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Commentary on Tanakh Talks 12/7/20

Don Perlmutter

Q. What is the Greatest Contribution of Judaism to Humanity?
A. Torah

Today’s discussion took us on a journey from the significance of the delivery of Torah, it’s archaeology, for whom it was intended, and finally to the conundrum of “Who is a Jew?”  

What is the significance of receiving the Torah in the desert? 

Our group offered several answers to this question: 

  1. Part of a narrative: Jews were on route from Egypt to Canaan.
  2. Torah provided some structure to a wandering nomadic tribe.
  3. They were isolated and in survival mode and were more receptive than they might have been had they received Torah after reaching their destination and engaging in territorial battles then settling into their new surroundings.
  4. It was revealed in the Sinai desert because it was a neutral, ownerless place. This permitted avoidance of tribalism which can be attached to a physical location.  


Is Torah free?

In the commentary of the Midrash, Bamidbar (Numbers) describes the delivery of the Torah through fire, water, and desert. Why?

All three are elemental forces and are free and available to all, as is Torah. Isaiah said “Oh, all who are thirsty, come for water even if you have no money.” However, some of our group disputed this, claiming  study of Torah is not free, often requiring great sacrifice. Knowledge and ideas are free, but accepting them may come with a price: One must give up autonomy to a higher order of authority than yourself. Also, humility is essential: One must be humble “like a desert’ to accept Torah. You cannot acquire knowledge if you think you know everything. 

Archaeology of Torah

Rabbi Edery educated us on the following facts:

  1. Until discovery of Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible (written in Hebrew) was the Leningrad Codex. It was dated at 1008 CE.
  2. Aleppo Codex was about 100 years older, but not a complete manuscript.
  3. Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in Qumram Caves between 1946-56. 972 texts range in age from 400 BCE to 300CE. 
  4. Two miniature silver scrolls were discovered in a dig just outside Jerusalem containing the priestly benediction (Birkat Cohanim) dated at 700-800 BCE. (Older than DSS’s). The blessing appears in Numbers 6:23-27.    


Universality of Torah

The idea that Torah belongs to everyone contradicts the notion of “the chosen people." In our discussion, this raised several issues and questions. Jews tend to be possessive of Torah, but should we be? Ancient Jews apparently thought it should be shared because it was translated into Greek, which allowed access to other cultures. How do other cultures view the notion of “chosen people”? Could it have caused resentment and been a basis for anti-Semitism? Since we have no central authority in Judaism, interpretation of this issue is reduced to individual prerogative. Individuals who choose to claim Torah as proprietary property of the Jews may be in contradiction to the original intent. 

From this arose the question: Who is a Jew?

As is true throughout Jewish culture, there is a wide spectrum of beliefs. Orthodoxy defines a Jew as one who is devoted to the study of Torah and strictly adheres to the principles and practices of daily communal prayer, Shabbat, and Kashrut. Secularists, on the other hand, have no such strict requirements for behavior. The main criterion is one’s heritage for inclusion as a “member of the tribe”.  

R. Meir stated: A gentile who studies Torah is equal to a high priest. Scripture holds that if a “person” keeps the statutes and lives by them, they live a Jewish life. 

Mar, son of Rabbana, contradicts R. Meir: A Jew (one who is commanded) and does is greater than he (a gentile) who is not commanded and does. The implication is that duty and obligation supersede volunteerism and observance by choice.   

Rabbi Edery suggested that a fundamental principal of Judaism is the importance of community. This is illustrated by the reference to the wicked nature of the “rebellious” son in the Passover service who asks, “What does this service mean to you?” He excludes himself, thereby rejecting the community.   

Nevertheless, we concluded that Torah, as a gift to humanity, is elemental and universal and is meant to go beyond the “tribe.” 

Fri, December 3 2021 29 Kislev 5782