Just so you folks know, I’m currently at the Shalom Hartman Institute, attending their Lay Leadership Retreat, which has been terrific so far, and has been very good for coming up with blogging ideas!
One issue we discussed with Rabbi Dr. Alfredo Borodowski was what exactly the purpose of the Torah text might be. The Torah is a poor history book, a distracted legal compendium, and a fractured take on theology. Were any of these the primary aim of the Torah, we should have to say that it was a failure.
The Torah itself informs us that none of the above were its purpose. The Torah tells us of other books, like Sefer Milchamot Hashem, the Book of the Wars of God, that record military history. The Talmud teaches that the Torah was given “megillot megillot” – one scroll at a time, thus answering what the Torah means when it speaks of Sefer HaBrit (Book of the Covenant) or more generally when Moshe, and later Joshua, are depicted as writing some particular chapter or passage in a book. Evidently, more focused segments of the text were intended to fit the more traditional categories of literature.
Yet all of these, and others, were combined into one text, the text of the Torah, and later, into one compendium, that of the Tanach. Why? To the scholar, the haphazard nature of the Torah text is evidence of its scattered origins. in time, place, and religious outlook. All true, but what of the redactor? Why did he do such a poor job of combining these texts? What purpose did the text have that prevented him from editing the text into some semblance of coherence?
A few ideas come to mind. Let’s assume that Ezra is the redactor of the Five Books of Moses. What did he have to work with, and what degrees of freedom did he have to alter what he had? Presumably, Ezra had texts that he simply could not change. The most ancient texts, like the Song of the Sea, or Ha’azinu, or the Blessings of Jacob, were probably inviolate. They were almost certainly committed to writing by this point, and they were surely committed to memory by many Jews.
Other texts were more fluid, both in precise form and in placement. Genesis 1, a P text, was moved from where it most likely stood at the beginning of Leviticus to the beginning of the Torah. Though Noah shows both J and P strands, they are tightly interwoven, indicating that Ezra had a great deal of freedom with the relative placement of these texts. What Ezra has little contol over, throughout, is the specific content. He cannot read out of the Noah story the tradition that Noah took seven of the ‘pure’ animals and two of the impure, even though it makes the story more consistent. The tradition is too strongly rooted by his time to change or eliminate.
The inclusion of these contrary traditions is, in a very real sense the role of the sacred text in Judaism. As Dr. Borodowski put it, the Torah is a narrative about narrative. The internal contradictions, repeated stories, ambiguities, and other lacunae are the result of compromises between traditions, sources of authority, and political and religious leadership. The preservation of controversy is a key function of the text, because it serves to include all these different voices, and creates interpretive possibilities that do not exist in a more consistent text. The interpretive possibilites lay the groundwork for possible future compromise and inclusion.
Later texts in the Tanach have the same features, for example, the three Isaiahs, the competing historical records of Chronicles and Kings, or the multiple traditions of conquest in Joshua and Judges. Israel Knohl is set to publish a book going back to the earliest days of Israelite presence in the land to unwind these competing traditions and connect them back to their sources in Shchem, Beit-El, Hebron, and so forth, but it is a credit to Judaism that we successfully subsumed so many different voices into one whole not by silencing them, but by including them, even where they disagreed with us.
The Mishna and Talmud embraced this exact methodology, creating a legal code unique in history for preserving controversy and embracing the authority and validity of the minority position. Only recently have legal institutions like the US Supreme Court preserved dissent in a similar fashion. Sadly, Judaism has not done so, and today, legal and religious Jewish writing makes no attempt to create a collective text out of many dissenting voices. Perhpas that is why our dissent divides us so bitterly, where in the past it was a source of strength.