Speaking in the Language of Men (Ideas #62)

Finding ourselves at the end of Sefer Shemot, we may feel some confusion about the Biblical text. Not only do some of the stories seem out of chronological order, but it is sometimes hard to understand any connection between several sections that follow one another. Granted, we are given interesting explanations about the Torah's sequence - for example, most of us are quite familiar with the sages' statement, that the prohibitions of Shabbat are discussed again after the section on building the tabernacle, to impress upon us that Shabbat takes precedence over the building of the Mishkan. 

Still, in the back of our minds, we are aware of biblical criticism's approach towards the apparent lack of order in the Torah. Bible critics have been telling us for a while that making order out of disorder is artificial. They tell us that such an approach can only be the result of submission to dogma, at the expense of an objective search for truth. Those of us who have grown up with Western thought may be drawn to Bible criticism, as it bases itself on a highly rational and reasoned approach: Bible criticism is organized and presupposes that a single author of the Torah would likewise be organized in presenting information. When information appears disorganized, these critics conclude that the Torah brings together the writings of various authors into one work. The rigor of the editor of this compilation is a subject for debate in these circles, but the basic premise of multiplicity of texts stands largely unchallenged.

As bible study is regaining popularity in both religious and secular contexts, the challenge of the Bible critics must be addressed. We need to explain to ourselves why we reject what might seem to be the more straightforward approach to analyzing the text.

Actually, the whole issue of how to look at the Biblical text is not a uniquely modern one. The Talmud (Berachot 10a)* encapsulates the issue through a brief discussion between R. Abahu and an anonymous Sadducee. Since it is well known that the Sadducees were enamored with Greek thought, it is no coincidence that this Sadducee expected the Bible to be in strictly chronological order. When he cites one example of the Psalms being out of order, R. Abahu responds by saying that this is only a problem for you (i.e. based on your assumptions). For us, however, says R. Abahu, we do not view the order of the Torah as purely chronological but rather also associational (smuchin minhaTorah). In other words, the Torah is organized by the association of the content, or theme of one section, with that which follows it.** That is to say, it is not only legitimate for the Torah to be out of order, it is to be expected. In this brief discussion, we see that our Sages were already aware of the Greek/academic approach to the Bible and rejected it as lacking the appropriate paradigms for truly understanding the Bible.

We are familiar with the adage that sometimes we need to go far away to discover what lies in our own backyard. It could be that we need to understand 20th century literature in order to rediscover the Torah's paradigms: In the first half of the twentieth century, James Joyce popularized a new style of writing, called stream of consciousness. According to this approach, the reader follows the thoughts of the protagonist, often taking the reader far afield along with the character's thoughts. While more difficult to read, Joyce provided us with an unusually accurate portrayal of human existence. Even as many of our individual thoughts are quite rational, the connection between one thought and the next is often highly idiosyncratic. As we all know from our own experience, the mind easily flows from one subject to another, occasionally in almost inexplicable fashion. I would imagine that, at one point or another, we have all asked ourselves the question, ‘how did I start thinking about this?’ Sometimes we move on to a thought that is not at all connected to the one that preceded it, but is rather evoked by unconscious sensual stimuli  - we might be looking at or smelling something and suddenly the sight or smell triggers a memory. In a way this approach to writing is more natural to humanity than a chronological rendering of events.

It appears that the Torah is written with just such a human bent. On some level, this is echoed by the phrase that appears many times throughout the Talmud - that the Torah speaks in the language of men. Modern man's love affair with scientific thinking can blind him to the fact that human thinking is not naturally scientific. While scientific thinking allows us to think clearly and make great material advances, it will always remain divorced from our natural essence. By contrast, the traditional understanding seems to be that the Biblical text is, and should be, consonant with our natural mode of thought, and not with the way we force ourselves to think in the laboratory. This is in order to speak in the language of men in a way that is organic and makes the most sense to the inner self that the Torah ultimately addresses.

One of the most brilliant depictions of the conflict between approaches to the Bible was shown in the cartoon film Lights. In that film, the Greeks were frustrated as they tried to measure Hebrew letters with their scientific instruments. As opposed to the stone Greek letters that would sit still and be measured, the Hebrew letters, made of fire and light, were far too active and flexible to ever be measured. Indeed, the letters of the Torah cannot sit still and be measured. While our tradition appreciates the role of logic and organization, it does not believe that all of human existence can be understood in such a fashion. There are limits to what can be measured. It is perhaps this notion that will forever divide us from the assumptions of the Bible critics.

*see also Maharasha on this section

** The extent of our ability to determine the nature of these associations may well be the point of discussion in Yevamot 4a, where the Talmud identifies R. Yehudah as someone who believes that we cannot readily determine the meaning of such associations. Even as there are reasons for the order, they are entirely the product of a stream of consciousness which defies our analysis. Thus, R. Yehudah feels we should generally not be looking for connections between one seemingly unrelated section and another proximate one. The opposing opinion would tell us that trying to understand the connections between the different parts of this flow of consciousness is a legitimate and productive area of Torah study. This position would tell us that we are able to actually arrive at true insights by attempting to understand the Divine stream of consciousness.