This Shabbat, starting here in Seattle at 6:02 p.m. tonight, we begin again the yearly cycle of Torah readings, starting with Genesis 1. With that in mind, I was thinking about this teasing retort from a reader, Sondra, responding to my post on men and angels
Oh Dear David, why must Jews be such intellectual snobs and continue to read into scripture what they want it to say and refuse to accept just what it says period?
I can only speak for myself, but having been a magazine editor by profession, I know careful writing when I see it and I know careless writing. With careful writing, every word counts. It’s there for a reason and reveals something about the writer’s intention. I can’t help but believe that God chooses His words with infinite care and that, as a consequence, paying attention to nuances and clues in Scriptural language must bring us closer to Him. That is one of the main things the rabbis did in their teaching on the Hebrew Bible, whether recorded in the Talmud, Midrash, or the classical commentaries.
It’s also why, as a friend of mine once incisively pointed out (I’m not sure if he’d want it said in his name in public), Christians are confronted in the Gospels with a tragic loss. Jesus did not teach in Greek, the language of the Gospel writers. His original words are all lost forever. We literally do not know what Jesus said, in his own words. Not one sentence.
The Torah is very different. Not everyone believes it was written in Moses’ own hand, at God’s dictation. But one can at least hope so, and the careful scrutiny of the text that’s called for in Jewish study, revealing layer upon layer of meaning, tends to confirm the supposition. No other book so rewards such minute attention. Human beings don’t write like that.