The Bible is not an intellectual sinecure, and its acceptance should not be like setting up a talismanic lock that seals both the mind and the conscience against the intrusion of new thoughts. Revelation [the Bible] is not vicarious thinking. Its purpose is not to substitute for but to extend our understanding. (273)
Since I began this journey 18 months ago, I have been avoiding really grappling with what I think of The Torah(a) (i.e., the Pentateuch) and the Tanakh (the Bible). Having spent a good deal of my life studying critically the production and reception of texts, and having studied in my early 20s biblical high criticism, and having studied the history and sociology of Christian fundamentalism (which is a particular, uh, problematic relationship to the Bible text) in graduate school, I just didn’t see a place for the Bible in my spiritual life. Indeed, until recently I hadn’t picked up a bible, except out of curiosity or to look up an allusion in nearly 15 years. In February and March, I briefly tried to study the weekly parashat, before giving that up in frustration with the arcanely offensive ancient text.
I have recently returned to reading Heschel’s God in Search of Man—which I had laid aside last fall after becoming frustrated with Heschel’s theism—having realized that I have much to learn from Heschel even if I don’t share his belief about god or his conception of faith. This was partly precipitated by a Shavu’ot study group that focused on the meaning of Torah for liberal Jews, where we discussed Heschel’s belief that The Torah requires interpretation to be meaningful and complete. After reading more of Heschel’s writings on Torah this morning, I still find myself struggling with his theism; Heschel is far too concerned with the “divine inspiration” of the prophets for my comfort. But I also find myself excited by his understanding of The Torah as a text and his notion of how to approach the text as a Jew.
In Ch. 27 “The Principle of Revelation,” Heschel lays out some key principles that I find important for my humanist approach to Judaism and for a meaningful approach to the Bible and to all of Torah. Here are my interpretations of Heschel’s principles of approaching Torah through text.
1. Text vs. Meaning: Heschel distinguishes between, on one hand, the text—including its literary and historical production in a specific context—and on the other hand, the meaning of the text. For Heschel, the true content of the Torah is not the same thing as its literary “frame”, which is human. This distinction helps me settle into reading the Bible, because it allows me to maintainthe space for textual and historical criticism and, although I probably have a slightly different idea of this than Heschel, it maintains the possibility of meaning and interpretation.
2. Text as Dialogic, Holy with Human: For Heschel, the Bible is a record not of God’s revealed Word as such, but rather, of the prophets’ interaction and response to that revelation. I would go a step further toward a humanist reading, where the Bible represents historical and local records of a people’s (or individual’s) efforts to understand their experience of the Holy, in particular political, cultural, historical moments. For Heschel, the Bible is necessarily dialogic, the “word of God and man; a record of both revelation and response” (260). As a non-theist/humanist, the importance here is in the dialogism, the relationship of humans to experience; that it is always interpretive and responsive.
3. Text as Incomplete and as Hidden: In Mormon mythology, there is a story in the origins of the Book of Mormon, that Joseph Smith only translated 1/3 of the book; the other 2/3 of the book were sealed. Harold Bloom, in his interpretation of Mormonism as “the American religion”, compares this piece of the Mormon origin mythology to parts of Kabbalah, where the emphasis is placed on hidden and future knowledge. Heschel reads parts of the Tanakh to say that much of torah remains hidden or unrevealed; knowledge as yet unknown. For Heschel, a large part of reading The Torah and the Bible is in the yearning for that hidden, as yet unknown knowledge. There is something profound in both the Mormon and the Jewish notions of hidden knowledge, of mysteries unrevealed—human life is characterized by having a brain that yearns to know its environment, and which evolved to do so through conscious problem solving. But that very capacity, our evolved consciousness, also makes us aware of the fact that we don’t know. In fact, we know very little. This sacrilization of the unknown and of the desire to know are indeed, for me, a driving force in my life at large. Heschel argues that the Messianic age will be characterized by a revelation of what is hidden. In a humanist judaism, the messianic age is not a literal time, but rather a state of the world that we strive to bring about through, for example, tikkun olam. The hidden knowledge can become, in a humanist reading, the knowledge one gains by leading a dedicated, ethical, engaged, curious life.
4. Text as Common, Mundane, Human, and Ugly: Heschel argues that the divine truth of Torah is hidden in the robes of the every-day human experience of the people who wrote the Bible, and that, indeed, the holiness can be hidden within the most mundane or even offensively human of concerns. I cannot help but see The Torah and the Tanakh as the production of a people in a time and place, albeit for me the record of one people’s (the Hebrews’) struggle to understand and make sense of their experience of the ineffable, the holy. Heschel’s teaching leaves that human layer in place; but he believes that underneath that outer human layer lies the divine truths.
5. Text as a Container of Meaning: This leads Heschel to an interpretive move that resonates with my education in literary criticism: The text is only the vehicle for our understanding, for our meaning-building from the text. Heschel offers a metaphor of a clothed human: The obvious, historical, human layer of the Bible is the clothing; the general principles and ideas of the text are the human body underneath the clothing; but the real meaning of the Holy, the soul of the human, the actual Torah, requires insight, work, and struggle. Heschel goes so far as to say that only those who were at Sinai can pierce through the text to the Soul. Again, the theistic framing doesn’t work for me; but what does work for me is the centrality and location of meaning as being in the engagement with the text. For Heschel, Torah isn’t the text itself, but is within the text, like wine is in a jar (268). The text of the Bible is mere container or surface. This resonates with some post-structural textual criticism that I still find useful in dealing with cultural texts and objects.
6. Text Requires Engagement: Through several different points, I think Heschel is arguing that texts are not inert, stand-alone objects; they are rather living, breathing, human entities that exist only in our interaction with them. I gather this from Heschel’s insistence that the prophets of the Bible by definition challenged god/the divine and argued with god/the divine; that biblical passages change meaning over time as context and history and experience change human perspective; and that truth comes only through the courage to look beyond the surface level to how something actually is or actually works.
7. Text Requires Philosophy of Religion: Heschel argues against two approaches to text. First, the fundamentalist approach to the Bible falsely assumes the Bible is self-contained and self-sufficient, and ignores its history and production. Second, the rationalist approach which may in its overconfidence eliminate the possibility of meaningful interpretation. His critique of rationalism earlier in the book bothered me as incomplete and as apologia; but here it resonated with me, as I have read scientists railing against human culture generally, as if the kind of empirical truth scientific method can produce is actually the source of all knowledge (e.g., Sam Harris’s recent work on morality) and as if scientific method weren’t itself structured within value systems and historical moments. So I’m fine with being cautious about a rationalist approach to textual interpretation. Heschel proposes the philosophy of religion approach to the text as the antidote for both, as its purpose is to lead us to “higher knowledge and understanding.” Here he loses me, as I’m not sure what “higher knowledge or understanding” would even mean. Rather, I would argue that the antidote for both fundamentalism and problematic rationalism would be a humanist-rationalism, one that takes science and history and sociology seriously, but one which understands the human need for and process of meaning making and which also takes the human experience of holiness (not its empirical existence or non-existence) seriously. This will be a place that I will need to work out in detail in the future.
8. Text as Interactive and Ongoing: Finally, and for me, most importantly, Heschel explains the Jewish/rabbinic approach to the Bible, one which I experienced first hand at this week’s Traveling Shavuot study groups. Torah is, essentially, not the text; rather Torah is the interaction of Israel with the text. The call to study The Torah is in fact a call to continue this interaction, this struggle with text, in order to produce Torah. If The Torah (or the Bible) is seen as complete and self-contained, it becomes a stumbling block to true understanding and to truth. Heschel goes so far as to argue that those who claim a fundamentalist relationship to the Bible can never have Torah at all, because they have foreclosed the possibility of struggle and interpretation (274). “Judaism is based on a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation,” he says. Torah is both written (the text) and oral (interpretation and communal dialogue). Jews speak often of Israel as “struggle with god”; but here, Israel becomes “struggle with text”. He then flips the claims of authority that mark Christianity’s approach to truth (as well as Islam’s): “The source of authority is not the word as given in the text, but Israel’s understanding of the text.” Torah is in the life of Israel (struggle with god), not in a literal book. Without a continual, ongoing, never-ending effort to understand, the text is just paper (275).
What I loved about Heschel, in the end, was his approach to the Bible as text, rather than as the word. It can be boiled down to a couple key points that are compatible with my humanist values: the text is human and historical; and the text’s meaning and holiness comes from our dialogic interaction with it. I’m sure Heschel would be uncomfortable with my leaving out revelation; but as always, for me, holiness is in the human experience, the encounter with Existence, the Universe, and with our own dyingness.
(a) In Hebrew and the Jewish tradition, the word תורה can mean several different things: the particular five books of Moses; or more generally law or teachings; and in the rabbinical tradition, torah can be oral or written, the entire body of knowledge of judaism and jewishness. For my purposes here, when I type The Torah (with caps) it refers to the Pentateuch; when I type it without the definite article, it will be in reference to the broader idea of teachings or laws.