Removing the Garments of Torah

transcendent-shechinahFor classical Judaism, then, the notion of sacrality which adheres to the biblical text by virtue of its source in divinity was gradually protected, qualified, and even extended by hermeneutical systems which reopened the closed text. This led to paradox after paradox until, remarkably, the very sanctity of biblically derived actions hung by hermeneutical threads of one length or another, and until the very sanctity of the biblical text was itself hermeneutically established. Thus by virtue of its famous myth of two Torahs–one the written and the other oral, but both given coterminously at Sinai–the Pharasaic sages laid claim to the true chain of interpretation whereby the written Torah was to be historically renewed.

-Michael Fishbane
“Conclusion: The Notion of a Sacred Text,” pg 123
The Garments of Torah: Essays in Biblical Hermeneutics

My pastor recommended Fishbane’s book to me, which he had read many years ago, and now I can see why. Pastor Randy is a defender of the sanctity of the Bible text above all else, particularly Talmud. It would appear that his attitude may have been formed by reading Fishbane. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but care must be used when considering the nature and character of the Rabbinic text in relation to the Bible, the Jewish people, and religious Judaism, because for many (most?) observant Jews, there is no way to extract the Rabbis from the Torah.

On the other hand, for many Messianic Jews, the absence of the Messiah within the pages of Talmud is a significant difficulty bordering on grief. There is also the consideration that the Rabbis may have “gone too far” in the process of exegesis used to extract and illuminate the most arcane details of religious and lifestyle practice from the pages of Torah. Just how many meanings can the Torah contain?

At another level, the effacement of the formal boundaries between canonical books and their contents went yet further, and allowed the potential plurivocity of sacred Scripture to be explored. Indeed, once the surface sequence of words, sentences, and pericopae were no longer solely determinate of textual meaning, complex networks of intertextuality were established…By the normative hermeneutical rules of the game, new combinations of words and texts–hence, new meanings–were thus endlessly possible.

-Fishbane, pg 124

I know I’ve mentioned before the possibility of an irrevocable authority issued by God to the Jewish sages allowing successions of generations of Rabbis to issue authoritative interpretations of Torah and thus halachah based on those interpretations, but is there a reasonable limit? If we’re willing to admit that there is, where do we find it?

Lichtenstein did not believe the Talmud to be infallible or unchangeable, and he stated that even the rabbis who composed it did not believe it was so, rather he saw it as a vast compilation of ideas, opinions, and legislations that can only benefit the Jew by promoting holiness and discipline in every aspect of his daily life, strengthening his connection to God.

-Jordan Levy
from “Introduction: A Talmudic Jew,” pg 1
The Everlasting Jew: Selected Writings of Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein

In her commentary about 19th century Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein, author and translator Jordan Levy states that this Jewish man who came to faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah remained an Orthodox, talmudic Jew throughout his life. It was his faith in Messiah that resulted in an intensification of his observance of the Torah mitzvot, contrary to what more traditional Jewish Rabbis would predict. And Rabbi Lichtenstein remained a devotee to Judaism and Jewish practices, including the study of Talmud and the observance of a Jewish lifestyle based on accepted halachah.

phariseesDid that mean the sacredness of the written Torah text was as diminished for Lichtenstein as Fishbane states is it for the “Pharisaic Rabbis?” Or perhaps, Fishbane may be making an assumption about the lived experience of “Talmudic Jews” including the aforementioned Rabbi Lichtenstein.

I can’t see into the mind and life of Fishbane to know. All I can tell is that his apparent viewpoint on Torah and Talmud seems closer to what we would find in traditional Christianity than in traditional Judaism.

Fishbane objects to the opening of the sacred text to an infinite degree by Rabbinic hermeneutics, but earlier in his book, he also expressed concern at the Torah becoming a “dead letter” without treatment and extraction of new meanings across time as applicable to subsequent generations. We saw, as I’ve previously commented, that later Bible writers would extract and apply earlier portions of the Bible text on new situations in a manner not anticipated by the original writer.

We can accept this within the confines of the Bible with the belief that later writers were just as inspired by the Holy Spirit in the authoring of their texts as the earlier writers, but what can we say once we exit the canon, or do we exit?

Both Judaism and Christianity have a firm concept of the closure of the textual canon, beyond which point, no new Holy text may be admitted (and text deemed Holy may not be removed). John MacArthur and other Christian commentators maintain that the Bible is sufficient as a means of knowing God for the believer without additional input or extra-Biblical texts being applied (Sola Scriptura), but for the observant Jew, the means by which one ties tzitzit, lays tefillin, or the methodology of examining an animal for signs of defect prior to the process of a “kosher slaughter,” are all impossible without Talmud. The sacred texts contain the requirement for these mitzvot but not the process by which they should be accomplished.

For observant Judaism, the existence of Torah and Talmud become tied together in knots beyond any reasonable untying, and the authority of the Rabbinic sages to establish halachah rises to the level (or almost so) of the authority of what was handed down from Sinai.

However, Fishbane, though exceptionally erudite in language and thought, finally showed his humanity in the following:

All this said, let me now pose the question that has been in my heart all along. Can the notion of a sacred text be retrieved?

-ibid, pg 128

We can never forget that when we say we love God and His gifts to us, His greatest enduring gift is that of His Word to human beings. The Torah was given to the Israelites as Sinai and then guarded for centuries, while the rest of the nations of the world were sacrificing to idols of wood and stone and passing their children through pagan fires. David loved God’s Torah long before the rise of the first Pharisaic pundit.

The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether.
They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.

Psalm 19:7-10 (NASB)

the-joy-of-torahBoth Fishbane and my Pastor assert that God gave us His Word in human language with the intent that we understand Him clearly. Last Wednesday, Pastor and I spoke of how densely packed the Word of God is and that in unpackaging it, we do indeed find there are more revelations than a simple reading of the texts in their native languages show. Merely reading the Bible only reveals the surface meaning of words and phrases, even when we factor in the cultural and historical context. It is like a surgeon trying to perform a detailed examination of a man’s internal organs based on a brief visual scan of his skin. It’s not that an external view is unenlightening, but there’s just so much more to learn by going deeper.

However, once a human being begins to read the text, to attempt to examine its meaning, and even further, divine not only its original application but how it might be applied in our modern world, we impose our linguistic and cultural demands on the Divine Word, changing or at least affecting how we perceive its meaning, not unlike Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and how an observer of a subatomic particle attempting to isolate the location of said-particle loses information about its momentum.

Even Fishbane admits that there’s more than meets the eye in the Bible:

Another possible level of textual sacrality lies in the capacity of the bible to incorporate multiple structures of reality. On the one hand, the literature of ancient Israel reveals the contestation of diverse proponents of the truth of Yahwism, and its practical implementation. It is also obvious, however, that the closure of Scripture has left the inheritors of this anthology with one text and many contending claims of meaning and purpose. Some saw the proper actualization of the Hebrew Bible in nomos, others in prophesy; but all invariably claimed to be the true heirs of ancient Israel, exclusively fit (by God and exegetical grace) to explicate the fulness of the written inheritance.

-ibid, pg 130

I can certainly see Fishbane’s point that the Bible is “bigger” than just one stream of meaning or another, with the ascendant hermeneutic winning out over and exterminating all competitors, however I would suggest that the Bible text incorporates “multiple levels of reality” simultaneously, with no one level being more ascendant than any other.

The upshot of these reflections is to suggest a new type of sacredness sponsored by the Bible: not the sacredness of the raging, exclusive vision, but the sacredness of the chastened, inclusive one. Such a vision would provide an opening to transcendence not by demoting other symbolic models but by seeing in the Bible a model for plurality of visions of multiform humanity. The sacrality released…would allow the awesome transcendence of the divine reality to chasten our constructions of order and sacrality.

Perhaps, we imagine, it is in the transcendental convergence of all interpretations–literary as well as personal—that the divine Reality may be approximated…So viewed, the transcendent sacrality of the Bible is more than a vision of a transcendent divine fulness prior to speech. It may rather lie in teaching that God’s truth transcends all linguistic pretensions to meaning…Here I suggest, is the final prophetic voice of the text. Or is it the divine voice which speaks to Job, and asks: “Do you love God more than tradition, more than all your versions of the sacred?

-ibid, pp 131, 133

starry_night_7daysIn his final words, Fishbane seems to raise more questions than answers. Certainly, from my point of view, I have received no closure and whatever meaning this author was hoping to impart remains open and unresolved.

But then so is our understanding of God, even from the finite existence of the words and pages of the physical object: the Bible. As compressed and encoded as it seems to be, the Bible still is bound by limits because all of its words and pages are counted. Even if those words are infinitely compressed and encoded with “Divine information”, the intent of the Rabbinic sages aside, human beings can only “unpack” so much with any hope of reliability and accuracy of meaning.

Both Judaism and Christianity translates, reads, interprets and applies scripture based on historic tradition (I know Christians would object to this, but I’ve seen too many examples to be convinced otherwise). While the Bible can open the door between man and God, it cannot walk in with us, and stepping outside of tradition, even beyond the divine text, we find ourselves naked and in the dark, quaking in terror before God as He demands, “Who are you, O’ man that you should stand before Me?”

Even beyond all of our visions and versions of the sacred as defined by man’s hermeneutic, we can only answer, “I come in fear and trembling before the Throne of the King.” That is to say, “fear and trembling…and love.”


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