And Now For the Rest of the Story
As we begin again the annual cycle of reading the Torah, there are many fundamental principles that must be kept in mind in order for the Torah to make sense. Most important is to understand that the Written Law, Torah, also known as the Five Books of Moshe or Chumash, actually came after the Oral Law. In fact, the Torah was not completed (according to Rashi) or even started (according to Maimonides) before the last month of Moshe’s life forty years after the Revelation at Mt Sinai.
The best way of understanding or thinking about the relationship of the Oral Law, “Torah She’bal Peh,” to the Torah is presented by Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch. He formulates their relationship with the following analogy: the Torah is to the Oral Law as notes are to attending a full lecture. For the one who attends the full lecture, the brief notes (often just one line, for example: “You shall dwell in a Sukkah for seven days.”) are sufficient to recall all the accompanying details mentioned by the professor. However for the one who is not present at the lecture, much more information is needed to properly understand the notes. Borrowing the notes is also not so helpful. The writer of the notes jots down only what s/he needs to remember the idea. The one who borrows the notes will often need the writer to explain what is written down. So then the writer orally goes over the lecture. What was the tagline of the late newscaster, Paul Harvey? First he baited us with an often outlandish quip. After the commercial break, he came back with, “And now for the rest of the story!”
So not only don’t we have all the facts of Judaism by reading the Chumash but reading just the notes alone, will often give the wrong understanding or create the wrong impression. Simply put, the Torah was never meant to be read without the Oral Law. We know the unfortunate situation confronting most of the world today. People have copies of the Bible even with an accurate translation. Yet lacking the knowledge of the Oral Law, they have misconceptions and false ideas about God and Judaism. But what do they say to justify their opinion? Here, look, see! It says so in the Bible. This situation is even prevalent amongst our co-religionists, and other well intended people all of whom accept the Bible.
One such example comes to mind as we read chapter 1 of Genesis. We ask, over what period of time did the Creation take place? If you read the text and take it as it is written, the Creation, took six, 24 hour days. Then God rested for another 24 hours. However, the Oral Law mentions specifically that this first chapter, called “Ma’aseh Bereishit,” “The Act of Creation,” is not to be understood as it is written. All of the great Torah scholars (Rashi, Rambam, Ramban, Eban Ezra, Seforno, just to name drop) prove this point. Think about it. A day is a unit of time the earth rotates on its axis while it travels around the sun. Go back and look at the text carefully. The solar system, it turns out, was not in place the first 3 days! So what is a “day” according to the first chapter of the Torah?
The classical Torah commentators mentioned above did not have access to modern physics. They understood, however, from knowledge of philosophy, science of their time, and the Oral Law that when the Torah mentions 6 days of creation, 24 hour days is impossible. Rashi even goes so far as to say that the Torah isn’t even talking about the order of creation. He proves this point from the word “shamayim,” a contraction of two Hebrew words, “aish,” meaning fire and “mayim,” meaning water. Where does the text ever mention when they we created? These are issues for the scientists and the Torah is not a book of natural science.
Of course modern physics has shown conclusively that the Torah and Oral Law are correct. There was a Creation. It is called “the big bang” by the scholars of astrophysics. I refer you to a wonderful and clearly written little essay by Dr. Arno Penzias, “Thinking About the Universe.” In 1978 Dr. Penzias, a Sephardic Jew, and his partner R.W. Wilson won the Nobel Prize for physics. They were awarded their prize for the discovery of the “background radiation,” predicted to exist if the “big bang” theory was true. This theory demonstrates, without a doubt, that the light coming from the stars we see at night, left those stars billions of years ago. To further understand how there is no contradiction between this theory and the words of the Torah, I also recommend two books. Both were written by another modern day physicist, Dr. Gerald Schroeder. One book is titled “Genesis and The Big Bang,” and the other is “The Science of God.”
It is the premise of every Torah scholar that God does not play tricks on man. God did not put large bones in the ground that only appear millions of years old. The true Torah scholar respects and uses proven knowledge of the physical world to gain insights into the Creator. This would be absurd if the natural world give false information. Since the natural world system and Oral Law/Torah system both come from God, they must ultimately agree. If they seem to be at odds with each other, the fault lies within us. Either we don’t understand the laws if science, or we don’t comprehend the principles of Torah or we don’t know either system well. And no person can ever hope to understand what the written Torah is talking about without recourse to and knowledge from the Oral Law.
As we begin again our annual cycle of reading the Written Torah, let us not make the mistake of drawing conclusions about anything we just read in the Chumash. Rather, let us renew our commitment to the study of the Oral Law. This time around let’s fill in some of the gaps and correct our views by getting “the rest of the story.”
Rabbi Robert Kaplan