The Torah’s Real Value

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Why do we care if Judaism endures? Apart from sentimentality, what is the genuine value? The commonest answer is that Judaism has a unique contribution to make to the world. (I’m not interested in the fundamentalist take on it.) In the progressive formulation, Judaism isn’t the only or the best answer to life’s questions, but it is one answer, and an important one, and Jews have an obligation to make their contribution to the world by sustaining it.

What is the nature of that contribution? What does the Torah, as the core text of Judaism, uniquely contribute?

As Reconstructionists, we continue to centralize the Torah, particularly by maintaining the weekly reading of it on Shabbat. We talk about it as something like, the model of society’s ongoing struggle to establish ethics and reason. What is the over-arching benefit of having that model? Is it to demonstrate that societal, ethical advancement is possible? Is it to inspire ongoing advancement? I fear that this approach does not justify the Torah’s exalted place, nor Judaism’s unique contribution.

In Yoram Hazony‘s recent book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, an alternative approach is offered and explored, and I think it does a better job of celebrating and exalting the Torah. Briefly, Hazony argues that the Torah (Tanakh) can and should be read as a work of reason and philosophy, rather than a work of revelation (as the Christian scriptures explicitly claim to be). As such, we can look to the text for particular philosophical direction, which is general rather than particular. This is something more than finding specific ethical stances in the text. What we have are ethical approaches, rather than ethical pronouncements. In other words, the Torah can be read to provide a philosophical approach to life, and not just a set of ordained rules.

And even this is not the highest value of the text. Because, the Torah’s stories, and also its philosophical positions, are often contradictory. This seems like a strike against its value, but Hazony argues it is the opposite. The final authors or redactors of the text were clearly aware of the contradictions, and made little effort to resolve them. If we are to take those writers and editors seriously, we must discover the purpose of leaving the final text in this fragmented state.

Hazony proposes that the authors were taking a radical (by religious standards) stance: that there are competing approaches to the good, and that it is a virtue to permit them and consider them. By extension, the worst way to approach the good is by imagining one can discover, or has discovered, the one true path.

This would put Judaism at odds with Christianity in approach, as well as content. The New Testament does not invite competing views (notwithstanding how many of these have emerged). The New Testament is clear about its view of itself as revelation. See, for example, 1st Corinthians, chapter 15. When this justifies certainty about one’s conclusions, it breeds some of the awfulness of modern times.

So what is Judaism’s, and the Torah’s, signal contribution? It may be that no one has an absolute claim on truth, and that life’s goal isn’t to reach assurance, but to seek it endlessly.

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