NOTICE FOR MARCH 29, 2017 SESSION - THIS IS A WEDNESDAY!
The next meeting of the Torah Study Group will be on Wednesday, March 29, 2017, at 7:15 pm. After that, we will go back to our regular schedule of every other Thursday night.
If you’re reading ahead, please look at Chapters 7 and 8 of Sefer B’reishit.
We will be continuing the familiar story of Noah, and focusing on the things that you may not have picked up on before in this familiar part of the Book of Genesis. I will try to do a better job of showing you examples of Rashi’s commentary and the Midrash that Rashi cites which are the backbone of the “traditional” reading of Noah.
I will also continue to add to the list of Torah terms, familiarity with which I find makes it easier to join into the ongoing conversation about Torah that has been going on since Judaism’s formative years. I think in the next session I’ll do the terms “Torah” and “torah,” and various terms that refer to a god, gods and the God (i.e., the singular god of Judaism). I’ll probably save “halakha” and “agadah” for the following session.
We will all get to share our own ideas about what the story means to us. Ultimately, the meaning of the Torah is the sum of our individual ideas and emotions, whomever “our” happens to include. These ideas and emotions are shaped by our individual hearts, minds and relationships, and limited, to some extent, by what it is that we have and have not learned from others. I will continue to try to convince everyone of my, admittedly controversial, belief in an ongoing, worldwide conversation about the Torah and encourage you all to take part it in it.
NOTICE FOR MARCH 16, 2017 SESSION. The next meeting of the Torah Study Group will be on Thursday, March 16, 2017 from 7:15-8:15 pm. Everyone is invited.
Our plan is to read aloud (in English translation) and discuss the Five Books of Moses (the Torah) from cover to cover, focusing on key narrative elements and commandments (which is an artful attempt to say we will be skipping over some parts). In the last two sessions, we read Chapters 1 through 4, including the creation of the world in seven days, the Garden of Eden and Adam and Hava (Eve) eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Kayin (Cain) killing Hevel (Abel). In our discussion:
- We discussed the nature of God as expressed in the text of the Torah, and to what extent descriptions of God and God’s actions in the Torah are intended to be read as metaphors
- We discussed how Rabbinic midrash adds narrative to the Torah and explains the messages that the passages of the Torah are intended to convey, which are not always clear on their face
- We discussed our personal responses to the Torah and the Midrash, in particular, its treatment of women
- I pointed out several literary devices in the Torah, including word play and poetry to a largely unimpressed gathering
For next week, we will be reading Sefer B’reishit (the Book of Genesis), Chapters 6, 7, 8 and 9, although there’s not a chance we’ll get through it all. It’s the story of God’s determination that the Earth had become corrupt and His/Her decision to destroy all living flesh by flooding the Earth, but to enter into a covenant with one man, No’ah (Noah), to preserve each species, including humans. This is the first of a number of explicit covenants between God and men that play an important role in Judaism. If I remember correctly, there’s an ark in this story. So rise and shine and give God the glory, glory, and join us for Torah Study Group. J
NOTICE FOR MARCH 2, 2017 SESSION. The Torah Study Group will meet next on Thursday, March 2, 2017 from 7:15 pm – 8:15 pm at CBI in the Social Hall.
Suggested Reading. All of Chapters 3, 4 and 6 of Sefer Bereishit (the Book of Genesis). Chapter 3 covers Adam and Hava (Eve) eating from the forbidden tree and exile from Eden, and Chapter 4 covers Kayin's (Cain's) murder of Hevel (Abel) and his punishment. Chapter 6 is the beginning of the story of No'ah (Noah), leading up to the flooding of the Earth. Most of this was in the reading for the last session, but we only got to the end of Chapter 2. I expect the pace will continue to pick up as I pare away educational techniques (i.e., the "source sheet" used at the last session) that proved time consuming and not very fruitful.
I will be asking people in the group to share their impressions on:
- What did they read in the text that surprised you?
- Why did God prefer Abel’s flesh offering to Cain’s vegetable offering? Below is the (translated) text of Genesis 4:3 with Rashi’s (translated - he wrote in Hebrew) commentary. Rashi (11th century French Rabbi) mentions selections from “The Midrash.” I think I explained earlier that "midrash" means explanation or commentary on the Hebrew Bible. While midrash can be interpretation of Biblical laws, the term "midrash" is sometimes used to refer to midrash about Biblical or other Jewish historical narratives. Finally, "The Midrash" usually refers to certain (maybe a dozen or so?) ancient (pre-11th century) collections of comments on the Bible attributed to the early (1st to early 3rd centuries) Rabbis
3Now it came to pass at the end of days, that Cain brought of the fruit of the soil an offering to the Lord.
of the fruit of the soil: of the most inferior (Gen. Rabbah 22:5), and there is an Aggadah that states that it was flaxseed (Mid. Tan. Bereishith 9, Targum Jonathan). (Another explanation: of the fruit From whatever came to his hand, not the best and not the choicest.)
- Is some of the text prose and some poetry? (The JPS frequently sets bits of translated text as verses of poetry, although in the traditional scroll, only a few places (e.g., Shirat HaYam (the Song of the Sea) and Aseret HaDibrot (the Ten Commandments) are set in other than paragraph form.) What, if anything, does that signify? Why would the Torah be in poetry?
- Look at the consecutive verses 2:25 and 3:1 in the Hebrew (ignore that these consecutive verses have been put in different chapters). The word with the root arum ע-ר-ו-מ is used in both sentences, but with different meanings. This sort of apparent word-play is common in the Bible – especially in the Books of Moses (the Torah). What, if anything, does that signify?
- How do I choose these questions, when I don't have the answers? (I think I'm just curious, and too lazy to search for answers, so I ask you, instead.)
NOTICE FOR FEBRUARY 16, 2017 SESSION. The Torah Study Group will meet next on Thursday, February 16, 2017 from 7:15 pm – 8:15 pm at CBI in the Social Hall. Everyone is invited and it doesn’t matter if you are coming for the first time. We will be starting “In the beginning” with the Book of Genesis , Chapter 1, Verse 1 Our plan is to meet every other Thursday evening and go through the Five Books of Moses from cover to cover (or scroll-end to scroll-end), although, in some places we will look at short summaries instead of the text, itself.
[Suggested Reading in Brief for 2/16/17: all of Chapter 1 through 4, and Chapter 6, Verse 1 to 4.]
It is not necessary to do any reading in advance, as we read aloud at the meeting. But, if you are reading in advance of the meeting, read the short introduction to Genesis by Nahum Sarna on p. 2 of the Etz Hayim (EH) chumash, and in the Book of Genesis (B’reishit, starting on p. 3 of EH all of Chapter 1, Verse 1 through Chapter 4, Verse 26 (Gen 1:1 – 4:26), skip Chapter 5, which is 10 generations of genealogy from Adam to Noah, plus his sons, Shem, Ham and Yafet [although do note that some of the recorded life spans range from 365 to more than 900 years long, and the age at which men became fathers ranged from 65 to 500] and then read Gen 6:1 - 6:4. This happens to correspond to the Parashat Bereishit and it covers the story of creation, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, the aforementioned genealogy (which I am suggesting you skip) and the beginning of the story of Noah.
If your reading from EH, I recommend reading the brief summaries of the text interspersed in the commentary and the “HALAKHA L’MA-SEH” boxes at the bottom of some pages, but don’t worry if you miss any of them. The brief summaries help you notice inflection points in the text, such as changes of scene or theme. The first of these brief summaries is on page two and it is a short paragraph after a caption of, “CREATION (1:1-2:3)” and the second is a short paragraph after a caption of, “EDEN AND THE EXPULSION: THE HUMAN CONDITION (2:4-3:24). There are other captions in the commentary, including other that are in all caps and a smaller font, but I am not recommending those that you attend to those. If you have time, definitely read more of the commentary, but I would estimate that reading all of it will more than triple the amount of time it takes to get through the text.
I will be asking people in the group to share their impressions on:
- What did they read in the text that surprised them?
- For a reader who does not accept Genesis’s creation story as historically accurate, what value is there in the story?
- What does the story say about the nature of God?
I confess that these are just some questions that I find interesting and not part of a larger approach to studying the Torah. Personally, I find value in finding, or devising, intellectual structures, for example by asking the same questions about every part of the text. I am hoping that during the meetings, and also as I prepare for the meetings, something of a consistent approach will develop, and I welcome any ideas that you may have. One approach that might be interesting is to ask at each session: “What impression does the Torah give you of the main characters and how does that affect the message you take from the story?” We can try it and see if it has legs.
MISCELLANEOUS STUFF TO KNOW ABOUT TORAH STUDY:
“EH” is just an abbreviation I am using for Etz Hayim, the red books that we have under the chairs in the sanctuary that contain the text of the Torah in Hebrew and English, broken down in weekly parashiot (portions), the haftara readings, and commentary.
“Tanakh” is an acronym that is used a lot in Torah study, that means the Hebrew Bible, which consists of Torah (the five Books of Moses), N’vi’im (19 books of other prophets) and K’tuvim (11 other books included in the Hebrew Bible, such as the 5 M’gilot).
“Haftara” refers to a selection from one of the books of the N’vi’im that is chanted in the synagogue following the chanting of the Torah selection of the day. The text of the haftara reading is related to the text of the Torah reading in a way that is usually reasonably apparent, and that is explained in the EH commentary. The word “haftara” does not have the same root as the word “torah.” “Torah” means instruction, while “haftara” means something like “thing that comes after.” The root of the word haftara, in modern Hebrew as I know it (which is not that well) means separation. So, the haftara reading separates the Torah reading from what comes after it in the service. It what we use to separate ourselves from the Torah reading.
“Chumash” means a book that consists of the Torah, sometimes with other features such as commentary or “haftarot”. The EH is a chumash. The root of the word “chumash” is the same as the word “chamesh” which means five.
“M’gilah” pl. “m’gilot” means scroll and also refers to 5 books in the Hebrew Bible (other than the Torah) that are traditionally read from a scroll when read publicly on certain holidays. If you are interested in reading one or two line from M’gilat Esther on Erev Purim, let me know.
Rashi: I mentioned at the initial session, a number of line by line commentaries on the Torah that are commonly included with publications of the Torah text, the most famous of which is the commentary by Rashi. (I handed out a few pages of Torah with Rashi at the initial meeting of the group.) Here are his stats off of Wikipedia:
Shlomo Yitzchaki, in Latin: Salomon Isaacides, and today generally known by the acronym Rashi, was a medieval French rabbi and author of a comprehensive commentary on the Talmud and commentary on the Tanakh. Wikipedia
Rashis’ commentary (“the Rashi”) is so ubiquitous in traditional publications of the Torah that I am certain the commentators who wrote the commentary in the EH used the Rashi as a regular source of information, and some of the commentary in the EH is closely based on the Rashi. The Rashi includes several different kinds of commentary, including: quotations from sources that were available to him, such as the Talmud or other compilations of Rabbinic Midrash that add context, fill in narrative gaps and explain conflicts or other oddities in the text; and notes about the literal meaning of individual words and phrases in the text, sometimes giving Rashi’s French translation for individual words,and often citing examples of other places in the Bible where the same words or phrases are used that support Rashi’s interpretation. For me, the text of the Torah becomes more comprehensible and more meaningful when I read it with the Rashi. Where something in the text confuses me, Rashi almost always has a comment that clarifies it, or at least attempts to clarify it, for me. However, the Rashi makes reading the Torah take much longer for me.