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Parshot Festivals

The diamond with 70 facets

  • RabbiGreg
Shavuot celebrates zman matan torateinu – the time of the giving of the Torah. From time to time, I am asked if progressive Jews have a different Sefer Torah to orthodox Jews. At first, the question just bowls me over. Open the ark in any shul, orthodox or progressive, and you will find the identical scrolls with the identical scribal texts so sacred to our people. But I get the question behind the question: if we have the same Torah, how is it possible that we often differ in the way we read it?
by RABBI GREG ALEXANDER | Jun 06, 2019

If you open a traditional Hebrew chumash (Torah in printed form), you will find a tiny half a verse of Torah text in the middle of the page, surrounded by a sea of different commentators. From Rashi in France, to Ibn Ezra in Spain, Sforno in Italy, to Saadia in Babylon, they all have different ways of seeing that same verse. It’s like the page of the chumash is a table around which are sitting each of these learned sages arguing over the meaning of the Torah. Yes, they lived in different cities and often different centuries, but you get what I mean. I know it’s famously true that if there are two Jews, there are three opinions. But how is it possible that there is more than one interpretation of a verse of Torah? Surely it’s Torah or not Torah, surely if “x” is true then “y” is not?

Well, it all goes back to a little mountain in the middle of a little desert 3 500 years ago. We learn in cheder that G-d gave Moses the Torah on Mt Sinai, and taught it to the Jewish people, but the rabbinic reading of that moment makes things much more complex. Take this midrash (ancient commentary) in P’sikta d’Rav Kahana, for example:

“Rabbi Yosi son of Rabbi Chanina said: ‘According to the strength of each individual, [G-d’s] utterance spoke to them. And do not be amazed at that thing, for the manna would fall for Israel, and each individual would taste it according to their strength – babies according to their strength, adolescents according to their strength, and elderly people according to their strength... And just as with the manna, each individual would taste according to their strength, so too with [G-d’s] speaking, each person would hear according to his or her strength.’” (12:25)

It’s a beautiful analogy. When the manna (the miraculous food that nourished the children of Israel as they made their way through the desert) fell, people tasted it in the way that best suited them. For babies, it was like mother’s milk, for teens like pizza, and for elders like, what – gefilte fish? A sidebar here on different generations loving different foods. If you ask our parents what traditional Jewish food is you will get kichel and herring, babke and bulke, tzimmes, and chrain. If you ask my teenage kids, they will probably say fried fish and sushi because that’s what turns up at most of the brocha tables at any shabbat or simcha they go to. Or cheesecake, because that’s why they come for Shavuot. Mmm, cheesecake! But I digress – back to the P’sikta.

From this and many other midrashim, we have hints that the Torah, even at the moment of revelation, sounded different to different people. In fact, one midrash says there are literally 70 aspects – or facets – to Torah. (Bamidbar Rabba 13:15) It’s like the Torah is seen as a diamond reflecting light from each of its facets. One verse refracts out in many ways.

The early rabbinic commentators understood that, and we are blessed with 2 000 years of healthy rabbinic debates that fill libraries with their disagreements, and continue today on webpages, podcasts, and blogs the world over. We are the people of the book, but we all read it differently. And it was always this way. Two of the most famous of the early sages were Hillel and Shammai. They lived 2 000 years ago at the time that the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, and they were famous for disagreeing. Not that either of them was “wrong”, just that they often disagreed. What is astounding is that both their arguments – despite who won them, in most cases that was Hillel or his students – are recorded in our literature, and studied today. Why would you study the words of the loser of the argument? So comes this incredible piece of Talmudic wisdom:

“Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel: ‘For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel argued. One asserted, ‘The law agrees with our views’, and the other asserted, ‘The law agrees with our views’. The voice of G-d came down and announced, ‘They are both the words of the living G-d, but the law agrees with Beit Hillel.’” (Eiruvin 13b)

Incredible – the divine voice sees both their arguments as divine. How is that possible if one argues “x” and one “y”? Can they both be true at the same time? The answer is yes. What is even more incredible is how you resolve a dispute if both sides are right.

The Talmud continues: “Since both were the words of the living G-d, what entitled Beit Hillel to have the law agree with them? Because they were kind and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and not only that, but they mentioned the rulings of Beit Shammai before their own.”

There is the answer in a nutshell. There are 70 facets to Torah, and if yours looks really different to the guy next door, it might just have a different angle. The bottom line is to agree to disagree, and to understand and quote the ruling of your neighbour first. This is good advice as we take those last steps to receiving the Torah again at Shavuot.

  • Rabbi Greg Alexander works on the rabbinic team at the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation.

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