Challenges To Learning Chumash
On the yahrzeit of my beloved father, Irvin Itzy Kaplan, יצחק בן מרדכי
With renewed interest and enthusiasm, we began again the yearly Torah reading cycle. Having read the first parsha of בראשית, B’resheit, last week, we continue this week with the well-known story of Noach and the Flood. In these parshiot, as well as others to come, our excitement is tempered by nagging questions lurking behind the scenes. Chief among these is did these events really occur? Is the Torah’s account true? Don’t these stories seem far-fetched? So, let us ask, why do these feelings arise? Where do these doubts stem from? Our full appreciation of our sacred Torah and Judaism itself is at stake.
The answer lies in understanding and analyzing how we were first introduced to the study of Chumash. Often times, even as adults, our understanding reverts back to our childhood. Early explanations make a deep and lasting impression on the mind of a child. However, when we take notice of these impressions, highlight them and recall them to our conscious mind, we can then actually move beyond them to a mature understanding of the Chumash. We see how they operate within us and can then be on guard for them in our thinking. Should this influence creep into our study, we can discard them when learning and conducting a mature analysis.
First, of course, is the challenge presented by the language. Any translation is already an interpretation, involving the nuancing of words. One translator may use one term while another may use a slightly different term that gives a whole different twist to our understanding. Some words may not even admit of a proper translation. So, for example when we read the words טומאה (tumah) or טהרה (taharah) in the Chumash, some translate them as “impure” and “pure,” some as “unclean” and “clean.” In truth neither translation is correct. Both give false connotations to the true understanding of these unique expressions in the Torah. Unfortunately, these false notions can stay with us our entire life causing us to miss valuable ideas that the Torah is presenting for our growth as human beings.
But language notwithstanding, even if we were all expert in the Hebrew language of the Chumash, another major obstacle is lurking. It is subtle and may take a few different forms. I like to call this challenge, the “fairytale” obstacle. A number of years ago (we will leave that number aside right now) when I was beginning my career as a teacher, I was somewhat brash, not politically savvy, particularly when it came to defending what I was teaching. At a parent teacher conference at an afternoon Talmud Torah in Long Island, I rejoined a little strongly to a question posed by a couple of parents. They asked me, “Are you still teaching those ‘mythical, fairytale’ stories of the Bible?” I replied somewhat sarcastically, “What do you mean?” They said, “Like Adam and Eve, and Noah and the Ark and Moshe at the burning bush!” Here’s where I got defensive. I asked them, “Tell me, at what age did you stop learning Chumash?” They responded, “After our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs,” to which I shot back, “Would you stop learning science, math, English, or history after 6th or 7th Grade? What kind of understanding would you have of nature and humanity?”
My tone and dialogue needed coaching and work. In truth, however, this response definitely applies to the study of Torah. The Torah is written to appeal to readers of all ages. As we mature and gain insights from other areas of knowledge, we must revisit these seemingly “fairytale” stories from this new vantage point. They were never intended to be read and properly understood without this additional knowledge. Science and psychology are just two disciplines that quickly come to mind that are crucial to Torah study. So too is a training in how to think that one gains from mathematics or a course in logics.
Along with this obstacle is the fact that it is sometimes hard and painful to shed notions we formed as children. They feel comfortable even though we sense they don’t make 100% sense. We resist changing or giving them up, twisting and turning the analysis to fit these childhood notions into the text. We feel unprotected without some explanation even though abandoning the wrong idea even without replacing it with the correct idea is actually a step in the right direction.
But please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. We never reject the facts of the Torah even though we don’t always know what they mean, how they work or are useful. We don’t know the explanation to every physical phenomenon, but we don’t deny its existence. So too, it is true with the Torah. We may not know the explanation for every fact or mitzvah stated in the Chumash. A mature human being sometimes must be satisfied with the reality of “I don’t know.” But we never change or abandon the facts to suit our understanding.
We are all introduced at an early age to certain events in the lives of our patriarchs and matriarchs, but they were never intended to remain in the mind’s eye of the recipient the way they are by an elementary or middle school child. How and when we introduce these stories is crucial. At every step we must be careful not to leave the child with a false indication. Better to say, “You are right! That is an excellent question on the story and some day we will come back to it.”
Another challenge to the study of Torah is the style of the Chumash. It leaves the impression that events happened in quick succession of each other. One moment we read of Avraham’s birth, a line latter he is married. The very next chapter we find he is 75 years old having a communication with God. Similarly recorded are the facts of Moshe’s life. He runs away from Egypt at a young age and comes to a well. There he meets a girl, is invited home for dinner, gets married, follows a lost lamb to a burning bush where he as well has a communication with God. He is 80 years old, but the Chumash runs together all of these events in quick succession, in a matter of 10 verses. Certainly, there are major gaps in this account!
This factor also contributes to a feeling of fantasy we may have regarding the lives and events surrounding of these people. If these stories are embellished, metaphors or worse, just a figment of the imagination, then perhaps the entire Torah is that way. This notion caters to the part of a person that may resist complying with the Torah. We create an “escape hatch” for ourselves from the Torah’s way of life by attributing these stories to make-believe or creative hyperbole. We claim that we only want to live in reality!
Why is the Torah written this way? We must keep in mind that text of the Written Torah is not like any other text. As beautifully explained by Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, (a leading Torah scholar 1800s) the Written Torah, the Chumash, is comparable to notes taken at a lecture. To get the complete story and fill in the gaps, the serious reader and student of Chumash must also consult the Oral Torah, the full lecture. We can never draw conclusions based exclusively on the written text.
Keeping these influences in mind, no matter what section of the Torah you are reading and studying, will go a long way in preventing any person from arriving at false conclusions and even worse, abandoning the Torah and dismissing it as human invention and make-believe.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan