Barry Holtz: Back to the Sources smP1000886.jpg


Introduction (pp. 11-29) Notes
  • tale of Shammai and Hillel: heathen came to Shammai and asked to be converted—Shammai drove him away; heathen came to Hillel and Hillel converted him, said, “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary—go and learn it.” (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 31a)
  • is message of Judaism “love thy neighbor”?
  • study of Torah is main religious preoccupation throughout history of Judaism
  • ancient rabbis: the world rests on three pillars: study, worship, and good deeds—study is greatest because others can be deduced from study
  • Torah refers to first five books of Bible, but also to the whole Hebrew Bible, and even all Jewish study
  • All Jewish literature is Torah: written Torah, midrashic lit., Talmuds, commentaries, legal codes, mystical tradition, philosophical books
  • Jewish text tradition is great literary achievement of human culture—compelling to anyone interested in literature—has universal themes of all great literature: deciphering laws, interpretation, conflict of faith and reason, the nature of the divine
  • Jewish lit. is like inverted pyramid with Bible at its base
  • Gershom Scholem wrote: “not system but commentary is the legitimate form through which truth is approached.” –yet we pursue concepts of originality and creativity
  • In view of traditional writers, Torah was the word of God; commentators role is to discover God’s intention
  • every interpretation ever conceived was already known, intended at Mt. Sinai (this idea serves to promote humility)—yet every generation’s teachers must be seen as legitimate and significant
  • Torah used to have practical, everyday significance for people
  • Holtz suggests that the purpose of oral Torah was for interaction: “Torah called for a living and dynamic response.” (p.17)—reader and text have a dialogue
  • George Steiner puts for the idea that studying Torah has provided unity for Jews scattered and in exile
  • 15th century: birth of Jewish printing
  • Jewish tradition of learning texts involves studying with a learned teacher (master)—Jewish studying has social and religious contexts
  • Person studying alone is at a disadvantage without social context and reliable authority
  • People reading texts in translation are also at disadvantage—richness and connotations of original language are lost
  • Since rabbinic times, sacredness of language and transmitting of letters in Torah scroll (esp. since interpretation of numerical dimension—gematria--of Hebrew letters)
  • Classic Jewish texts have remained unfamiliar for two reasons: 1) texts remain untranslated and 2) Jews entered mainstream Western culture 200 y.a.; rise of secularization
  • Recently re-interest has been on the rise: baal teshuvah (returner) phenomenon in U.S. and Israel
  • Rise of Neo-Orthodox and more (non-Orthodox) adults studying—searching for lost roots and self-awareness
  • Another cause of invisibility of classic Jewish texts is prejudice and lack of validity from Christianity (Hebrew Bible called “Old Testament”, thus devaluing any writing written after the Bible)
  • Before 19th century, Jews viewed Bible and other great sources as holy documents, containing wisdom of God’s truth
  • 19th century: rise of scientific study of classic texts (“Wissenschaft des Judentums”)—Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement in Europe—contemporary writers affected by that
  • Back to the Sources aims to deal with texts in a “popular, nonacademic context” and to make them accessible to all
  • How is Torah “useful”? Provides behavioral norms, but also needs involvement, passion and self-reflection
  • Torah is lifelong pursuit
  • Zohar sees pursuit of Torah as a lifelong romance—a love affair with the text



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