Visiting Rabbi Joel Alter discusses interpreting the Torah

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 By  Zachary Mellen

Judaism is an interpreted religion, not a biblical one, said Rabbi Joel Alter of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

Alter held a discussion in the University of Maryland Hillel library Nov. 12 that sought to answer the question, “Who says what the Torah says?”

James Levin/The Mitzpeh

James Levin/The Mitzpeh

The Torah, he said, should not be taken as the final word on matters pertaining to Judaism, as Christians often do with the Bible.  About 12 students attended the “Nosh and Drash” event, which was sponsored by Hillel and included dinner.

Alter opened the conversation with a personal story.  He talked about once being seated on a plane next to a Christian man who asked him, “What is the one thing you would like Christians to know about Judaism?”

“It would be helpful,” he said he responded, “If Christians understood that Judaism is not a biblical religion. We are an interpreted religion. We are a religion built on rabbinic interpretation.”

The Torah is not like the Bible, Alter said, in that “it is itself an interpretation.”  He had students discuss the differences between the written Torah and the oral Torah, explaining that the two, when regarded as separate, build on and explain each other.

However, Alter added, the Torah also contradicts itself.

As an example, he talked about the different interpretations of where the Torah came from and the contradictory language used to describe its emergence at Sinai in the work itself.  In particular, he said, the language makes it unclear whether G-d spoke to the people or not.

There cannot be a single, correct interpretation of this event or others because “it’s not clear at all what the Torah believes,” he said.

“The notion that there is a single scripture is a Christian idea,” Alter said.  “It’s not how Jews experience the Torah.”  Rather, he said the Torah is a “fluid model” of scripture.

He then questioned who is qualified to interpret the Torah.  Can someone who hasn’t studied it in depth have an opinion? Alter left this question open, but noted that interpretations of the Torah have changed and grown in number over time.  For example, the invention of the printing press allowed more people to have the opportunity to read the work for themselves, rather than having to rely on their religious leaders’ interpretations, and to draw their own conclusions.

“The Torah is compiled of many sources, and the fact that it says something in one place doesn’t mean that that perspective, that that understanding, pertains on every page of the book,” Alter said.  “As I see it, plot develops, it’s not a plot book, but it does have a plot.  What I mean by that is that we moderns think the Torah should be read like other books, and if the Torah has a plot, then it’s a plot book.  It’s not a plot book.  The Torah’s not about what happens, the Torah’s about how it’s written.  It’s about its tellings, not its events.”

Because of this, “the Torah says” is not how people should talk about their interpretations, he said.  Instead, phrases like “we learn that” and “our tradition teaches us that” are better and more useful.

Alter taught at Jewish day schools in Boston, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., for 16 years before moving to the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he is director of admissions for The Rabbinical School and the H.L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music.

Jane Rose, a sophomore hearing and speech sciences major, said the discussion was “very cool.”  “I’m impressed by how many people showed up,” she said.

Rose said she attended the event because she is part of the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative, Hillel’s program designed to build relationships with uninvolved Jewish students on campus.  She said she is encouraged to attend events in order to get a sense of what involvement opportunities are available and therefore “help others better.”

Liat Deener-Chodirker, a freshman government and politics major, said she attended the event for personal reasons.  Alter was her teacher in middle school.  She said she heard about the talk from being around Hillel and came to reconnect.

“It was really interesting,” she said.  “He gave a different perspective.”

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