সাহিত্যমূল্যে তোরাহ্ /The Torah as Literature

On May 13, 2018 by admin

‘স্বরান্তর’ পত্রিকা, তাদের নববর্ষ সংখ্যায়, জানতে চায় কোন বই পড়ে এখনো বিমূন্ধ বা বিস্মিত হই. আমার নিজের একান্ত ভাবনাই বা কি সে বই সম্বন্ধে. কেন পাঠক নতুন করে সেই বইয়ের প্রতি মনোযোগী হবেন . এসব  প্রশ্নের উত্তর তো ঠিক দেওয়া সম্ভব নয়. তবু…

Sahityamulye Torah

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The English Version:

Swarantar, the Bangla magazine, asked me to name a book that still staggers my sensibility. Why should readers return to such a composition? Naturally, these are partly rhetorical questions. Still…

The Torah as Literature

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A literary appreciation of the Hebrew Bible/Tanakh– and especially the first five books of the Old Testament called the Pentateuch (the five scrolls) or the Torah (teachings/laws) – risks blasphemy. But it also risks something more fundamental: how to remain true to the spirit of the Torah and yet reserve an aesthetic sense while reading and immersing in an ancient journey.  Harold Bloom had long ago observed that though Homer and Plato have turned safely secular for us, the Bible still retains an aura, even if one is not a fundamentalist. Does Yehwah’s numinosity disturb us in the same way as Lear’s or Prince Myshkin’s? What was that world of strange ordeals and aims that seems universal and yet so distant from our modern conditions of living and acting? How can one get closer to the literal sense of the Hebrew original and yet indulge in a cognitive music that is largely metaphorical and interpretative?

Shakespeare or Homer does not help us to solve our problems, and neither does the Bible. On the other hand, the ethical urgency in the Torah is a consideration that one might like to address, especially since its ambit does not tally with modern expectations: it therefore creates an altogether different order of human and natural interaction, worked through a terse and coiled energy that comes from its language, narrative and worldview. The Torah can and must be looked at separately since strictly speaking the Bible is not a book at all but an anthology and “a set of selections from a library of religious and nationalistic writings produced over a period of one thousand years.” So there are diverse styles and points of view, though there have been certain attempts to homogenize it, like that of the whole ideological project in commissioning the King James’ version. There are also a series of textual issues like duplication, omissions, redactions, interpolations and contradictions.  In this context, it is particularly important to dwell upon the forms that engage the Bible. For instance, many of the compositions in the Psalm-book, which were often used in the ceremonies of the Second Temple, are what modern literary scholars call lament. Similarly the whole text, especially the Torah, is filled with prophecies and oracles, short narratives (etiologies) and patriotic poetry, hero-stories, trickster-episodes, proverbs, pronouncements, and parables.  This does not mean that the Torah is purely a sequential narrative. Each of the five books in the Torah—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—are complete in themselves. In fact, the question of literary form in the Bible is complicated by the fact that Biblical writers often wanted to submerge their individuality in the chosen form. The personal stamp therefore, is concealed in the communal narrative.

To make a journey through the Torah is also to be aware of the history of a people and how the God of ancient Israel, their deity, stepped into human history and arranged events in their midst and in the process revealed himself to his people. To quote from the Talmud about the origin of the narrative—“God spoke them and Moses wrote them with tears.” We start from a point with an understanding at which Yahweh chose one man Adam (later Abraham) as a special entity and promised that Adam’s descendents would one day become part of a great nation. The narrative of the Torah is constructed out of the stories of Israel’s ancient heroes and covers the first 700 years of Israel’s existence. After the creation of the world and humankind and its spreading all over the world, the account follows Abraham’s descendents into slavery and out of it and their gradual welding into a nation with a covenant relationship with Yahweh. Finally they come to the verge of a land (Canaan) that they have been promised as their own. This extended narrative has also been called a salvation history. Along with the narrative we also encounter two other gifts to humanity in the Torah: one, a sense of the gradual ritualization of an ancient travelling people and two, an understanding of civil laws (halakah) that becomes part of a commune as it evolves and matures. Reading the Torah is a basis of Jewish public life.

Needless to say, the Torah was actually composed over a period of many centuries by a process of culling, patching, rewriting and amplifying by anonymous writers (this is sometimes called the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis). This is not to undermine the authority of the scripture but in fact to strengthen the power and force of numerous believers over centuries coming together to forge an extraordinary document.  One can see right from the first book—Genesis—that a literary artist of great acumen composed it. The organization is precise, separate acts of creation are carefully set in parallel form and the movement austere, solemn and dignified.  The deity creates Adam by descending to the barren earth, getting hold of some clay and then breathing life into it (the Hebrew word used is yatsar—to mould). The creator himself is one of the actors in the drama.  While the first account of creation is complete in itself, the second in Genesis is an etiology bringing man to the threshold of history– and all of earthly time is now before him. The two voices that we hear in the opening chapters continue to be heard in the whole of Torah. The first voice seems to be preoccupied with order and regulation, a voice that often produces genealogical lists. At appropriate intervals this voice issues sweeping laws—for observing Sabbath, against consuming blood, for circumcision of all males and so on. The second voice has flair of the story teller. This voice is quite dramatic and reveals the whole journey of the chosen people through a series of fascinating narratives—Cain and Abel, the tower of Babel, Noah drunk and naked in the tent, Abraham bargaining with God over Sodom and Gomorrah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob wrestling with a divine antagonist. Biblical scholars attribute these stories to a source they call the Yahvist. The other voice, which is interested in ritual legislation, is called the Priestly voice.

The reason that the Torah remains my favourite anthology is precisely owing to the seamless intersection of the Yahvist and Priestly elements. The Yahvist angle reminds us of the power of story-telling and of the subjective elements involved in the interactions of an ancient, nomadic people.  On one hand, we are persuaded about the spirit of the narrative and not by the logic of any dry argument. Stories appear as literal acts as well as exemplars. We are stunned and enchanted by the sheer force of the universal set of emotions and acts that is also specific to a time and place. For instance, Judah must persuade his brother Joseph not to harm Benjamin, the youngest of his brothers. So he tells Joseph, who is also the viceroy of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, the complete story of his family. And lo! After hearing this moving tale Joseph cannot contain his emotions, breaks down and reveals his identity to his brothers. In another example, the prophet Nathan wants to reprimand King David for the sin of seducing Bathsheba and causing the death of her husband, Uriah. Nathan recounts the story about the poor man’s ewe lamb, which is indeed a parable. David, after hearing the story, sympathizes with the poor man, blames the heartless rich man and even condemns him to death. At this point Nathan draws an analogy between the rich man and David, and makes him acknowledge his guilt. Such are the mesmeric ways of rhetoric. The purpose of the stories is actually simple, and that is the reason why they shall remain forever relevant: the Biblical storytellers believed that if they told their flock about God’s mighty deeds and how God saved the people in times of distress and trouble, then the community would keep its own side of the bargain of the covenant, and remain faithful to God.

A good story is always effective. Orality of transmission was and is crucial in this regard. The oral Torah unfolds teleologically. The writers of such persuasive stories therefore must employ different techniques appropriate for a more advanced and literate audience. It is fascinating to discover how the Biblical story-teller uses techniques of repetition and characterization with minimal means. The writers had to deal with complicated questions of beginnings and endings, the weaving of plots and the sequencing of the space-time continuum. Each story is like a polished gem. Though universal in their significance, the stories are also deeply political in nature: they are brickworks through which a national narrative is woven and a historic aspiration whetted. However, for the believer, the primordial nature of the stories is also a source to go beyond words—he inverts the political into a cultural memory. To the believer, the ‘material stories,’ consist of the lowest layer of crystallization of the Torah in its adaptation to this world of tsimtsum (condensation/contraction). While the letters of the Torah, including the letters of the stories, are identified with the inner dimension of the Torah composing the divine name, the stories are but the garments of a deeper, inner reality. Each story to the believer is an embodiment of truth, the physical relics of revelation.To the believer the structuring principle of the cosmos is reconfigured in linguistic signs of the narrative of the first five books of the Bible.

This brings me to the Priestly voice in the Torah. The Priestly work, expressed in an abstract, repetitive style, is concerned about ritual law, the origins of shrines and the genealogies. The voice stresses the rules and rituals of worship and the crucial role of priests in the ancient world. The accounts of the creation, two genealogies of Seth and two of Shem, two covenants with Abraham and two revelations to Jacob at Bethel, two calls to Moses to rescue the Israelites from Egypt, two sets of laws at Sinai, and two accounts of the Tabernacle/Tent of Meeting form the Priestly world of the Torah.  The book of Leviticus and Numbers are the best examples of seeing the pointed and majestic voice that exhorts gradual ritualization and the formation of a civil legal framework within the travelling party.

In Leviticus 1-16 we see that the world is divided between the profane masses and the holy priests. All that is impure must be separated from the priests and the temples which must be restored through washing, sacrifice and the passage of time. Leviticus 17-26 is called the Holiness code and this section repeats that Israel should be a holy space. Why such an insistence on purity?

The Book of Leviticus is crafted as an elegant literary form. Like a mosaic where pieces of different shapes and materials make a powerful pattern, the ancient formulaic gravels of law are repeated and inverted in this book. According to Leviticus, uncleanness comes to everyone universally by virtue of biological existence: from contact with corpses, from eating flesh with blood in it, from suppurating bodily sores, and also from moral transgressions and abandonment of belief. In the list, some contacts are more abominable as defilement than others: contact with dead bodies and eating blood requires more purification than eating loathsome animals or touching their carcasses. As to moral infringement, most can easily be voided; the pivotal offence is to be in a settled state of sin, to be as it were, a chronic sinner.

Mary Douglas has proffered the powerful hypothesis that issues of contamination and purity evolve for the practical work of organizing social relations in a given environment. Douglas claimed that “religious purity generally emerges as an ordering principle which a community has spontaneously evolved to sort and sanction its social relations. In the process the ministers of religion may try to monitor the effects of social inclusions and exclusions. They may also have a pastoral interest in softening the harsh divisions which the laity would like to enforce. The result may be some codification of impurity.” It is not surprising that Leviticus calls for holiness in order to set apart Jews from other nations in their eating and drinking, in their marrying and burying and in matters of worshipping. “What is unusual in the laws of purity in Torah is that they do not set members of the congregation apart from one another. The laws specify prohibited degrees of closeness, but do not specify prohibited intermarriage with outsiders or lower classes. They give rules for treating bondsmen fairly and for periodically remitting slaves and debts, but they do not sacralize a stratified society.”Actually, the metaphors of cleansing and purging, purifying and burnishingdiminish the grandeurof the book of Leviticus. The argument is rather that the covering of the universe has been rent, and so it is not the person who did the deed who needs to be washed but the very covering that needs repair.Atonement is not a laundering ceremony at all. The prohibition on animals torn by beasts is consequently not a mere extension of the blood prohibition. Atonement has to do with remedying a torn cover. Repairing the cover is what atonement achieves. This aspect cannot be translated as defilement. In the Torah there is no obsession with impurity, nor an intemperate attention to material and physical conditions of purity. The Priestly voice in the Torah highlights much beyond ritual codes. It is a mode of demonstrated reasoning, which at the same time isa cosmic philosophy presented in archaic form. It is an obfuscation to isolate the ideas about defilement from the rest of the social and spiritual synthesis. Atonement as a central part of Mosaic Law is the crux of Leviticus.

In the Book of Numbers the Priestly source contributes Chapters 1–10:28, 15–20, 25–31 and 33–36. The codes include two censuses, rulings on the position of Levites and priests and the notions of protection of the Holy Land. The Priestly themes in Numbers include the significance of the priesthood for the well-being of Israel and God’s provision of the priesthood as the means by which he expresses his faithfulness to the covenant with Israel. We notice the Book of Numbers describing how Israel is to be organized around the Sanctuary, God’s dwelling-place in their midst, under the charge of the Levites and priests, in preparation for the conquest of the land. The final section is particularly significant in appreciating how the Israelites of the new generation follow Yahweh’s instructions as given through Moses. We get a sense of their success that owes largely to codification and ordering. “The last five chapters are exclusively concerned with land: instructions for the extermination of the Canaanites, the demarcation of the boundaries of the land, how the land is to be divided, holy cities for the Levites and ‘cities of refuge’, the problem of pollution of the land by blood and regulations for inheritance when a male heir is lacking.”

In the later part of the second millennium B.C.E., “…the spiritual avant-garde of the Hebrew people began to imagine creation and creator, history and humankind and the techniques of narrative in a radically new way.” In his famous essay analyzing the disturbing story of the Binding of Isaac, Erich Auerbach chiefly pondered about how the narrative surface hides the unexpressed psychological depths and theological heights. This vertical relationship between man and God is one axis. The other axis, of course, is a wider horizontal overview of the filial, social, erotic and political interactions among the characters in the whole of the Bible. The Torah gives us an early sense of the open-endedness about the human predicament, a theme ever-present in the Bible. There is no pressure of any explicit judgment about man and nature. Humans grope through their fate and as they do so, they begin to think about and form a rudimentary form of a roving community. This community begins to congeal. We go back time and again to the first five books of the Bible in order to at once appreciate structures of human sociability but also to be aware of the fantastic, allegorical and unpredictable nature of human interactions which will forever remain elusive and irresolvable.

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