The default assumption of Judaism is that there is only one Torah. It is eternal and immutable because God is its Author. Yet slowly revealing and understanding the meaning of what God told Moses on Sinai is also the essence of Judaism. Clearly, our understanding of the Torah evolves over time, dancing with the God of Becoming Who constantly creates the universe. Along the way, thousands of years of commentary, without challenging the integrity of a God-given Torah, worry the bone of precisely who composed the Torah at which point. How and when did Moses transcribe God’s words? How did it look? How were its chapters, verses, words, and letters laid out on the page? Did the layout change?
“Now therefore write down for yourselves this song [shirah], and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be my witness … for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed” – Deutoronomy 31:19-21
“Sing every day, sing every day,” – Rabbi Akiva quoted in Sanhedrin (99a)
The first letters of the Torah when rearranged say שיר תאו [‘shir ta’ev’] “A song of desire.” – Attributed to R. Isaac Luria
When great poems get canonized in anthologies for college courses, they usually come thick with stuff that is supposed to help the student: short introductions, footnotes, annotations, guides, accent marks. They disambiguate inscrutable lines, point out cross-references and themes within the poem, and note the allusions to other texts and events that make the poem otherwise impenetrable. But the very density of these aids may have the opposite effect on the poor student. It also says, There’s even more of this out there. You gotta be a pro to really get it. Maybe that’s why most people can go very merrily through their whole lives without reading another poem after graduating high school.
The Torah is also like this. The newbie coming on the scene of the Jewish interpretive tradition stares down 73 volumes of the Schottenstein Talmud and millions of pages of other commentaries. Where do you begin? How can any human scale the mountain of interpretation?
But what if we approach the Torah, that densest of texts, like music? What if we treat it not first and foremost as a history of the birth of a nation or as a collection of dos and don’ts, or not even an elaborate assemblage of narratives, myths, and laws in prose, but rather as one very long song? And what if it even tells us so itself, I’m a song. Write me down and sing me through all your generations? Our assignment, to achieve enlightenment, becomes easier, less discouraging, and even joyful. Continue reading “Torah as Song”→
If you piece the clues together, the Torah tells us pretty clearly that Moses received the alphabet from God on Sinai. It happens during the same sequence of revelations that begin with the burning bush and the revelation of God’s Name during their first encounter. God tells Moses to return to Egypt and instruct the elders of Israel in “the signs” or “ the letters” that God shows him. Moses quails at his assignment.
But don’t worry, God reassures him, “If they don’t heed the voice of the first sign, they will listen to the voice of the last sign.”
The first and last signs might refer to the silent conjuror’s tricks that God has just shown Moses: a rod turns into a snake and Moses’ hand turns leprous and back again.
But more sensibly, the “voice of the signs” refers to the core breakthrough that made the phonetic alphabet a monumentally disruptive invention: signs, instead of being pictures for words as in hieroglyphics, are instructions for the voice to make sounds, like musical notes. The first and last symbols refer to the aleph and the tav, the beginning, the whole of this new invention. God is telling Moses: show the Israelites back in Egypt this new explosive technology, these letters, and with them you shall set them free. Continue reading “Hearing vs Reading the Bible”→