The Inner Journey: The Significance of Torah

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series meant to both present excerpts from the introduction to a new book — The Inner Journey: Views from the Jewish Tradition — as well as spark discussion among Jewschool readers about the nature of Jewish tradition. The first two excerpts are here and here. We encourage you to read on to see the excerpt and share your comments.
The Jewish people have a love affair with the Torah. The Torah is not
simply the Five Books of Moses, or even the entire Bible. More
correctly, it is the whole gamut of Jewish teaching and wisdom
contained in the written law (Torah sheh B’chtav) and oral law
(Torah sheh Ba’al Peh). While Torah has all too often been
translated by the word law, its literal and etymological meaning is
more appropriately translated as direction, instruction and teaching.
The Torah is the prism through which one strives to understand the
significance of one’s self, the Jewish people, the world and the
Divine. It is that body of teaching that transforms Jews into seekers
of the truth that permits them to connect as a self to their people,
to the cosmos, and to the Divine. It embodies an ethic that directs
behavior toward all human beings, other creatures and the environment.
One sage goes so far as to say that for the sake of the study of
Torah, human beings were created. But what is of interest here is
that Torah must be received and understood in our own unique way.
Rabbi Jose’s statement, (Pirke Avot 2:17) “…What knowledge of
Torah a man acquires is personal to himself. It cannot be inherited
or bequeathed.”
Herford explains that Torah is in essence a revelation of Divine
Truth through the medium of the written and oral word. You may learn
from your teacher how to interpret the word of Torah and may be
instructed that such and such Truths are contained in it; you may be
helped in your search for these Truths; you, in turn, may help others
and teach what has been taught to you, but what you cannot receive of
the Divine Truths revealed in the Torah–is your own inward vision
of “the deep things of God.” (Herford, My Amended Translation of
Rabbi Jose, p. 25).
Leo Baeck, in commenting on this same verse says, “The Torah is far
more than a book, far more than anything that has ever been written.
Therefore, it was not merely to be read and known; it was to be
rediscovered anew in every word, ever and continuously to be made our
own.” (“Pharisees and Other Essays,” in Essays in Tradition in
Judaism, p. 53).
Learning Torah is a difficult task, and one that is not without pain.
The process of appropriation, of making Torah one’s own, of learning
it with effort and struggle, is seen in Ben He He’s statement (Pirke
Avot 5:26), “according to the Tza’arah (the suffering) is the
reward.” One is reminded of Cushman’s statement in reference to
Plato “where things ultimate are at issue, Plato has no faith in
borrowed findings, no faith in so- called truths which a man does not
achieve for himself as a personal possession.” (XVII Theropeia by
The opening words in Pirke Avot (1:1) tell us, “The Torah was
received by Moses on Sinai, transmitted to Joshua, from Joshua to the
elders, from the elders to the prophets and the prophets handed it to
the men of the Great Assembly.”
This means that each of us must receive the Torah, and it is
incumbent upon us to then transmit it. What does it mean to receive
the teaching as the Rabbis taught it? Tanchuma Yisro 40a states:
“Rabbi Jose ben Haninah said ‘the word of God spoke to each man in
his own power. Nor need you marvel at this. For the manna tasted
differently to each; to the children, to the young; and to the old
according to their power. If the manna tasted differently according
to men’s power, how much more the word?”
A similar passage is even more revealing: “God’s voice went forth
to each one in Israel according to his power and obedience. The
elders heard the voice according to their capacity, the adolescents,
the youths, the boys, the women, the sucklings each according to
their capacity, and also Moses according to his capacity for it says
that Moses kept speaking and God, himself, would answer him with the
voice; that voice which Moses was able to hear.” (Tanchuma, Shemot
5:25 90b).
One must prepare to receive the Torah; purification, struggle and
transformation are demanded from us for it to be properly understood.
We must also understand the full dimensionality of the Torah and all
its vastness, and what is involved in receiving it and transmitting it.
As Slonimsky put it, “…The Torah, identified with the primeval
Wisdom, is the blueprint, the objectified mind of God, but also the
instrumental power, i.e., both the plan and the architect, which God
employs in the creation of the world and of man.” (Slonimsky,
“Philosophy Implicit in the Midrash,” Essays, p.24)
Just as God envisioned the Torah as His creative blueprint, and the
world is constantly and creatively renewed, the Torah received by man
is also continually and creatively renewed. The Torah exposes us to
the depth of life. But it is the job of the individual to come to
understand him/herself through it and creatively struggle to live and
incorporate that wisdom into their being, into their essence, into
his/her life. It is the Torah that orients us in our sense of self
and motivates us to act, for Torah implies doing as well as
receiving. For what good is knowledge if it is not applied?
When one applies Torah to life it becomes part of the chain of
transmittal, of the tradition that entails further receptivity and
creativity. Thus the Psalmist’s insight: “In thy Light we see the
Light.” In this way, new dimensions of truth are perceived, shared
and carried forward. You become open to something higher, and
receptivity moves you to decision and action. You stand before God
and the other in the light of the Torah and its wisdom, whose
significance is expressed in the blessing that is made after one
reads from the scroll in the synagogue, “Blessed are you, God,
Creator of the Universe, who has given us the Torah of truth.”
Throughout Jewish history, the Torah was viewed as a sacred text. It
was read, reread and meditated on because our forefathers believed
that God revealed the truth about ultimate questions therein. Pirke
Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers (5:22) expresses it clearly: Ben Bag-
bag said, “Turn it and turn it for all is in it. Contemplate and
contemplate it and grow gray and old in it and turn not from it; for
there is no better measure (middah) for thee than it.”
The Torah is not simply a history or story. It has cosmological
significance and teaches wisdom that enables us to live and
understand the ultimate truths of both human and cosmological
creation. The cosmological significance is seen in such statements
as, “…Therefore, our Sages said, all who involve themselves in
Torah for its own sake are called ‘Rei’a’ – ‘friend’, it is
as if he becomes a partner with the Creator, since it is he who is
now maintaining the worlds with his Torah study, without which the
world would revert to Tohu VaVohu (chaos) (Nefesh HaChaim 4,11-12)
The Torah contains many layers including the “Ma’aseh
Bereishit,” the teaching as to Creation as well as the Ma’aseh
Merkavah (lit. chariot), the Truth about God. But one must be able to
receive it. One must be prepared to accept it–and its obligations.
Moses, Joshua, the Elders, the Prophets and the men of the Great
Assembly were qualified to do so. But what qualified them to receive
it? They were prepared to accept grace of the Torah while at the same
time struggling mightily and painfully to be purified (remembering
the Tza’aroh, the suffering) and found worthy to receive it. (The
Sabbath morning Amidah says: “Vetaher Leibeynu Le Avdecha
b’Emet” (“Purify our hearts that we may serve you in Truth.”).
This is part of what accepting the Torah means in all its forms.
And what is the Torah? The narrative of the Torah is just the
beginning. There are layers upon layers beneath it that we study and
learn to apply in order to become God’s partners in Creation.
Baeck correctly points out that “Every story in the Bible not only
told something, but also meant something. It did not describe what
once was; what came to be or ceased to be, it revealed something
permanent or absolute; something that once was; was still, and that
despite the change of scene and time remained the same.” (Leo Baeck,
The Pharisees and Other Essays, Schocken Books, NY, p.57)
There is the Chassidic tale of Reb Moshe of Uhely, who had a dream of
heaven where the great sages were studying the Talmud for eternity.
What did he see? A simple beit medrash, a house of study, and the
sages sitting around long tables engrossed in study. He was
disappointed and asked, “Is that all there is to heaven?” And a
Voice responded, “You are mistaken. The sages are not in heaven,
heaven is in the sages.”
As a result, the learning is something that transforms us. There is a
sense that the Torah is a manifestation of God’s grace and here, Max
Brod’s definition of “grace” is strikingly appropriate. “Grace
exists as to the divine power that makes possible within life what
life itself can never admit by virtue of its own laws.” (Max Brod,
Paganism, Christianity and Judaism, University of Alabama Press,
1921, p. 87).
Torah learning can only be done by examining the texts from every
possible perspective. This leads us to the four basic levels of
rabbinic exegesis, for the rabbis understood these matters often
better than we do. They believed that the Bible and whoever wrote it–
be it Moses, the Prophets, Ezra, etc.–knew what they were teaching
about; that they said what they meant and knew how to use the Hebrew
This did not limit interpretation of their words to surface text,
and, in fact, the rabbis saw a four-fold level of interpretation of
the Torah as expressed in the acronym Pardes–peh, resh, daled,
samech–the Hebrew word for orchard or citrus grove, a place that
bears fruit. Peh stands for Pshat–the plain sense or literal
interpretation of the text. Resh stands for remez–which means hint–
for sometimes the Bible only offers hints to those who know how to
appreciate a hint. Daled stands for drash–exegesis on a multiplicity
of levels: parables, allegories, homilies and explanations of meaning
and sense of context–of form and substance and even philosophy.
Finally, the letter samech stands for sod–literally secret–which
involves the mysticism of the Bible. And “In the Beginning,” the
mysterious and secret were alluded to as a process of the Creation.
What was a person allowed to know? How much is revealed?
Mishnah Hagigah 2:1 states: “Do not comment [darash] on sexual
matters with three (present), nor on the Work of Creation [Maaseh
Bereshit = Gen 1] with two, nor on the Chariot [Merkavah = Ezek 1] with one, unless he is a sage [hakham] and contemplates what he
In his introduction to The Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides
writes: “Our Sages laid down the rule. The Ma’aseh Bereishit must
not be expounded in the presence of two. If an author were to explain
these principles in writing, it would be equal to expounding them
unto thousands of men. For this reason, the prophets treat these
subjects in figures and our sages, imitating the method of scripture,
speak of them in metaphors and allegories because there is a close
affinity between these subjects and metaphysics–and indeed they form
part of its mysteries. Do not imagine that these most difficult
problems can be thoroughly understood by any one of us. This is not
the case.”
Thus, the attempt to read the Torah one-dimensionally on any level
without awareness of the other levels would be tantamount to
truncating its meaning.
Two points perhaps should be discussed here: the difference between
much of modern exegesis and rabbinic exegesis. Modern study of the
Bible treats it like any other historical text–which may or may not
contain great insight but which is a product of historical factors,
all of them explainable from within the confines of historical
explanation and historical process. Anything that does not fit into
this structure is viewed as purely subjective in the sense that the
individuals reporting the events may have believed them to have taken
place. But what is definitive is the critical conceptual imagination
of the historian.
So, for example, the Pentateuch describes how Baalam’s donkey
speaks. The question as to whether the author actually believed the
donkey spoke is apt only if one accepts the literal interpretation.
In this story, here is a famous seer who, with a curse, can destroy a
whole people, but unlike his donkey, he cannot see an angel in front
of him. Even more significantly, the great seer who had come to curse
and destroy an entire people would need a sword to kill a lowly
donkey. Today, it is the general opinion of scholars that even the
Bible itself wrote this story as “ironical.”
But to limit this to a one-dimensional, even non-literal
interpretation is to miss what is basic to rabbinic exegesis. Pirke
Avot mentions Balaam’s donkey as an example. It was one of the last
creations brought to life at twilight on the sixth day of Creation
since it does not fit the order of things. More specifically, it is
not enough for rabbinic interpretation to read the story as if it
were solely about Balaam who was blind to the Angel of God. We are
required to read the story in such a fashion so as to awaken in
ourselves the sense of our own blindness. For the story is not simply
about Balaam, his blindness and his pretentiousness, it is about our
own blindness and our own pretentiousness to be seers (who in effect
cannot see or accomplish great things through speech). Indeed, we
cannot speak as truly as a dumb animal does.
Finally, it is important to note that it was easier for God to make
an animal speak than to have a man change. And this is one of the
most important elements in Jewish thinking which has to do with
genuine repentance. While lip service is given to the Bible as the
Book of Wisdom of the Western World, nevertheless, modern exegesis
adapts a judgmental attitude towards it in the sense that the Bible
must fit into the categories of historical investigation. There is
nothing intrinsically wrong with this, and it serves a useful, even
necessary purpose. The problem arises when the historical perspective
is seen as the only one and all other interpretations are seen as
The rabbis understood Torah differently. Life had to be seen and
understood within the categories, concepts, teachings and Truths of
the Torah. It was viewed as the norm and touchstone of reality and
thus all was seen both internally in our own lives and externally in
the cosmos in terms of its teachings. As Baeck states: “…The word
of the Bible was the ultimate measure of reality in history.” (op.
cit., p. 59).
Finally, the rabbis believed in interpretation without end, since for
them “the potency of being was greater that the potency of
thought.” Indeed, any verse could be interpreted in many ways since
a single interpretation may only do justice to one dimension. So, we
find in rabbinic commentaries such statements as “another
interpretation” that can be the opposite of one interpretation with
another; each one illustrating a part of the Truth. Reality for the
rabbis was multi-dimensional, and different people saw it accordingly
to their capacity.
Next time: Going inward!

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