What are we Leaving Out? Expanding the Definition of Torah

Albert Kohn Columbia University 

Jews love to talk Torah, especially in the articles which fill up OR and its Jewish Thought section. In the spirit of Ben Bag Bag, who is said to have instructed his disciples regarding Torah to, “Turn it over and turn it over, for everything is within it.”, we analyze endlessly. Yet we draw from a startlingly small percentage of the Jewish corpus. Most of our engagement with the Jewish tradition has been concentrated within particular, standard spheres — namely, Biblical Literature, Rabbinic Literature, Halakha and a certain contingent of philosophical texts that deal with these foundational texts. Though this vast corpus of texts serves as the foundations of Jewish intellectual life, it is essential to keep in mind that they are simply that — a foundation. There is a world of Jewish study which has been neglected by us lay-Jews and I believe our Judaism will be stronger if we step inside that world.

The world into which I invite our readers and writers deserves the title “Torah” because it is part of the intellectual-cultural heritage of the Jewish people. I would like to be very clear: I do not believe that anything can be considered Torah. Some today inflate the definition of Torah to include all thoughts and works they consider meaningful. Simultaneously, others have constricted the definition of Torah to include only the foundational texts that they consider “Divine.” Both of these approaches have weakened our intellectual tradition, making it look either meaningless or religiously hyperfocused and intellectually stultifying.

In an attempt to inspire a broader vision of Torah, I would like to  like to explore two spheres of Jewish study—history and poetry—which have been neglected in my Jewish upbringing despite the centrality they could hold within the Jewish world. Each of these disciplines can broaden our engagement with our tradition in a way that is both historically genuine and inspiring.

 Our Judaism infamously neglects the study of its own history. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi has pointed out that Judaism has never had a maintained interest in its own history [1]. This is as true today as it ever was: in high school I spent hours wrestling through pages of talmud and the accompanying commentaries known as Rashi and the Tosefot – yet, I knew nearly nothing about the people who crafted these texts or the lives they lived.  My story is not unique. Consider the ArtScroll biographies of Rabbinic figures. As has been demonstrated by Marc Shapiro, the editors ascribe no significance to the study and knowledge of history – these books are published only for the Mussar, or ethical teachings, readers gain from their study. There is no emphasis in knowing our past as it was actually lived.

Yerushalmi, I think, challenged the notion that history has no place in Jewish intellectual culture when he famously claimed that “[Jewish] history is the faith of fallen Jews.” This line is generally taken to imply that Jews who have left traditional Jewish circles exchange study of the Talmud and Maimonides for history. Yet, it can also be read to suggest that Jewish history offers its students more than just dry facts disconnected from the Jewish intellectual spirit, but rather something still hooked into the core of the Jewish intellectual spirit–whether we realize it or not history is a different type of Jewish faith. It is not a gathering point for those banished from Torah, but rather just a step outwards that is still connected back to the center of our intellectual spirit.

Though scarce, one can find historical works in our history which were contemporaneous with many of our practically-canonized Halakhic and philosophical works. Abraham Ibn Daud wrote the Sefer HaKabbalah in the 12th Century and Solomon ibn Verga published the Shevet Yehuda in the 16th Century – both historical texts. These authors clearly saw a value in the study of Jewish history that today we have left for the scholars only peripherally connected to everyday Jewish life.

Aside from being a genuine discipline of Jewish literature, historical works offer a glance back into what real Jews were doing as they lived out their Jewish lives as well as a frame which allows us to intimately engage with the other foundations of our culture. It appears, though, that historical study has been kept away from the Beit Midrash, the home for Jewish intellectual culture, because it can provide Jews with the tools to make profane that which our tradition prefers to hold sacred. This fear though refuses to recognize that Jewish intellectual life is more than just a body of religious traditions, it is a fully developed intellectual tradition both connected and distinct from both the Western and Eastern traditions. For those of us seeking engagement with Torah and Jewish tradition outside of Halakhic theorizing, history demands the rigor and provides the excitement for which we have been searching.

           We must be careful to remember that history is not simply a dry compilation of facts and statistics which can seem uninspired to those interested in philosophy and the big questions of modernity. It is the quest for understanding why and how we arrived at where we are today. Though for scholars this will generally include scouring history for the social, economic and political forces at play, there are those who read history looking for the metaphysical principles and ideas which brought forth our reality. Though the idea of metaphysical principles pushing forward history was famously articulated by Hegel in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History in the 20th Century, Rabbinic scholars have been offering simplistic versions of this theory – such as Sin/Punishment and Exile/Redemption, long before him.

Occasionally before and definitely after Hegel—Jewish historians have formulated some increasingly complex and interesting theories for Jewish history. In the tradition of Hegel and other Philosophers of History, they use philosophical and theological language to describe the spirit of certain eras in an attempt to explain both where we have been and where we are going and thereby use history to engage in essential questions of Jewish history.

Simon Dubnow, a Jewish historian in Russia at the end of the 19th Century, concluded based upon his reading of our people’s history that the Jewish nation, which was perfected during the period of the Biblical prophets, “has been called to guide the other nations toward sublime moral and religious principles, and to officiate for them, the laity as it were, in the capacity of priests.” He saw how Jews maintained their intellectual traditions throughout the suffering they endured in Europe and used that to bolster is vision of the Jew on a universal mission. This argument maintains that Jews actually flourish in foreign nations while struggling to study and enhance their intellectual culture in the face of suffering. He went so far as to conclude that Zionism, the quest to return Jews to their ancestral homeland, was only for those Jews of weak spirit, unable to continue our historical universal quest.

I am sure many readers will consider this view uncomfortable. In order to refute it though, one must formulate her own conception of Jewish history. This requires a serious engagement with that history. Instead of operating within the world of Bible and Rabbinics, Dubnow works with history. He cannot be refuted, or even agreed with, by those ignorant of that field. We must open the history books first. Especially today – in an age in which we have a country which calls itself a Jewish State. All Jews should be wrestling to make sense of that reality. This demands engagement with Bible and Talmud undoubtedly – but it also demands a knowledge of the Jewish experience in its many forms.

            While Jewish history needs to be developed, Jewish poetry merely needs to be resurrected. Though no Jewish history course would not be complete without a study of the famous Paytanim of Medieval Spain, their study is generally absent from the Beit Midrash and other spaces of genuine Jewish intellectual activity. Many authors of the Jewish canon, ever-present in the Beit Midrash, also composed poetry on a range of topics. The most famous of these figures was, of course, Yehuda HaLevi who, along with his Kuzari, composed hundreds of poems on a myriad of topics. But what of the poetry of Solomon ibn Gabirol, Avraham ibn Ezra, Don Isaac Abravanel and the ibn Tibbon family–all known to serious students of our tradition? Though not all of their verses are distinctly God or Israel oriented, they are all worthy of Jewish study as they were composed by the founders of our intellectual culture and ere rife with biblical and rabbinic allusions and citations which can be seen as a type of Biblical exegesis.

We would not be the first to consider poetry a serious part of the Jewish canon. In an eye-opening study, Elisabeth Hollender discusses the culture of Piyyut interpretation in Medieval Ashkenaz and proves its centrality in Ashkenaz study halls. She argues that “The sheer volume of commentaries and their transmission both in the margins of Mah’zorim and in independent manuscripts prove that piyyut commentary was part of the literary activity in the Ashkenazic and Tsarfatic academies, much like the exegesis of Bible and Talmud, mystic speculations and liturgical poetry itself.”[2] Hollender paints a picture of Medieval Jews studying the work of past Jewish poets and compiling their understandings of them just as they did with the Bible and Talmud. Reading her book, Piyyut Commentary in Medieval Ashkenaz, I felt as if there was a whole world of study that was kept hidden from me, a way for me to contribute to Jewish culture and intellectual life without having to twist my thumbs over a dispute between the Tosafists and Rashi. If this was such a big part of Jewish intellectual history, is there any reason why it cannot be today? Especially when Hebrew poetry has reemerged in Israel and is becoming more and more connected to the Bible and other conventional Jewish themes, this is our opportunity to reengage with this neglected world.   

  I am not calling for a simple change. There are a number of reasons why the worlds into which I invite our readers have been shut off. Historians have a knack for challenging deeply held religious beliefs and, aside from being monstrously difficult to master, Piyyutim and their commentaries are in many cases simply inaccessible – as they are not printed. Yet, for OR and its readers who are pushing themselves to expand their horizons of Jewish ideas, we can also try to expand where we go to find those ideas. Our tradition is much larger than the few texts we were introduced to in our religious upbringings.

Our intellectual lives as well as the health and flowering of the greater Jewish world is at stake. On college campuses in America institutions are constantly imploring young Jews to study Torah together. Torah: a term generally considered to be the totem around which all different types of Jews can gather. Yet, when Torah is constricted to Bible and Rabbinics we are bringing Jews together around texts about which they fundamentally disagree; opinions can span from both the Bible and Talmud being the words of God to being meaningless relics of a bygone past. I would suggest that topics like history and poetry offer grounds for rigorous intellectual and cultural engagement without any of these insurmountable differences. Furthermore, the non-canonical nature of these texts allow those of us who have no relationship with the many doxological claims made by Judaism to have continued engagement with our intellectual heritage. It is up to us to prove to ourselves and the bright minds amongst us that the Jewish tradition has the vigour and excitement worthy of continued study and to do that it needs to be opened up. History and poetry are simply two examples of how we can do this; there is so much in our tradition to keep us busy, we just have to go out and find it.    


[1] One should notice that this dearth of interest in history is itself a fascinating historical question which, in my mind, should concern the student of Torah just as much as the perplexing development of certain Halakhic customs.

[2] Hollender, 7.