Posts Tagged ‘Torah’

by Zoe Pollak

In response to Thursday’s session, I came up with a couple of questions relating to my theme and Jewish culture/history:

-What different notions of time were held among Jewish physicists such as Einstein and Feynman?

-Are there any portions in the Torah that discuss memory and time in relation to one another?

Albert Einstein

Richard P. Feynman


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The Bible of the Future

Until this past week, I’d been writing this blog blissfully unaware of where the hell I was going with it.  I figured I’d write some stories about loosely related topics and, you know, stuff would happen, and it would be a coherent text.  This sounded reasonable until I tried to explain it out loud, at which point it completely fell apart.  So, in our meeting last week, one of the main questions was what would be my guiding principle.

Another question was what exactly was Jewish about this whole thing.  I had some vague idea about kibbutzim and tikkun olam, but that too was kind of hard to explain.  But after a good bit of discussion, an idea emerged.  My blog was about planning for the future, so why not write about the roll Judaism would play in that future?  The Torah has guided us for the past 5,000 years, but are its values still relevant?  And, if not, what values are?

I, of course, interpreted this as “make your blog the Torah of the future,” which sounded awesome, so I decided to do it.  But that made me wonder, what is the Torah?  I know it’s that blue book where “awesome” doesn’t mean cool and people lived for like 500 years, but what was its purpose?  Was it an historical document (note: I can’t stand using “an” before historical, but whatever)?  A book of morals?  A guide for everyday living?  I decided to investigate.

And, as with any good research project, I began by turning to Wikipedia, and just opening an obscene number of tabs.

Picture 3

Not Joking

The first thing I learned was that while I thought that the Torah (you know, the scroll with the crown) was the same thing as the Old Testament, there’s actually a little more to it than that.  What I thought of as the Old Testament is actually the Tanakh, which consists of the Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings).  And while it seems like the Torah and Nevi’im were written at about the same time, Ketuvim came later.  But now for the weird part.

Up until around the 17th century, it was generally assumed that Moses was the sole author of the Torah (thus, the Five Books of Moses).  However, this overlooks some pretty significant evidence to the contrary.  First of all, there’s God.  While it’s generally acknowledged that there’s a difference between the “Old Testament God” and the “New Testament God”, there are some bizarre inconsistencies even within the Torah.  Sometimes He/She’s loving, sometimes He/She’s vengeful.  Sometimes He/She appears all-powerful, and at others He/She’s almost human.  This, plus the fact that several sections are just repetitions of earlier sections, suggests that either Moses was a terrible writer, or there was more than one person working on this thing.

Until recently, the most common explanation was what is called the Documentary hypothesis.  The idea is that the Torah is made up of four separate texts that were eventually edited together.  These texts, the Jahwist, the Elohist, the Deuteronomist, and the Priestly, all tell related, sometimes overlapping stories, but each comes from a unique perspective.  For example, the Jahwist text favors the southern tribes of Israel, whereas the Elohist favors the north.  For some reason, I find this hilarious.  It’s like the Union and the Confederacy getting together to write a textbook.

The Deuteronomist focuses mostly on the story of Moses, but also spends a great deal of time outlining a code of Jewish law.  The fourth text, the Priestly, presents God as much less human than in the previous versions, and as only being accessible through, you guessed it, priests.  For example, in the Jahwist, God is constantly interacting with humans, capable of showing emotion, and indeed much more similar to other ancient gods.  In Priestly, on the other hand, God is portrayed as the sole creator of the world.  On a completely unrelated note, Priestly is also regarded as less literate and less elegant than the other sources.

Each of these texts also have their own unique origin.  As mentioned earlier, the Jahwist and Elohist seem to be collections of stories, histories, and traditions from southern and northern Israel, respectively, whereas Deuteronomist and Priestly appear to have been constructed with specific goals in mind.

And yet somehow, all four of these texts were combined to create something that looks like this:


If you scan this at a supermarket, you get a free Mr. Pibb.

And while it’s now believed that the text may not fall into four neat categories like this, it’s generally agreed that it was written by a bunch of people writing for a bunch of reasons.  So in the end, it turns out the Torah isn’t just a moral code.  Or an (dammit) history.  Or even a book of laws.  It’s all of them.  Which brings me back to the blog.

In some ways, it’s remarkable how long the Torah has survived.  From what I could tell from my three hours of research and a course on ancient history I took four years ago, the Jahwist and Elohist texts are very similar to any of a number of ancient stories.  And yet it isn’t Zeus that over half of the people in the world worship.  There’s something about the Torah that is particularly appealing.  And perhaps (and I’m going way the hell out on a limb on this one) what makes it so enduring is its editing.  It took the best aspects from a number of specialized sources, and combined them in a way that speaks to everyone.  And perhaps that should be my goal: diverse sources, unified message.  Hey, if it’s good enough for the Torah…

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