Interpreting Torah

December 1, 2008
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Whose Torah?: A Concise Guide to Progressive Judaism, Rebecca Alpert; Introduction by Elaine Pagels; W W Norton & Co Inc, 2008, 192 pages, $23.95

For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book, Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Rutgers
University Press, 2007, 164 pages, $22.95

Torah Queeries: Reading the Bible Through a Bent Lens, edited by David Shneer, Joshua Lesser, and Gregg Drinkwater; preface by Judith Plaskow, New York, New York
University Press, 2009

Reviewed by Mara Benjamin

When the Bible enters public discourse in the United States, it usually does so in the abbreviated form of the prooftext. Prooftexts are a dense form of communication; they import a biblical verse or passage into otherwise ordinary speech and thereby immediately conjure a shared set of cultural and literary references. In just a few words, a prooftext can transform our biblical textual heritage. The effect can be breathtaking. Recall Martin Luther King Jr.’s August 28, 1963, speech: after imagining “the sons of former slaves sitting down with the sons of former slave owners at the table of brotherhood” and a world in which his children would be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” King spoke the words of the prophet Isaiah: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” The power of the prophet’s words in King’s speech lay in the awesome chutzpah of calling forth the prophet’s vision and asking us to imagine that we could realize it.

But all too often, both public discourse and the Bible have been degraded when the prooftext is used as a rhetorical device. The prooftext can act as mere pious flourish; at worst, it can replace sustained thought and inquiry into the ambiguous, complex, and contradictory nature both of our world and of the biblical text. We who have survived the rapid ascent in recent decades of the Christian religious right (and the renunciation of religious discourse by the left), know all too well the dangers of a superficial encounter with the Bible. And yet we may shudder when contemplating the results of a deeper encounter with what can be a terrifying text. Perhaps, we think, the Bible is best locked up in the sober carrels of academe.

Three recent books, For the Love of God, Torah Queeries , and Whose Torah? , ask us to think again. Each offers a political, critical, and deeply personal engagement with Torah. Of the three authors, Alpert, who once proposed the “religious left” as an explicit counter to the religious right, focuses most explicitly on contemporary politics. She seeks to define a nuanced role for biblical and rabbinic texts in the political life of modern Jews. In this effort, Jewish textual sources appear as a set of underappreciated and valuable resources for modern political engagement. Talmudic and medieval concepts of abortion, for instance, suggest new possibilities for a “religious” take on this fraught political issue. But Alpert does not accept these sources as prima facie authoritative. In each case she considers, texts cannot speak for themselves; texts only speak when readers give voice and meaning to them. “Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20) forms the backbone of Alpert’s approach to contemporary public social and political life, but she recognizes that even this seemingly self-explanatory injunction yields a multiplicity of meanings.

Some of the most inspiring contemporary interpreters of Torah are those who return to it from a compulsion at once aesthetic, intellectual, and ethical. For the Love of God and Torah Queeries invite readers to bring precisely this unaccountable desire into the open — onto the page and into our public discourse. The diverse group of scholars and rabbis who have contributed to Torah Queeries ask us to bring the whole of our selves — our imaginations, bodies, and senses — to Torah. They collectively demonstrate that every parashah (Torah portion) can speak to us as embodied, conflicted, desiring selves and as cognitive individuals. Ostriker, uniformly elegant in word and thought, shows us a Bible that mirrors but also refracts our world and ourselves, bringing the disparate ends of ourselves together. Its texts speak to “our longing for a divinity we can love without fear” (page 31), to our inkling that eros and justice are interconnected, and to our contradictory and inexplicable selves.

The authors of and contributors to these volumes know that they walk a hermeneutic tightrope. Torah, they contend, is a profoundly complex text, yet at the same time it is “not in heaven”; we need it in order to make a just world. What these works suggest is that success in walking this tightrope occurs in moments of interpretive grace. With enough effort and courage — and with models like these — we may eventually enjoy a discourse with and about the Bible that goes beyond prooftexts.

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Mara Benjamin is assistant professor of religion at St. Olaf College. Her first book, Rosenzweig's Bible: Reinventing Scripture for Jewish Modernity (Cambridge University Press), is forthcoming.


  1. This review inspires action. It has been much too long since I have engaged with Torah and Torah scholarship. These three books now are on my agenda, as is Rosenzweig’s Bible.

    Posted by
    Lester Mazor
  2. I was interested to read Professor Benjamin’s review of the 3 books encouraging readership to be engaged with the Torah. I enjoy the Sh-ma journal to which this blog is associated and am a new reader of both. Regretably, knowledge of the Scripture in this time of human existence seems to be deemphasized even by the well-meaning who want to prescribe recovery of any kind, and self improvement efforts in figurative sound bytes and or prescriptives. Thank you for allowing me to share my comment and for this public access to further learning.
    David Russell

    Posted by
    David Russell
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