The Dual Torah
To the Editor:
Robert Alter’s truly splendid article, “Interpreting the Bible” [March], contains a somewhat puzzling, though offhand, statement: “Jews always conceived this corpus as a textual object complete in itself. . . .” If that statement refers to public opinion past and present, it is difficult to verify, but highly unlikely, since . . . Judaism was explicit that the Hebrew Scriptures were incomplete on their own. If Mr. Alter means then to refer to a Judaism—a religious system resting on the Pentateuch comprising a world view, way of life, and theory of a social entity called an “Israel,” all recapitulating a specified canon, then he is of course right for Karaism, and perhaps for some elements of Reform Judaism, too. But he is simply wrong for rabbinic (a.k.a. normative, classical, talmudic, authentic, or Torahtrue) Judaism—the Judaism of the dual Torah. That Judaism that we affirm is represented by not only Tanakh (“a textual object complete in itself,” in Mr. Alter’s context) but also Mishnah, Midrash, and Talmud, all part of the Torah. The “textual object” is then completed by another corpus altogether, the oral Torah.
Mr. Alter is factually wrong, also, when he claims that Judaism, meaning the Judaism of the dual Torah, ever read the written part of the Torah to address “the life of a people in real historical time.” If by “real historical time” he means to claim that the Judaism of the dual Torah read, for example, Genesis as the story only of people long ago, then that is false. The Midrash of Genesis Rabbah, the one authoritative reading of Genesis that the Judaism of the dual Torah put forth in its formative age, is explicit to the contrary. Genesis Rabbah reads the book of Genesis as an account of the life of Israel not only then, long ago, but also now, in the “now” of its authorship. Episodes of Genesis refer not to the history of the Israel alive in that distant age, but—typologically, parabolically, and allegorically, all three types of hermeneutics being present in the compilation—to that present age in which the authors and compilers of Genesis Rabbah lived. Mr. Alter is, of course, correct in saying that that Judaism did not read Scripture in relationship to another group of books composed in a different language. But Genesis is read as a very immediate account of the age in which 3rdand 4th-century C.E. Israel was living, and the entire structure of the Judaism that they were shaping is read into the household MGrchen [tales] that make up most of the book of Genesis. “Then” and “now” form a single continuum, and the distinction between the “then” of “real historical time” and the “now” of ourselves and our lives is utterly alien to the Judaism for which Genesis Rabbah speaks. . . .
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