This essay is the fourth in a series of essays in which I try to examine just what we understand by 'Torah' or 'Torah from heaven'. 'Do the facts support our traditional teaching that the Torah we have today is exactly the same as the one that Moses received at Sinai?' is the theme running through them? I did not decide to create such a series; it just developed. I won't repeat the discussions covered in my previous essays but give a note of their contents so that you can, if you wish, read them again on my website..
The first of the series was called 'The Transliteration of the Torah' and it discusses the fact that the Torah from which we read today is written in a script different from the original Torah script. I used this fact as an example to illustrate that changes can be introduced into our tradition if need be.
The second of the series was called 'And this is the Torah' which again discusses 'Transliteration' and went on to discuss that the word 'Torah' can have several different meanings. In the synagogue we say 'This is the Torah that Moses put before the children of Israel'. It is not clear just what is meant by this declaration.
The third of the series was called 'The transliteration of the Torah-Revisited' in which it was argued that not only did Ezra change the original script of the Torah but he added extra letters to the alphabet in the course of his transliteration. Both of these actions raise the possibility that the original meaning may have become obscured. This essay also discusses a book written by Professor Marc Shapiro in which he illustrates at great length, quoting from Jewish medieval authorities, that Maimonides' Eighth Principal 'The Torah in our hands is exactly the same as the Torah that Moses presented to the children of Israel ' is not correct, because many alterations, both accidental and deliberate were introduced into its text.
This brings us to my current essay which is prompted by two very interesting responses I received following the third of the above mentioned essays.
The first response was from a learned layman friend. In acknowledging my essay he wrote:-
Thanks for this. Interesting indeed. Way beneath this question lies an even greater problem-- spaces. By tradition, Torah comes to us as a stream of unpointed, unpunctuated letters. There is a debate around the places of spaces to demark words and sentences. (Try this yourself with the very first space and move it on two places.)
It can get even more interesting when you consider the special uses of the letter Vav (which can mean 'and, or, or a new word'). Over the ages I'm told, this 'ambiguity' has led to certain 'heretical' readings. Or not. But then again, it's Torah. It's hard to argue that none of this 'ambiguity' is unintended.
What remains undisputable is the format we have it in. So it's not just the script that is troublesome- the part of the written Torah which isn't script (the spaces) is troublesome as well.
In my essay 'And this is the Torah' I quoted the late Chief Rabbi Hertz who discusses 'stream of letters' theory in his Chumash but at the time I did not realize its full implication. It is a plausible theory because if one refers to the Encyclopedia Judaica, under the heading 'Alphabet', one can see several examples of 'stream of letters' correspondence found on ancient artifacts. They must have been difficult to read. If errors can creep in to a script while it is being copied how much more likely is it that a copyist may have inadvertently misplaced a space thereby altering the meaning. I discussed the theory with a rabbi friend who sent me a booklet in which he discusses the 'stream of letters' theory and he shows that it is also a kabalistic concept. It is said that Ezra transliterated the Torah because the Jews could no longer read the original Phoenician script. If 'stream of letters' theory is correct is it possible that it was he who first put the spaces into the script?
The second response was from a leading academic, a PhD from London University/Jews' College. He recommended I read 'Revelation Restored' by David Weiss Halvini.
David Weiss Halivni was born in Eastern Europe into a strictly orthodox family. Following his release from a concentration camp he went to America where he studied and was ordained in a Haredi yeshiva. He is an orthodox rabbi and sits comfortably between the left wing of modern orthodoxy and the right wing of Conservative Judaism. On the fly cover of his book he is described by a reviewer as simply the greatest historical-critical scholar of Rabbinics alive today. I checked further comments about him on the internet and this accolade may well be true. The book's theme is that although the Israelites were given the Torah at Sinai they did not fully accept/observe it until Ezra's return from Babylonian exile circa. 453 BCE.
He believes that from the time the Israelites entered Canaan under the leadership of Joshua until Ezra's return from the Babylonian exile, a period of some 750 years, the Israelites had, in the main, not observed the Torah's commandments and indeed many were idol worshipers. For this reason, he says, the prophets spoke out mainly and most strongly against idol worship.
Because of this lack of interest in the Torah during these 750 years, much of the Torah was lost, many errors, inconsistencies and lacunae crept in. Rabbi Halivni calls this the 'maculate text'. Ezra reconstructed the Torah from writings which were then still extant. Because of the high regard in which Ezra was held and his status within the community, he was considered to be a prophet; and the Torah he reconstructed is still to be regarded as sacred.
He shows that the early rabbis accepted that the errors mentioned by Ezra did in fact exist but it caused them no theological problems for, since the Torah's transmission was by human endeavor, it was something that they would have expected to occur.
One chapter in the book deals with the history of the oral law which, according to him, is not as we are taught but this aspect of his book is not within the ambit of this essay.
So where does all of this leave us?
Neither Professor Marc Shapiro nor Rabbi David Halivni, in their respective books, denies the Sinai experience. In fact Rabbi Halivni goes out of his way to emphasise its sacredness. They both produce formidable evidence showing that errors were introduced into the sacred text.
Again, neither the 'stream of letters' theory not the transliteration of the Torah denies the Sinai experience. They also show the likelihood that further errors may have entered the text. All of this, for the thinking orthodox Jew, creates problems.
To quote from an article written by the person who recommended Rabbi Halivni's book to me, "A tension between the maintenance of religious traditions and the espousal of scientific and historical views is an intrinsic element in the personality of Rabbi Halvini."
His description of Rabbi Halivni's approach to the dilemma is probably true of many of the academics quoted in my essays for whilst they are from within the orthodox Jewish community they do not accept some of the traditional teachings which, even though traditional, they believe to be wrong. I wonder whether there are many rabbis and academics who think as they do but do not speak up for 'peer pressure' reasons.
Professor Marc Shapiro ends his book by saying "Since the sources of Jewish theology are not part of the curriculum in yeshivot, the students know nothing about them. Nor is the typical posek who has mastered the Talmud, codes and response, acquainted with the theological literature, and he often does not even recognize the issues".
Such people, I would suggest, would not suffer the tension experienced by Rabbi Halivni for if they have no knowledge of theological literature, scientific and historical views, they do not understand or recognize the issues, so they reject.
Rabbi Halivni ends his book with a remarkable paragraph. He writes, "The awareness of maculate text also calls for greater tolerance for the deviant. One ought to live a life avoiding even doubtful pitfalls; but one may not condemn others, let alone hate or persecute them, unless one is sure, beyond all doubt, of one's convictions--and we are rarely granted such assurance."
The book is not an easy read but nevertheless a worthwhile one. It is full of interesting details so read it if you have the time.