How should Torah be studied?

 

            According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Torah is not, predominantly, a book of history, civil laws, temple rituals, dogmas or theology -- although it contains some material in all these categories. Rather, the Torah is a set of conceptualizations, truths, values and goals regarding humankind in general, and the specific mission of the Jewish people that God revealed through years of teaching by Moses. By God’s instructions, these teachings were written and preserved for all future generations. This unique document, therefore, conveys concepts or truths, reflecting God’s intended communication to the Jewish nation. It is this text of the Torah that -- simultaneously -- is to be studied, lived and taught to subsequent generations.

            Rabbi Hirsch stresses that the ideas and concepts that are expressed in the Torah must be studied sui generis, out of the text itself, as a reflection of the Author’s intentions. Otherwise, the Torah we learn is simply a reflection of our subjectively imposed conceptions and we learn little about what the Author wished to tell us.

            In order to objectively collect data from the text, it is crucial that the student not impose his or her subjective perspectives or intentions onto the text. Of course, the collection of data, even in science, is never completely objective. We always perceive and interpret our observations through our individual lens. However, R. Hirsch’s appeal is that we allow the text to speak for itself as objectively as possible without imposing our preconceived interpretations onto it.

             In the eighteenth letter in his classic Nineteen Letters, R. Hirsch footnotes the proper approach to the study of Torah text. He posits that since God is the Creator of nature and also the Creator of Torah, the same method of research must apply to both nature and Torah. R. Hirsch advocates, for Torah text study, what we now label the five-part “scientific method” of empirical research: a) proposing a research question (in our case, proposing the purpose of a commandment), b) objectively collecting data, c) forming a hypothesis, d) testing the hypothesis and d) accepting or rejecting the hypothesis.

            In the study of Torah we are to accept the text as ‘data.’ In our search for understanding, we study the relationships among the data and propose a hypothesis that must be tested against its conformity to the written body of Jewish law (הלכה) and the oral tradition that has accompanied the written law for generations (consensual validation, in research terms). If text data contradicts our proposed theory or if the hypothesis is not validated by the vast oral tradition and its halachik principles, we reject our hypothesis. Rabbi Hirsch has proposed profound interpretations of many symbolic rituals, derived from Torah text, that fully integrate into the larger body of Jewish law and tradition.

© 2014 by Stephen Bailey.

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