Vezot Ha’Torah

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg (Rabbi of the New North London Synagogue and Senior Rabbi of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues UK)

Vezot Ha’Torah

There is a moment celebrated in the Synagogue which carries an echo from Mount Sinai. It is repeated on each and every occasion after we read from the Torah, when the scroll is held aloft and the congregation points to it and sings, ‘Vezot Ha’Torah – This is the Torah which Moses set before the Children of Israel, according to the word of God, by the hand of Moses’. Contrary to what might appear, these words are not simply one single quotation from that very Torah; rather, they are fused together from parts of two separate verses. But that does not significantly reduce the force of their assertion. The two halves of the song were welded together on that most powerful of anvils, the liturgy, to make the commanding claim that this, precisely this, the Torah we have before us, is what God said, as faithfully recorded by Moses.

This central and evocative moment in the service presents the Masorti Jew with an inescapable question: ‘If you don’t believe that God wrote the Torah as we have it before us, how can you possibly say “Vezot Ha’Torah”? If you do still say it, aren’t you being hypocritical? Or, if not, what do you mean by singing those words?’ This challenge is perfectly legitimate and demands a serious response. Indeed, Masorti Judaism stands upon the answer given to this question. Though the liturgy contains many affirmations which can best be understood figuratively or metaphorically, but which traditional Jews nevertheless retain because of the emotion and spirituality which has come to accrue to them over time, such a defence is inadequate in this case. The issue is too important for us merely to say, ‘We sing “Vezot Ha’Torah” because of its emotional power, but of course we don’t really take the words literally’. What do we believe about the Torah we have before us? What sort of a document is it? What authority does it hold for us and why?

The first step in any Masorti response must be to acknowledge that it is indeed true that we do not believe the text we have before us, as written in black letters on parchment by the hand of a scribe in the manner required by halakhah, to constitute a precise record of what God said to Moses. Indeed, that claim must be qualified even according to orthodox interpretation. First of all, as Maimonides states, nobody knows or can know exactly how God communicated with Moses. Further, it is widely acknowledged that the inclusion of the final eleven verses of the Torah, which describe Moses’ death, makes more sense if they are attributed to a different author. More importantly, the history of the Masoretic tradition and of early translations tells us that, while the text of the Torah has been preserved with great accuracy, it is not the case that no single word has ever been changed or that nothing has ever been subject to editorial emendation.

But Masorti Judaism, together with all other non-fundamentalist approaches, makes a claim different in kind. It must be stressed that this claim is not based on the a priori desire to challenge orthodoxy, least of all to devise a form of Judaism less stringent in its demands. It is not in the first instance ideologically motivated at all. It is founded on the results of the critical historical method of research as applied in many fields and is a response to the materials discovered by its labours. Textual, archaeological and legal evidence tells us that the Torah has to be understood as a product of this earth. That does not preclude the presence of the heavenly within it. But the Torah can only be understood against the literary, social, economic, legal and moral background of the times, places and events concerning which it was composed. Whatever of the divine will it expresses is refracted through the limitations of the human mind and the historical contexts of human situations.

The implications of this different outlook are profound. The person who believes that God literally dictated the Torah must hold that God indeed intended the Jewish people to root out and destroy the Amalekites and the seven nations occupying the land of Canaan prior to the arrival there of the Children of Israel. One who understands the Torah as human interpretation of God’s will is able to say that this is how people at the time understood, or, for whatever political motive, sought to express, what they saw as God’s will. The person who believes that God literally dictated the Torah must hold that God intended women to be penalised in the areas of marriage and divorce. One who understands the Torah as human interpretation of God’s will is able to say that this is rather how the author or authors understood, or were motivated to express, God’s intentions at that time, with the added claim that such an understanding may indeed be far more enlightened than that of earlier legal codes. The person who takes the Torah literally as God’s word has to account for the strange fact that the divine will for all time is disclosed in a manner remarkably close to Babylonian and Hittite antecedents. Those who see the Torah as the product of the human endeavour to comprehend God’s will, perceive precisely in the reworking of earlier stories and legal codes, where these are available to us, the leverage of ethical monotheism upon its pagan background and appreciate quite how profoundly these narratives and legal codes have been transformed in its light.

No, we do not hold that the Torah before us is literally the word of God, or that Moses transmitted it to us all at Sinai and over the course of the subsequent years of wandering in the desert. So what then do we believe? To what are we testifying when we sing ‘Vezot Ha’Torah’?

First of all, we believe that the Torah is infused with the revelation of God. One has only to consider the wonderful description of creation with which the Torah commences. To read it as if it were intended as a scientific account is not only to mistake its intention but also to underestimate its profundity. It ascribes value to the entirety of creation; we live not amidst mere material matter, but amongst the wonders and glories of God’s world. It attributes sanctity and equality to every human life, the sacred bearer of the image of God. It declares, in the repeated refrain at the close of each stanza, that the world and its fullness are good, setting us and Judaism on the side of life in its many struggles against destruction, degradation and death.

We have only to consider the story of the Exodus, the overarching narrative of the Torah, and ultimately the meta-narrative of Judaism itself, and its articulation of the Torah’s desire to liberate us and humanity from the many bonds of tyranny and injustice which repeatedly enslave it. A negative answer to the questions, ‘Did it really happen like that? Did God send ten plagues against the Egyptians and deliver the Children of Israel with a mighty hand, turning the waters of the sea into dry land?’ does not negate the power and meaning of the account, – that God desires the end of tyranny and the service of the Divine, through freedom, justice, reverence and compassionate concern for our fellow human beings. This is the reason Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King saw in the Exodus narrative the great Biblical paradigm of his own cause, and why the Soviet authorities perceived in that second book of the Torah a dangerous and subversive text.
We need only consider the three great love commandments of the Torah, to love God, love our neighbour and love the stranger, to realise the force of the divine imperative as it knocks on the heart of every human being in every generation and challenges the moral and spirituality quality of how we live our lives.

Who wrote these matters down and when and where did they do so? These questions are at present, and will probably remain, largely unanswerable except in the broadest terms; the information is simply not available to us. But we can be clear about two matters. The evidence provided by the Hammurabi and other law codes, texts of ancient vassal treaties between sovereigns and peoples as well as such epics and stories as the Enuma Elish (creation) and Gilgamesh (the flood) tell us that the Torah was composed against the background of specific religious, conceptual, moral, literary and legal contexts. Only by taking these into account can it be properly understood. Sometimes it is clear that the polemic against the idolatry, immorality and injustice of these very contexts guided the authors of the Torah. Only thus can the power of the opening chapter of the Torah, which speaks of the one God as sole creator of the world who makes every human being equal in the divine image, be truly appreciated. But we, millennia later, are also entitled to consider that sometimes this context may have misguided the authors. Are we truly to believe that God approves of the institution of slavery, so long as the slaves are not fellow Jews? Are we really to consider that what we now call ‘ethnic cleansing’ is a legitimate, indeed a divinely sanctioned, military tactic? Or should we rather see here the limitations of human beings situated within their own moral context, motivated perhaps by the experience of powerlessness and persecution, ascribing to God what at the time was believed to be only a proud threat, never to be carried out? It is precisely this contextualising approach which allows us to make such observations, without stripping the text of its association with the apprehension of the divine. Furthermore, it is morally essential to be able to make such a critique and, albeit in their specific style, and precisely while paradoxically emphasising their fidelity to the text, the Talmudic rabbis did just that.

Secondly, we perceive the Torah held up before us, the written Torah, through the lens of the oral Torah. Masorti Jews have no quarrel with the concept of an oral Torah; on the contrary we would see this dialectic of interpretation and re-interpretation as embedded within the written Torah itself. Even the Bereshit of ‘In the beginning’ and the Anochi of ‘I am the Lord your God’, are human words, acts of choice in how to articulate the vision of a God who both creates and commands. The oral Torah is the workshop of Judaism in which every law, every teaching and every concept has been debated and refined. Although since the early Middle Ages at the latest there has been a heavy weight of precedent and established practice which cannot be gainsaid or set aside by a traditional Jew, that workshop is still open to this day. Orthodox and Masorti Jews share the affirmation of its overriding significance. But we might differ, as would orthodox groups among themselves, in the degree of pre-eminence we would ascribe to that oral Torah. We would argue that the oral Torah created the authority of the written Torah, that it is precisely those centuries of debate about its every small detail, because it is paradigmatic in rabbinic methodology that even the most seemingly  insignificant syllable or letter cannot be redundant, which determined what the written Torah would and should mean for the Jew, what of it is rendered obsolete and what is magnified in its significance, what is marginalised and what is transformed into the daily structure and practice of Judaism. For the rabbis created Judaism, particularly the rabbis of the period of the Mishnah, in the first and second centuries, followed in significance by the rabbis of the Talmud until at least the close of the fifth. Axiomatic to them was the understanding that the Torah ‘is not in heaven’, the words themselves being a quotation from that very Torah and their citation in the Talmud the coup de grace of the rabbinic assertion of the freedom of human interpretation from divine intervention. Though it would be anachronistic and absurd to argue that they were ‘non-fundamentalists’ in the sense in which the term is used today, because they paid homage to the eternal, unchangeable nature of virtually every detail of the written Torah and sought to find in it the backing for their every enactment, nevertheless these rabbis were creators and innovators, at once the preservers and the transformers of the meaning of Torah, hence the progenitors of a dynamic Judaism in constant interaction with its historical, geographical, theological, social, moral, legal and economic contexts.

If we look into this rabbinic workshop we can see Hillel the Elder engaged at his legislator’s task in the generation before the beginning of the Common Era. The Torah stipulates that loans, which had to be offered to the poor without interest, were to be remitted in the sabbatical year. The effect of this law was the opposite of what was evidently intended: as the seventh year of the cycle drew nearer, the rich were discouraged from lending to the needy by the knowledge that their loan was likely to be lost. Hillel therefore instituted what became known as the Prosbul, the system whereby loans were given through the medium of the rabbinical court, an institution which was not considered mandated to cancel all debts owing to it on the sabbatical, so that repayment could be expected even after the seventh year and the poor were thus once again enabled to obtain financial support. In this way, what was seen as the Torah’s intention, to further social justice, could be maintained by means of a device apparently directly at odds with its legislation.

If we look into this workshop again a little more than a century later, we find a Judaism operating in a vastly changed environment. The Temple has been destroyed and those rituals enjoined by the Torah focussing on sacrifice, including the festival pilgrimages to Jerusalem, could no longer be performed. The city was a wasteland, out of bounds to Jews. Not to be able to celebrate the Passover, or rejoice on Succot, – what could be more disheartening, what could be more destructive for the morale of the increasingly scattered and impoverished remnant of the Jewish nation? Rabban Gamliel, head of the Sanhedrin and therefore leader of his people, determined that what Jews could no longer do, they could still nevertheless relate: ‘Whoever has not spoken of these three matters’, he declared, referring to Passover, ‘has not fulfilled their obligation’. To this day, we are commanded to talk about the Pesach offering and the Matzah and Maror which must accompany it, at our Seder. Rabban Gamliel’s enactment must have restored the spirits of his contemporaries, but it was also part of a series of changes in focus and priority which succeeded in decentralising Judaism and turning it into the mobile, international, community-based religion which it is to this day.

Or if we enter the workshop a century later again, in Babylon in the early decades of the third century, we hear the great leader of the academy of Nehardea, Shmuel, articulating what has since grown into one of the cardinal principles by which the Jewish community functions in the Diaspora: Dina demalchuta dina, ‘The law of the ruling power is the law’. He was in fact referring to aspects of taxation, insisting that if the system was fairly administered, Jews were bound to pay. But his dictum became axiomatic of how Jews were to accommodate themselves to the civil legislation of the many authorities under which they lived, and it remains a guiding principle to this day.

The workshop is still open. The tradition is not, of course, as supple as it must have been in the days of the Mishnah and the Talmud. The structures were long ago formed which define the life of the Jew from the timing and content of prayers to the legal frameworks of marriage and divorce. There is an overwhelming weight of precedent. But there also new situations in the face of which the texts are still open for reinterpretation. The dynamic interaction between tradition and context, Torah and life, must continue. This oral Torah, the centuries of dialectic and debate, exegesis and eisegesis, application and reformulation, forms an indispensable lens through which we view the written Torah. It is at the oral Torah, too, that we point when we sing Vezot Ha’Torah. If it were to be argued that this is absurd, that we cannot pretend to see in the earlier text what was by all accounts a later development, the response would be that there are for all of us certain underlying structures by which we process our sensations and which organise the very manner in which we apprehend. This applies both to the realms of our physical, intellectual and spiritual perception. For the traditional Jew, the oral Torah has so framed the manner in which we perceive the written Torah that we cannot see the one without the other.

Thirdly, we experience in this moment of fealty as the Torah is held aloft the presence of the generations of Jews who have striven to remain faithful to its teachings. This is an emotional bond which all Jews, irrespective of their denominational or post-denominational loyalties, will experience in their own way, according to their family, community and empathy with Jewish history. It is by the culture and according to the values derived from this Torah that Jews have striven to live; it is from its inspiration that they have nourished their intellectual and spiritual lives, and because of their faithfulness to its teachings that they have so often throughout history been compelled to flee from country to country. Indeed, in speaking of his the text as his ‘homeland’, George Steiner testifies to the reality that, more than any geographical location, it has throughout history been the Torah which is the ultimate home of the Jew.

The impact of this bond with Torah is at once communal and deeply personal; these two facets of our experience merge into the narrative of who we truly are and what matters most to us in life. Such a powerful emotional connection can never be fully articulated. It brings to my mind the story of my mother’s grandfather who, according to family legend, walked from Hungary to Vienna so as to be able to combine his rabbinical studies with immersion in the European classics. To accomplish all this simultaneously, he attached a rope to his leg and hung the other end out of his window, asking the man who extinguished the gas street-lamps in the morning to tug on it and rouse him to his scholarly labours. I then think of my father’s grandmother, a widow in Berlin after her husband died in 1937, holding in her hand the letter, dated November 9, 1938, that is, the morning before Kristallnacht, and absorbing the information politely conveyed to her by the Jewish organisation delegated to act on her behalf, that there was presently no place available on the quota imposed by the British on the numbers of people they would allow to immigrate into Palestine. I imagine her daughter, my grandmother, receiving in early 1947 in Jerusalem the reply to her enquiry, posted many months earlier to a distant relative, Charlotte Tuch, who had survived in Germany. Your mother, the latter wrote back, testified to her unshakeable faith in God and this in turn gave strength to me and my husband during the two years in which we struggled to live underground and without papers in Berlin. She then detailed the last she had heard of my great-grandmother, who was taken with her daughter first to Theresienstadt and who subsequently perished in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

But, as any parent knows, the power of this bond with Torah is not derived only from our feelings about the past. It is heightened by our hopes and concerns for the future. In the synagogue the time for singing Vezot Ha’Torah passes in seconds. Sometimes in those moments a father or mother will take their children’s hands and make them point at the Torah too. If we could unpack the meaning of that action, if we were truly able to articulate what this relationship with Torah means to us, how it has shaped our history and identity, we would be talking to our children for hours, for days, for weeks, repeatedly throughout our lives. It is a conversation which probably happens in reality far too little, but the unspoken words are present, latent in the heart, representing feelings often too deep, and too complex, to be expressed. The subject goes to the heart of our self-understanding and our way of belonging in the world. Thus, the declaration that this is the Torah which God set before the Children of Israel, is as much, or more, an emotional as an intellectual assertion. It is its symbolic power which is so important, more than any specific claim about the place and time where the key events described are understood to have occurred and by whom they were written down. We declare ourselves bound to the entire history of our people, which is from the first overwhelmingly linked to the Torah, and to the search for God through Torah, the point of its, and our, origin and the core of life’s purpose.

It is to these vital, profound, and complex, relationships, with the written Torah, with the oral Torah, and with Torah as lived out in the entire history of the Jewish people that we point when we sing Vezot Ha’Torah. It is true, we do not take the words according to their explicit literal meaning. Rather, we embrace their wider and more profound significance. We accept their commanding nature and commit ourselves to the ongoing dialogue with them, which will endure as long as the Jewish People, as long as humanity itself.