The Difference Between Traditional and Intellectual Interpretations of the Torah


The principle difference between traditional and intellectual interpretations of the Torah consists of the following.

The traditional interpretation of the Torah proceeds from the assumption that the Most High created our world unchanging in principle – either nothing changes in our world or something changes in a certain way beforehand. And if that is so, then there must be some kind of unambiguous interpretation of the Torah explaining everything that occurs in our world unambiguously. One needs to seek out and obey this interpretation. The adherents of the traditional interpretation of the Torah think that such an interpretation of the Torah has been found. And all attempts to look for something else are anathema and an avoidance of Judaism. Though the adherents of the traditional interpretation of the Torah don’t even concur with this statement, but think essentially that the Most High is fully knowable and they have experienced him in their own interpretation of the Torah.  

The intellectual interpretation of the Torah thinks that the Most High created our world as changing constantly and that the Most High Himself is fully unknowable. Therefore, the Torah cannot have an unambiguous interpretation.  One can know the Most High and the Torah only through multiple interpretations of the Torah and the test of these interpretations against the facts of real life. 

But if there is a multitude of interpretations of the Torah, does it mean that there is no single basis for the unity of the Jewish people?  This is totally untrue, and I shall attempt to show it. 

I shall begin with my answer to a professional defender of the traditional interpretation of the Torah – in this instance a true Orthodox Jew, for whom the whole interpretation of the Torah boils down to the forever unchanging 613 mitzvah raised in the Talmud to the status of indisputable law:

“You honestly set forth your own and your sect’s traditional notion of the Torah, and I have no objections to that.

I both honor your interpretation and I can even understand the unwillingness of your sect’s rabbis to enter into a discussion with all the doubting intellectuals. Those are your sect’s rules.

And I agree with your assertion that your sect has preserved the Torah for the Jewish people.

And I have no objections when you separate yourselves from the whole of the Jewish people, calling yourselves Hebrews – that is your right.

And I have no objections when you call the overwhelming majority of Jews secular, separating yourselves, Hebrews, from them, the secular. If these secular Jews act in accordance with the commandments of the Torah even at the genetic level, not having received any teachings from you, the professionals, praise to them – they are carrying out the Most High’s covenants.

What the majority of the Jewish intellectual people and I do not agree with is that the Torah has only one true interpretation, and you are the arbiters of this single interpretation.”

So, I do not agree with the assertion that only one kind of sect (let’s not call it a sect, but the most sage Jewish religious formation) lives according to the Torah’s covenants, and all the remaining Jews have abandoned the Torah. And I do not agree with the assertion that the division of the Jewish people into Jews and Hebrews (“pure” and “impure”), or some kind of other attribute (reformist-orthodox, secular-religious, haredim-modern…), is better than the unity of the Jewish people based on some kind of interpretation of the Torah with which the majority can agree.

The Torah is fully unknowable as the Most High is fully unknowable. One can know the Torah only through its numerous interpretations and the testing of these interpretations in real life.

He who thinks that he has gotten to know the Torah absolutely unequivocally is elevating himself to God’s level and, thereby, is becoming an earthly deity. And this is a direct violation of the Ten Commandments.

In our united Jewish world the adherents of the intellectual interpretation of the Torah search for what unites us, but the adherents of the traditional interpretation they seek what separates us.

Just where do we disagree anyhow? And is it perhaps beyond the limits of these disagreements to find a much greater essential whole that makes our people united in its notion of the essence of the Jew? Let’s try to examine the possibility of converging the disagreements of the intellectual and traditional interpretations of the Torah, and finding thereupon the spiritual unity of all the Jewish people, by the example of the following four key problems.

(1)  A Jew is one whose life is defined by the canons of the Torah consciously or unconsciously – of the Torah his ancestors received on Mt. Sinai from the hands of the Most High and handed down to him from generation to generation.
Consciously is when a Jew studies the Torah constantly at home or in the synagogue and can cite in support of each of his actions the corresponding dictum of the Torah’s men of wisdom. Unconsciously is when his genes, formed over the course of the more than three millennia of life according to Jewish traditions, shove him into actions to help Good and battle with Evil in accordance with the Torah.
Birth in a Jewish family is necessary, but it is not a sufficient condition. If birth in a Jewish family were a sufficient condition, then Gadaffi and Ahmadinejad, Trotsky and Kaganovich, and those Jews who converted to Christianity or to Islam … would be true Jews. But they all fought against the organization of our world according to the concepts of the Torah and against the organizers of it, the Jews. That means in order to be a Jew, one must not only be born in a Jewish family, but also act in accordance with the canons of the Torah – with the help of the rabbis or on the basis of individual study of the Torah and Jewish history.
All this really comes down to the following: we must consider as Jews only those who voluntarily follow the inner call to live according to the Torah – consciously or unconsciously. He who consciously does not want to do it is not with us. He may be a good man, but he is not a part of the Jewish people.
It seems to me the adherents of traditional and intellectual interpretations of the Torah may agree with this inasmuch as it does not contradict the spirit of the Torah itself. And that is what makes the Jewish people one in spirit. 

(2)  The Torah says that the Most High singled out the Jewish people from all the other peoples and made this people the chosen for a specified mission on our earth among other peoples, and most importantly, what makes a Jew a Jew – it is the fulfillment of this mission. And that is to live and act according to the canons of the Torah.
Two fundamental interpretations of this mission exist.
One of them is to live in spiritual isolation from Gentiles, to carry out all the traditional rituals and rites in this isolation, and to live according to the morale principles of the Torah, interpreted for the conditions of such isolation. Only thus, the adherents of this interpretation maintain, is it possible to keep the Torah.
The second interpretation is to live among other peoples (we say, until the arrival of the Messiah) in order to render assistance in the organization of life there according to the concepts (morality) of the Torah.
It seems to me that the adherents of the traditional and intellectual interpretations of the Torah can agree with the fact that these two interpretations can coexist peacefully in the Jewish people inasmuch as they take their roots from the Torah. And that is what makes the Jewish people one.

(3)  The Torah was given by the Most High for all the people whom he created in His image and likeness (with special instructions for his chosen). Therefore, one must strive for the unification of the people beneath the flag of the Torah, and not for their separation.  And this chiefly pertains to Christians, the religion of whom was created by the Jews based on the Torah — in its own way, a Torah for Gentiles.
One of the main objections to the spiritual convergence of Jews and Christians consists of the fact that, as many believe, such a convergence leads to assimilation, to the victory of Christian missionary work.
It seems to me that the fear of assimilation and missionary work is seized by Jews with a weak faith in their own personal religion and morality. Such Jews fear physical contact with the outside world and open discussions with this world. And they fear all that because they have no such thing as a true “spiritual soul” whereby they couldn’t tell all adherents of a different faith why the mission of the chosen people was given to the Jews by God, and how this mission is directed at strengthening the material and spiritual wellbeing of all the rest.
Fortunately, the majority of Jews are not afraid of this. They majority of Jews has a subconscious feeling of pride that they came into our world as Jews.
It seems to me that adherents of traditional and intellectual interpretations of the Torah can agree that the bugbear of assimilation does not have to divide the Jewish people and does not have to isolate them from the other peoples of the world – it must be united based on the multidimensional interpretation of the Torah which makes it possible to be united with a gigantic variety of opinions. That is the way we are, and if we are that way, it means that is how it is needed for the Most High. And that makes the Jewish people one.

(4)  And last is how it is necessary to study the Torah.
I came to this by my own personal experience, studying the Torah with many rabbis and discussing the Torah’s concepts with many groups.
Naturally, one must study the Torah as we traditionally have studied it and do study it – as a code of laws which needs be obeyed, while not doubting them.
But the other – the intellectual – approach also is extremely important, in which it is necessary to study the Torah as fundamental spiritual rules which must lay at the heart of any laws accepted in all spheres of human life – in politics and economics, science and technology, art and literature, and security and government control. I shall cite several examples from the Ten Commandments.
“Thou shalt have no other gods” – does this mean how to determine the very moment when an authoritative administrator (president, premier, leader) becomes that earthly god?
“Thou shalt not steal” – does this mean how to determine the very moment when a tax assessment becomes theft?
“Thou shalt not covet anything that is thy neighbor’s” – does this mean the “redistribution of wealth” beloved by many is a violation of this commandment?
“Thou shalt not kill” – does this mean how to determine the very moment when the Evil nearing you must be killed?
And such an approach will be able to unite the Jewish people in the study of the Torah.

It would be very good if we, the Jews, began to unite based on the Torah, preserving all our diversity, and began to strengthen the spiritual links with all others for the advancements of the ideas of the Torah. 

About Vladimir Minkov

Vladimir Minkov Ph.D. is a nuclear scientist, published author and writer. He is the co-author of "Nuclear Shadow Boxing", a scientific history of the nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and USA during the cold war and is the author of "The Jews and Their Role in Our World", which explores his personal journey to discovering Jewish identity. Having lost much of his family in the Holocaust and finding his search for spiritual development stifled in the Soviet Union, Vladimir migrated to the United States in the late 1970s.

Posted on September 9, 2012, in English-language posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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