I saw something interesting in the Torah Temimah on Lech Lecha. I thought I remembered exactly what it was so I recklessly posted it on Facebook.
Turns out, I made a big mistake and misremembered what the Torah Temimah said. It’s inexcusable and I regret not double checking what he actually says before I posted. Chatasi. So I wrote a second post correcting my error.
The Torah Temimah lists Damesek as one of many examples where the Torah uses a foreign language in the Torah. He says that the word is used as “domestic help” in “old languages” and is still used in French in this way.
In the comments, people wonder if this is a big deal. Maybe it’s not. It definitely shouldn’t be a big deal but I think it is a big deal. Here is why.
There are some questions about the Bible that have traditional answers. But some of those traditional answers appear to be insufficient to Orthodox Jews in 5774. Sometimes the questions are better than the answers. One kind of answer that has been presented and rejected by traditionalists is that the Torah speaks in the language of man and may include anachronisms that made sense to the original intended audience in a way that our modern ears can’t relate.
The reason this approach is rejected is because it breaks some of the self imposed traditional frum rules of learning Torah. It’s considered too liberal or too reform-like to allow for non-eternal meanings to the Torah.
Two of the arguments used to bolster this claim are that the Torah was a closed book at Sinai and that the Torah cannot be influenced by factors external to the text itself. The commonly held position on the closing of the Bible is that everything was taught at Sinai. Opinions that allow for the final verses (and more) to have been added by later prophets from unimpeachable sources are shunned because they burst this bubble. Similarly, allowing for outside influence into the Torah implies that the Torah is somewhat subjective. For example, the famous statement of Maimonides that sacrifices were a concession to a people with pagan leanings is considered borderline problematic. The conventional wisdom is that if the Torah included sacrifices it must have been God’s “original intent.”
Showing that the Torah is a book with external influence bolsters the claim of Maimonides and may allow for extending it to other ideas in the Torah. This is considered dangerous and out of bounds for “Torah True” Jews.
Whenever we have traditionally accepted sources that allow for outside influence we are showing that the contemporary reluctance to this kind of interpretation actually runs counter to tradition. The Torah Temimah had no problem listing several places in the Bible where the Torah borrows from other languages. This is a big deal.
Of the two options above, let’s call them “closed book” and “not completely closed book,” which fits better with this Torah Temimah? It’s clearly the “not completely closed book” option. In other words, we are reinforcing the idea that the Torah could have outside influences. Why would the Torah use a non-Bible word it its text? It certainly could have used a native word or invented a Biblical word. Why didn’t it? Isn’t the obvious answer that the Torah was speaking to an audience familiar with these words and thus it chose to use familiar language?
The implication of that answer is that the Torah considers its audience. It spoke in a way that people would expect it to speak. It’s an eternal book that was written under specific circumstances. Therefore we are able to extend this theory to answer questions we have with new non-traditional answers. The answers might be new, but the approach is not new. Of course we are not at liberty to change it or ignore its commands, God forbid. But we can understand many of its tenets, rules, and stories in this context.
This might shed light on the Creation Story and the Flood Story. Or not. But I think it should be an option on the table for Orthodox Jews.
Read the Torah Temimah here: PDF