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Torah, and the Languages of Man

by Ariel Bar Tzadok
Copyright © 2015 by Ariel Bar Tzadok. All rights reserved.

There are two very curious teachings of the Rabbinic Sages. One teaches that, “Torah speaks in the language of man.” The second teaches that, “There are 600,000 ways (perushim) to understand the Torah.”

Essentially, what we must conclude is that there is Torah, and then there is Torah. There is objective Torah, and then there is subjective Torah. There is the Word of Torah, and then there is the Interpretation of that Word, and, the interpretation is not one; on the contrary, they are many!

One Torah, and many ways to understand it. Yet, of all these many ways, the one thing that they all share in common is, they all must speak in language of man. For any Torah that does not speak to man is no Torah, at all.

An ancient legend says that the Torah predated the creation of the universe. If this was indeed the case, then how could the written Torah include all the narratives that it does prior to all the choices being made that led to the events that are recorded? The answer given is that the present form of the written Torah is not the form of the original primordial Torah.

The Torah today is written with ink on parchment. The primordial Torah is said to have been written with black fire on white fire. Putting all symbolism and metaphors aside, there exists the concept that the present form of the written Torah is not primordial. According to one view, when the Mashiah comes he will reveal new depths, and levels in the Torah by fundamentally rearranging the present order of the letters in the Scroll (ref. S.B.S.T.).

Whether or not any of this is to be understood literally is irrelevant. What matters is that we recognize that the Torah has many different faces, or interpretations. Torah is not etched in immovable, indelible stone. Rather, Torah is etched in the moving, breathing fire of the living spirit of man. It warms the heart, but if handled improperly it can also burn the mind.

Over many centuries there have arisen as many commentaries, and understandings to every aspect of Torah, as there are authors to write them. In spite of the Torah being written with proverbial black fire on white fire, there is nothing “black and white” about the Torah. Torah is a multicolored rainbow. The one thing Torah is not is a black or white, “either-or” mentality. Torah does not describe only a singular path to God. It describes many.

Torah speaks in the language of man. Just as man has many tongues, so too does Torah have many interpretations. Which language is the right one? There is no answer to such a question because the question itself is flawed. No language can be right or wrong.

A context must first be established before the proper question can be asked. Is this language the correct one for this time, and place? This is a proper question, for which there can be a proper answer. The language of Torah follow this same rule.

One should not ask is this, or that, interpretation of Torah correct. Rather, one should ask is this, or that, interpretation of Torah right, and correct for such-and-such circumstances. Like the old adage says, “if the shoe fits, wear it.” Apply this to Torah and say, “if the interpretation properly fits the circumstances in which it is to be applied, then it too should “be worn.” The wise words of King Solomon sum up the matter rather nicely, “There is a time and a purpose for all things under Heaven.” There is a right time, and a right place, for each and every interpretation (perush) of the Torah.

Just like there is a right time, and place, for each of the 600,000 perushim (ways), so too are there wrong times, and wrong places for them. Torah has its right and wrong times. Torah has its right and wrong places. Not every interpretation can be applied in every place, and time. Some fit and some don't.

We cannot apply the Torah of the future to today, and we must equally never try to fit the Torah of yesterday into today's mold. Torah speaks in the language of man, and therefore, our Torah for today must match the language that we speak today. This is a metaphor, not a literal statement. In other words, how we apply the Torah today, how we interpret the Torah for the here and now, must match the circumstances which we currently face.

Yesterday's Torah won't help us today, tomorrow's Torah is also not for now. Torah is forever eternal and unchanging, but its interpretations are always fluid, and subject to the present, and current languages of man. When we forget this vital and precious lesson, we do harm to both Torah and ourselves.

It is said that when one has not emotionally let go of the past that one is carrying around old baggage. One must let of the past in order to live in the present, and to then move forward into the future. This is true with regards to an individual's emotional development, and so is it true with the Torah. One cannot seek to live in yesterday's Torah today, any more than one can revel in yesterday's emotions. Both cause one to ignore the present, and to live out-of-sync with today. This is both unnatural, and unhealthy.

The concept of practicing Torah in a form that is appropriate to the time and place is one that is well known in the realm of Halakha (Torah Law). Over the many centuries, numerous Sages have expressed numerous opinions about what is, and what is not, the right way to practice the Law. Each Jewish community adopted its own standard.

Over the centuries, different communities evolved different forms of Halakhic expression, with each one being as valid as the other. The two most well known communities that differ sharply in their Halakhic perspective are known today as the Ashkenazim, and Sephardim.

Ashkenazim and Sephardim are different communities of Jews who, over centuries, evolved in different environments, different parts of the world, and under different cultural influences. When the Torah spoke in the language of man to each of these communities, (and to each of their subset communities), the “voice” of Torah was heard, and interpreted within the specific context, and application of each.

Each community embraces the same Torah, nevertheless, each community reads the Torah, and hears its message in its own “language,” addressing its own unique circumstances. The one Torah, therefore, speaks with many voices, and each community “hears” the Torah in its own way. The living vibrant Torah is thus stretched to meet, and fit the needs of each community according to their needs, and desires.

This explains why, and how, there are so many ways today in which the Torah is interpreted, with not one of them being superior, or more authoritative than another. One Torah, many voices. One Torah, many ways to interpret, and understand it.

Just as there are many “languages” to Torah in the realm of Halakha (Torah Law), so too does this diversity exists in all other realms of Torah. Biblical commentaries can be extremely divergent, even to the point of contradicting, and disavowing one another. Philosophical definitions that seek to define what is Torah Judaism are also subject to numerous opinions, and interpretations. Even Kabbalah, the awe inspiring Jewish Mysticism, is subject to numerous interpretations, and divergent schools of thought and practice.

One thing that can be agreed upon by all, and that is that there is a Torah, revealed by God at Mt. Sinai. Not much more than this is universally agreeable in all Jewish communities. Indeed, there are modern Jewish communities that do not even accept this common denominator. This has led to the existence of denominations in Judaism, similar to those that exist in other religions. As diverse as Torah opinions have been over the many centuries, denominational divisions was an unheard of thing in Judaism. Not anymore.

Religious agreement is becoming a narrowing field, as time marches forward. Religious communal leaders look to find common ground, and to present a united front to their communities in order to maintain communal adhesion. This is indeed a noble, and proper practice. However, the price of cohesion often comes at a costly price.

All too often one community, in order to define and maintain itself, is all too willing to disavow and delegitimize other communities. This disavowal may be forthright, and verbally acknowledged. Then again, for the most part, such disavowals are subtle, discreet, and internal, rarely acknowledged publicly. It is these silent innuendos that gives rise to racism, and prejudice between communities, which are supposed to know better. It is the spirit of arrogance, and false bravado that festers hatred, and religious intolerance.

These expressions, in the name of Torah, contain no Torah, whatsoever. Those who embrace such disavowals of others, and such elitist view of themselves, are the poorest expressions of anything religious. We might rightfully say that such so-called religious individuals (or communities), are not being religious, at all. While Torah may indeed be “speaking” their language, they in turn are not hearing what the Torah has to say.

The behavior of such individuals, and communities bear witness that, in spite of appearances, they do not live a life in accordance to Torah in any language. Anyone who uses Torah as an excuse to create divisions, is one who is himself divided from, and separate from Torah.

Torah is a vibrant living creature. Those who deny Torah's vibrancy, and various interpretations are essentially trying to kill the Torah's living flow of expression. Those doing this are very far away from the Torah, even though on the surface of things they appear to be religious, and not just religious, but extremely religious.

Those who deny Torah to others, by denying the unique, and various interpretations of those others, are themselves deniers of the Torah. Torah does not speak their language, and neither are they speaking the language of Torah.

Torah interpretation is vibrant and robust. It is built upon connections, rules and thousands of years of traditions, and practice. There is one Torah that rules all, but to each their own, with regards to interpretations and beliefs. While Halakhic standards are required for communal adhesion, in the realm of thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and yes, even Kabbalah, the greater the divergence of opinion, the greater the variety of Torah language. Torah in all, and all in Torah. As the verse says, “B'rov Am Hadrat Melekh” (in the multitude of people is the glory of the King).
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