Mara Benjamin, an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program (Class 10), received her Ph.D. in modern Jewish thought from Stanford University. She is Assistant Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. Her first book, Rosenzweig’s Bible: Reinventing Scripture for Jewish Modernity, was published in March by Cambridge University Press. She lives with her partner and daughter in St. Paul, Minnesota and can be reached at email@example.com.
It’s been almost seven weeks since we collectively embarked on our journey from slavery in Egypt to Torah at Sinai. The rituals that bookend this period – from raucous or thoughtful sedarim to a night of study as we await the giving of Torah – can be powerful invitations to relive the experiences of our ancestors. During this last week of counting toward Shavuot, I look forward to the study (and the cheesecake) that awaits me on Night 50.
But I also bring a set of questions to the holiday about what it means for us to receive Torah. Can we accept Torah – individually and communally – as Torah min hashamayim (Torah from heaven) without serious qualification, given all that we know about the role of human beings in creating the Bible that we have? To ancient readers, Torah was unique in kind, and had been delivered to the community in a unique way; the written Torah was cryptic, requiring special interpretive rules and procedures; and it was perfect in composition and instructive value. A host of interpretive traditions and social practices developed over the centuries to ensure the privileged place of the Bible in Jewish and Christian cultures. But the modern Western world has been shaped by powerful intellectual and social forces that preclude our believing in the Torah’s uniqueness or divinity in the same ways our ancestors did. Admittedly, medieval commentators had – subtly and most cautiously – acknowledged textual defects in the Torah that were not easily resolvable. But in the modern period, the demolition of the idea of the Bible as a perfect, sui generis text was regarded as crucial to the creation of non-religious, democratic, pluralistic political state. We cannot simply “bracket” what we know about the human processes by which Torah came to be. So then what do we celebrate on Shavuot? The various schools of biblical authorship, J, E, P, and D, and their contradictory visions of God and God’s teaching? Do we stay up all night in homage to the redactor who put the strands of biblical writing together into a whole?
These questions, of course, have pressed on modern Jewish thinkers for over a century. The great German-Jewish philosopher, educator, and translator Franz Rosenzweig made the problem of how to reinvigorate Jewish religious teaching given our critical knowledge of the Bible central to his life’s work. After many years of struggle, he wrote what I think is the most convincing case to be made for why we celebrate the giving of Torah, even with all of the “qualifications” that many of us may enumerate when we talk about it as Torah min hashamayim. In a lovely 1928 essay called “The Formal Secret of Biblical Narratives,” Rosenzweig wrote:
I believe that almost every element of the Bible can be shown to exist elsewhere as well, if one has sufficiently wide knowledge… The Bible’s uniqueness is to be demonstrated irrefutably with respect not to the book as written but to the book as read. The Bible is not the most beautiful book in the world, not the deepest, the truest, the wisest, the most absorbing, not any of the ordinary superlatives — or at least we cannot impose any of these superlatives upon anyone not already predisposed in their favor. But the Bible is the most important book… What is at issue is not a question of personal taste or spiritual disposition or intellectual orientation, but a question of transpired history.
The importance of the Bible, for Rosenzweig, was not principally measured by its “literary” or “cultural” power: it was not his argument, in other words, that the Bible was important because so much of Western literature is inconceivable without it. Rather, the importance of the Bible was, for Rosenzweig, manifest in the communities that regarded this text as the crucial point of intersection between themselves and God. The importance, even divinity, of Torah, was found less in the text itself and more in the special relationship that a group of people had cultivated with it over the course of centuries.
This erev Shavuot, may our study of Torah be enriched by the people with whom we study it. May we simultaneously experience the revelation at Sinai and the revelation that awaits us in our own communities, among those who keep Torah alive with and for us. Hag sameach!