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Torah and Bible Study - How is it Different Today

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Torah and Bible Study: How is it Different Today?

The Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat (30b), relates a story about King David’s Bible study: it was so devoted that "the Angel of Death stood before him but could not prevail against him, because learning did not cease from his mouth." Bible study combines our two highest pleasures: intellectual achievement and devotion to God.

And yet, if Bible study is infinitely rewarding, it is also challenging on multiple levels. Scripture does not readily reveal its secrets to us. We must spend effort and time to begin to understand the Holy Book. As our skills increase, and we begin to learn in original languages, the effort only increases – for the Bible is difficult to understand, even at the narrative (in Hebrew, "peshat") level. If we follow the Bible study method recommended in the classic of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, we not only need to study at the narrative level, but also at deeper levels such as allegorical ("remez"), homiletical ("derash"), and mystical ("sod"), which are even more difficult. Areas that have been smoothed over or interpreted by a translator must be tackled anew by the reader. A book such as Job, with most chapters full of hapax legomenon (words only used once in Scripture) can be impenetrable, and indeed, translators often interpret a single verse in diametrically opposing ways.

And perhaps it is even more difficult for us, in our present age -- full of distractions -- to give the necessary attention that Bible study reqires. And yet, if the modern period presents challenges to Bible study, it also offers us unique opportunities.

First, like Newton, we stand on the shoulders of giants: we can benefit from the explosion of vital translations and commentaries written by millennia of scholars. The list of aids does not only add to our embarrassment of riches of Bible translations, ranging from interpretative translations such as the Jewish Publication Society’s "Tanakh" to ecumenical translations such as the NRSV to focused translations that closely hew to the form of original language, such as Everett Fox’s "Five Book of Moses" or Buber and Rosenzweig’s classic translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (available as part of the Logos SESB package), but it also includes understanding how ancients read the Bible -- certainly using the insights of Targum translators such as Onkelos or Yonaton and building on the scholarship of the Mishna. And as part of the many voices that lead to understanding Torah, we may also ask how our gentile friends understood the text. And we certainly benefit from the extraordinary explosion of philological and scholarly research of the last century, bracketed on the one hand by the great Hebraists who completed the International Critical Commentary and on the other hand by ongoing series such as Hermeneia. A computer not only allows us to store this wealth of resources conveniently, but it allows us to directly compare different translations and voices -- taking a series of staid volumes and transforming them into an active conversation, a conversation that spans the centuries.

Second, we have greater access to those resources than ever before. According to legend, the great rabbis of the European yeshivas were shown volumes of Talmud -- a pin was inserted through the closed books, and the rabbis had to accurately recall the specific word that the pin would pierce. But although us more ordinary learners can never hope to aspire to such scholarship in Bible study, in some sense, search engines such as Google can help us find sources that might otherwise be unknown to us. Unfortunately, while the information provided by Google is copious, a random Web page may not contain trustworthy information. Perhaps a better search is provided by online journal libraries -- and while the information provided there is uneven in quality, it is certainly copious. More careful information is provided online scholarly journal libraries, such as JSTOR; but of course, the best solution is to be able to define one’s own library of preferred electronic texts and search through them.

Third, and perhaps most important, computers can help us effectively organize our Bible study time -- to maximize the effectiveness of learning Torah. We can set a regular schedule, and proceed at a constant aggressive pace. And if we take a notebook computer with us, that Bible study is available to us at any spare moment -- no matter where on the planet we happen to find ourselves.

Even if we are not able to reach the standard of King David’s devotion and study, we can still use those tools that we do have to make the best use of the resources that Providence has given us. The single most famous quote in Talmud, repeated a dozen times, and recited as part of the daily liturgy: "Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Chanina: Torah scholars increase peace in the world, for it is said [Isaiah 54, 13]: And all your children shall be learners of the Torah of the Lord, and great will be the peace of your children." May our Bible study be viewed as worthy in the judgment of Heaven.

Submitted by Doug Tygar

Last Updated: 11/28/2006

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