In this week’s Torah reading, the laws and statutes come fast and furious – more mitzvot actually than in any other single portion in the Five Books. Some of the commandments are ethically exalted. Some are curious, and others seem - on the face of it – down right barbaric. What are we to make of passages that mandate ill-behaved children and flagrant adulterers should be stoned to death? Prescriptions designed says the Torah to sweep out evil from the land.
By Jewish tradition, the full Five Books were divinely given to Moses on Sinai – partly in written form (the Ten Commandments) and the rest conveyed orally and later transcribed by Moses - even the final section of Deuteronomy which describes what happens after Moses dies. The authority of the text rests on its Divine source and the confidence that we have the exactly as it was conveyed from on high. Broadly speaking this would be an ‘orthodox’ view of Torah.
By the time of the Rabbis - many centuries after Sinai - a whole system of commentary had grown up around the sacred core text. The sages couldn’t rewrite the Torah but they could interpret it. So when they were troubled by (what I am calling but they would never have called) a seemingly barbaric text, they would make it almost impossible to actually carry out the injunction by requiring any number of disqualifying preconditions. Or they insisted that the text couldn’t possibly mean what it seemed to be saying. Their challenge was to liberate the text from the constraints of the time and place in which it was given while still retaining their allegiance to its God given sanctity and continuing authority.
Liberal Judaism faces a different set of challenges in reading and understanding Torah. We can forthrightly embrace the notion that Torah is a historical document produced at a particular moment that speaks in the language of its but not necessarily our time. We can embrace the interpretations of the less distant past that struggled to make sense of texts inherited from their own more distant past. We can read around the less than enlightened parts or explain them away as a reflection of a more primitive time. But then how do we continue to give the text sanctity and authority if we are cherry picking our way through its verses?
I suppose you could say that we embrace a wholly or should I say holy different method of interpretation. We do not begin with an assumption of sanctity for the whole text but we seek out sanctity from within the fullness of the text. For Liberal Jews, our Torah is not so much a work handed down by God as it is a chronicle of our reaching up to God. As such, we attribute sanctity and authority to those passages that to us seem to have reached to the ethical and moral level that we call the enduringly, exaltedly Divine. That is certainly an ‘un-orthodox’ approach but it is no less devotional, respectful or pious.
Maybe I could put it this way. Would I run into a burning building to rescue a Torah scroll? I’d like to think I would.