Project Genesis

Centrality of Tanach

Question: As a teacher, how do I give my students an idea of how people of the Jewish faith perceive scripture? Is such a thing possible? What are the central texts for Judaism? I would very much like to impart to my students a sense of the feeling Jews have for the Tanach (Scripture)..

Answer: It’s a bit hard within the scope of one letter, to sum up the central (not to mention, heavily debated) pillars of the Jewish relationship with Tanach. Let me first of all explain that there is no uniformity of belief among Jews or even Jewish scholars. Plaut, for instance, stands at the very extreme liberal edge of modern Jewish life and expresses a more poetic than legal or Divine appreciation of the Bible. I, being an Orthodox rabbi, can only claim to represent orthodoxy. Take that as a disclaimer.

Having set the scene, I’ll answer your question with two observations. It’s not the whole story, nor would another rabbi necessarily do it the same way, but they might be a starting point.

First, the written Torah (especially the Five Books) was given with an oral twin and is incomplete by itself. To clarify:

“When the Lord your God will widen your borders as He promised you [i.e., bring you into Israel] and you will say ‘I will eat meat’ for you will desire to eat meat; according to all the desires of your soul, eat meat. When you will become distant from the place that the Lord your God will choose to place His name [i.e., Jerusalem and the Temple] and you will slaughter from your cattle and from your flock (that which God has given you) as I commanded you…” Deut. 12; 20, 21

Rashi: “’As I commanded you:’ This teaches us that there is a (detailed) command concerning slaughter – how to slaughter – and these are the laws of slaughter that were taught to Moshe from Sinai (i.e., from God).”

So God, somewhere, transmitted detailed laws of ritual slaughter. I invite you to search the Written Torah from its beginning until its end and challenge you to find one single detail: there’s no mention of what type of tool to use (knife, hammer, poison…) nor where on the animal to make a wound (throat, back of the neck, major arteries…) nor who should do it, nor when or where it should be done. Yet all of these details are necessary for the proper observance of this command.

We’re left with two possibilities. Either the author of the Torah was a bit scatter-brained and left out some details (intending, no doubt, to get back to it later), in which case, the Torah’s divinity – or even its coherence – becomes an impossibility. Or that the Author was in full control of His material and included these and countless other details in “footnotes.” If there’s one “footnote” there could easily be more…especially since there are so many Torah-passages that are so unclear by themselves.

Second, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch (the 19th Century Frankfurt Scholar) described the Five Books as, in a sense, the lecture notes to the Oral Law. Remember: the complete Torah wasn’t even given to the Jews until the end of their forty years in the wilderness and right before the death of Moses (Deut. 31; 24), so until that point, most of the studying done would certainly have been oral.

In order to facilitate review and the ability to comprehensively teach the corpus of the Torah to future generations, a kind of system of shorthand notes was offered: the Written Law. Just like many of your own class notes from your student days (which would probably by unintelligible to me and only serve to bring back enough memories to reconstruct the lecture in your own mind), they make little practical sense by themselves.

What are the central texts for Judaism?

We’ve got tens and tens of thousands of central texts. But the vast majority of them help explain, quantify and organize the vast and complex material of the Talmud. So, I suppose you could say that the Tanach and the Talmud share space on the shelf marked “central texts.�?

I hope this is of some help,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton

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