns on the seeming contradiction between Deuteronomy 11:19 and Deuteronomy 4:9, when they are read literally. The first states that one must teach his son Torah, and the Rabbis quoted here assert that sons here means that the obligation applies only to one's son and to no one else—not to one's daughter, for example, but in the case under discussion also not to one's grandson. The second, on the other hand, emphasizes the obligation to make the words of Torah known to one's sons' sons. To reconcile the two, the Rabbis pay attention to the different verbs used in these two verses: "teach (limadetem) your sons" and "make known (hodatem) to your sons and to your sons' sons." As a result, they can argue that one is obligated only to teach one's sons (since the verb is lamad, meaning "teach"); yet, by doing so, one will insure that Torah is alive for all future generations—Torah will be known (the verb here is hoda', meaning "make known") to his grandchildren and beyond. Teaching one's children is tantamount to teaching all of one's progeny until the end of time! Every word, phrase, even every letter of Scripture is grist for the interpreter's mill.

    In the second half of our passage, the connection between the two verses that provides the basis for the creation of meaning is not a word or phrase but rather their close proximity in the biblical text. R. Joshua b. Levi is said to argue that because the verse of Torah that states "You shall make known to your sons and your sons' sons" is directly followed by "That is the day you stood before God at Horeb," it means that having taught his progeny Torah, it is as if he himself had experienced Sinai.

    The Rabbis even say that when an individual clings to the sages and to their teachings, it is as if he or she ascends to heaven and receives the Torah directly from God. Therefore, according to Pirkei Avot 6:3, "He who learns one chapter, or one law, or one verse, or even one letter [of Torah] from another must treat him with the utmost honor." Conversely, one's disciples are considered one's own children, according to the tradition, and that it is as if one had created them! The relationship of teacher and student is both an affirmation of God's promise of ultimate redemption and the vehicle for bringing it to fruition. This is poignantly underscored by the fact that in the tradition the names ascribed by students of Torah to the messiah are the very names of their own teachers: Shilo, Yinnon, Haninah, and Menachem. Indeed, the messianic age is associated in the tradition with the study of Torah. Maimonides ends his own encyclopedic fourteen-part codification of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, with these words:

The sages ... have longed for the days of the Messiah, not in the hope of establishing their rule over the whole earth, nor out of their desire to exercise dominion over the idolaters, ... but in order that they may be free to study the Torah and its wisdom without oppression or interference and so gain eternal life.


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Table of Contents

About The Way Into... i
Timeline vi
Acknowledgments xiii
Introduction 1
1. The Importance of Torah Study 7
2. Who Should Study Torah? 31
3. Defining Torah 51
4. Discovering the Meaning of Torah 71
5. A Community of Learners 95
Conclusion 111
Notes 119
Glossary 131
Suggestions for Further Reading 139
Index 141
About Jewish Lights Publishing 145
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