Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Why You Don't Understand the Bible

"A little light pushes away a lot of darkness." --The Talmud
Two thousand two hundred years ago, Ptolemy, King of Egypt, forced 70 rabbis (at knife point) to translate the text of the Torah into Greek, creating a document that would come to be known as the Septuagint. This work would eventually comprise the "Old" section of the Bible with which we are all familiar. While he succeeded in the extraction of a highly diluted version of the most sacred text of the Jews, he did not manage to procure the methodology that is required to make any sense of it, thus dooming countless translations and many generations to an inherently erroneous, faulty and dermal level of comprehension.

Karl Heinrich Graf and Julius Wellhausen are the two main architects of Biblical "source" criticism, best known for what would later be termed the Documentary Hypothesis: the idea that the text of the Torah is a redacted patchwork of ancient myths and folklore penned by numerous authors. Peering in from the outside, they crafted the hypothesis on five main pillars, one of which suggested that duplicative and repetitious words and passages were evidence of multiple authorship. This is a reasonable supposition if one is unfamiliar with, or uninterested in, the Torah's rules of exegesis (the collection of critical disciplines used to understand and interpret religious texts).
In fact, later Bible scholars such as Robert Alter and R. N. Whybray held that the text was more a unified whole than not. Alter in particular expressed remorse that these earlier critics did not take the classical Jewish approach more seriously. Why? Because to the Talmudic scholar, the Torah's repetitions, multiple Divine names, textual divergences and variations of language and style contain a wealth of information. To treat them as mere editorial mishaps is nothing less than tragic. It stands to reason that the Jewish sages of antiquity and the subsequent elucidators, with their assumption of Divine authorship (and thus a unified text), deep familiarity with the material and hundreds of years of crowd-sourced scholarship under their belts, were in the best position to interpret and comprehend these documents.

The text of the Torah is coded in multiple ways. Those with a trained eye intuitively sense in these passages an invitation to delve deeper. An extra or missing word or variant spelling, for example, act both as a marker and specialized tool to reveal information. For instance, through their numerical values, a variant spelling for the only round object that is mentioned twice in the Book of Kings is used to derive Pi. There are tens of thousands of these units of information. Each one is sourced in the Five Books of Moses or the later writings and the process of extracting them is known as the Oral Law. There are 13 rules that govern this exegesis and without them (and the classical commentaries) the book is exceedingly opaque.

Additionally, without the oral tradition to explain them, what are we to make of commandments such as "slaughter the animal in the way that I have shown you" with no hint as to how that is to be done? What does it mean to "guard the Sabbath and keep it holy?" There are penalties for not doing it right but no description as to how to do it. How exactly are parents supposed to be "honored," and in a practical sense what constitutes "loving one's fellow as oneself?" The oral tradition that crystallized into the Talmud, the Midrashim and the Kabbalah is the only tool available to successfully decode the massive amount of legal, ethical and spiritual information that is embedded in the text.

This is to say nothing of the critical subtleties that are, literally, lost in translation. Deciphering these works in English (which were themselves translated from Latin, which were translated from Greek) is like doing surgery with mittens. For instance, most people believe that the opening words of the Bible are "In the Beginning." Anyone with basic familiarity with the Hebrew language will instantly recognize that it is not the case. Rather, it reads, "In the beginning of..." and though a noun would be expected, none is given, rendering the actual translation as "In the beginning of He created." Add to this the fact that the fourth and sixth words have no translation and a third person past tense verb modifying a plural noun and we have a grammatical nightmare. Apparently that redactor wasn't skilled enough even to get the first line right and hadn't yet mastered kindergarten Hebrew. Or, just maybe, it is brilliantly structured to teach scores of ideas with a maximum conservation of space. Indeed, three entire volumes of the Zohar are required to fully expound this first word.
Many philosophies and religious systems have built themselves on top of the Torah's foundation. Though we never consented to have our tradition used in these ways, obviously, once Ptolemy posted it "online," there was nothing that could be done and the world was free to manipulate and (mis)interpret the words as they saw fit. Nonetheless, there is something irksome about being told what your own book means. Wellhausen and friends did not seem to regard our stewardship of and ardent dedication to our own spiritual tradition to be particularly worthy of consideration. Incredibly, the fact that the books of the prophets are written in our language and were in our possession hundreds or thousands of years before others came into contact with them does not give pause to those who claim that they know what the verses mean better than we do.

As a case in point, I often hear about the "vindictive" nature of the "Old" Testament and the (misunderstood) doctrine of an "eye for an eye" is often cited as a classic example. A simple question can be posed to illustrate the fallacy of the notion that the Torah suggests actually putting someone's eye out as a punishment. What would a Jewish court do if an eyeless man ran around poking people's eyes out? Wouldn't his impairment exempt him from retribution?Obviously, this is not (and has never been) what the text wishes to teach us. Rather, it is telling us that the perpetrator deserves to have his eye put out, but he won't. He will make an appropriate monetary payment to the victim.

This is a very broad topic and one that does not condense easily into a blog post. Therefore, allow me to close with an invitation: To anyone who is open to re-examining their assumptions and interested in gaining a more solidified understanding of the the complexities and beauty involved, please consider reading "The Documentary Hypothesis" by Umberto Cassuto and any of the work of Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman.


  1. I think that you've raised some good points: Ignorance of the original Hebrew and "native" understanding of the words and use of language is a severe handicap; it can also lead to false assumptions and allow certain theories to seem logical when they are actually not. However, I think you're over-reaching by trying to prove that everything that Rabbincal law concludes/teaches/claims in the name of the "oral tradition" is somehow required by or implicit in the text. For example, the Torah doesn't really say "slaughter the animal in the way that I have shown you" it says "kill of thy herd and of thy flock, which the LORD hath given thee, as I have commanded thee" which sounds like it's talking about the KINDS of animals that have been permitted (and already mentioned in the Torah) No doubt the laws of "shehita" taught through the oral tradition are logical and facilitate the fulfillment of the prohibition against eating the blood of the animal (and perhaps causing suffering to animals) but the text doesn't DEMAND that we see these practices as required or implied. Also, although I think the "eye for eye" example shows us well how some interpretation and limits are going to be necessary in order to apply the law, the text doesn't require us to take it metaphorically: Even if it were meant to be taken as a metaphor for financial retribution, you could still ask: what if someone were unable to be the debt (they're dirt poor) and there physically unable to work-it-off (they're disabled)? There will always be exceptions to laws, or cases where they can't be applied, but that doesn't require that we interpret them differently.

    1. Hi Jon,

      You also raised some good points! The text in Deut 12:21 is probably better translated as "commanded" rather than "shown." It's due to Rashi's comment that the verse describing the laws of shchita that compels me to read the word to imply laws that were already taught to the people. But I agree that there doesn't seem to be an overt reference to those laws in the words of the verse - nor do I (or anyone as far as I known) think there needs to be. Have a look at the 2nd post on the site where we try to clarify the various categories of exegetical derivations in the Oral Law.

      I'm not sure what you're getting at with the "eye for an eye" case. Are you saying that Jewish law would actually put someone's eye out as a penalty?

      Hope you're well!

    2. My impression is that Jon is saying that the original intent of an eye for en eye could be literal and your objection lacks substance. We know that Jewish law at least according to the Gemara is that it refers to money.
      I also have trouble understanding your objection. Is Skila and so forth not literal because , for example, a person might have a heart attack and die after being mechalel Shabbos with hasroah?

    3. Hi, thanks for your comment. I'm planning on writing up and posting something more extensive on this point. Stay tuned!

  2. You seem to be saying that the reason most people cannot understand the Torah is because it was not written for them and they do not have the tools to understand it.
    When Joshua set up stones after crossing the jordan, he plastered them and transcribed the torah in to 70 languages(Deuteronomy 27:3, Sotah 36A-B). If you are correct, and the torah is only meant to be understood in the original hebrew, what was the point of this? Also, the gemarah does not imply that the entire oral law was written down on these stones(as at that time it was forbidden to write down the oral law). This, using its simple meaning as expounded by the gemarah, taking into account your theory, seems to have been done do confuse the nations. How do you rectify your theory of others not understanding the torah with the actions of the jews under Joshua's leadership?

    1. Hi Mr. Smiley,

      Considering that one of the opinions in the Talmud is that the words themselves were plastered over with lime (rendering them unreadable obviously) it would seem safe to say that the purpose of these stones was not to publicize the text of the Torah to the world at large. Additionally, the sages saw fit to include Ptolemy's translation as a reason to mourn and fast on the 10th of Teves - why would that be if the stones were truly intended to publicize the text? Lastly, the Tosefta and the Ramban claim that that the tablets were written only in Hebrew.

  3. Hello Rabbi Jacobs,

    Where is the opinion you stated sited in the Talmud? The words of the Gemarah are(I could be translating them wrong) "they plastered them with plaster and they wrote upon them all the words of the Torah"(Mishna bottom of 32A). This would imply that first they plastered and then they wrote.
    Also, the next words of the Mishna are "in seventy languages as it say 'expound them well(beer haitiv)'. I am wondering how the Tosefta and the Ramban explain both the Mishna and the words beer haitiv? Another question is, if Hebrew is the only language that the Torah could be expounded in properly, why would there be any opinion that they translated it to other languages?

    1. And one more point to consider:

      See the Netziv to the psukim Devarim 27:1-8

      There were two writings on the stones.

      One was for the Jews and one was for the non Jews. The one for the Jews some Rishonim like inn Ezra and Rav Sadiya Gaon say that it was a like a condensed version of the 613 Commandments. The Ramban says it was the whole Torah from "Bereishis to leinei kol Israel." Then underneath there was a second inscription for the nations in 70 languages emphasizing the abandoning of idolatry and some other basics. This is the subject of a Tamudic debate as to exactly what that second inscription was had and how it was engraved.

  4. It's the opinion of Rebbe Yehudah in Sotah 35b.

    I don't know how the Tosefta and the Ramban arrived at their conclusion though there's no obvious reason why "beer haitiv" (well explained) needs to mean "translated into many languages." It is interesting that the Talmud suggests that it was written for the nations (some say on only the 7 surrounding Canaanite nations) considering a) the Midrash says they were offered it before Sinai and rejected it, b) the Zohar in Zohar, Achrei Mos. Daf 73:a specifically says it's forbidden to teach it and c) we have a fast day (as I mentioned) partially due to Ptolemy's forced translation of the text.

    I would suggest that there's more than meets the eye with the Joshua example that needs clarifying.