How is the Torah like the Mishnah? A textual look at the story of the Jews.

Texts and beliefs By Rabbi Zev Farber 08th Oct 2017

At first glance, the Torah is quite different than the Mishnah. This is not only because of the Torah’s narrative frame, but also because the Torah seems to be univocal. From beginning to end, the Torah is dominated by a third person narrator, taking us all the way from the creation of the world to the death of Moses. Certainly, in the Torah’s many stories, its characters have speaking parts, acting and speaking in different ways, but these are all set in an overarching narrative structure.

The Mishnah, however, is a collection of debates, primarily about law. The same is true of Talmud; although it contains more non-legal material than the Mishnah, such as stories or homilies, it too is primarily characterizable as a collection of debates. Neither work has an overarching narrative voice or a third person chronicler bringing the reader along from one point to another.

And yet, this distinction is overstated. The Torah may be presented as univocal, but this belies the fact that it is filled with distinct and often contradictory voices. Already at the very beginning, the Torah presents us with multiple ways in which God creates the world. In the first story, the world is an unformed mass, with light and darkness, water and land, all mixed up in it. God separates the various elements to create order, then places inhabitants in each realm: lights in the “waters about the firmament,” birds in the air, fish in the sea, animals and humans on the land.

In the second story, the earth is a large swath of dry land. The Lord—the Tetragrammaton is used here as opposed to the first story which uses “God”—waters a part of this land to make a garden, and places a human being, created from the dust of the earth, there to guard it. Noticing that the human is lonely, the Lord creates animals and then a woman.

This is just one example of countless stories that offer conflicting accounts of the past. These can be large details such as how Israel escaped the Egyptians (did God bring a tidal wave or a split the sea?), how God fed them in the wilderness (manna and quail, just manna, starvation diet?), to seemingly more trivial details such as the name of the mountain where Moses received the Decalogue (Sinai or Horeb?), the name of Moses’ father-in-law (Jethro, Reuel, Hovav?), or the exact itinerary of Israel’s trip through the Sinai Wilderness.

Insofar as law, the Torah has a number of legal collections with overlapping and contrasting details. Are Hebrew slaves to be freed on the seventh year or the fiftieth? Do they leave with money or with nothing? Are tithes for the Levites or for the poor? Is it a mitzvah for man to marry his deceased brother’s childless widow (yibum) or is it a sin? Is Sukkot seven days or eight? Is the Paschal sacrifice roasted or boiled? Can any Levite be a priest, or just a descendant of Aaron? Does an unintentional killer run to a local altar or to a refuge city? The list goes on and on.

For many of us, encountering these contrasting laws and stories brings about a quandary. How are we supposed to relate to a text that is filled with contradictory voices on such fundamental questions? Even the more trivial differences might make us wonder if the Torah’s authors can come to an agreement about anything at all.

And yet, if we take a step back, and look at Jewish religious literature as a whole, we can see a kind of continuity in this multivocality. The primary law book of Rabbinic Judaism, the Mishnah, begins with the question of when a person should recite the Shema at night and offers three different opinions. The Mishnah, the Talmud, and the many commentators and books that discuss rabbinic law—not to mention the various sects of non-Rabbanic Jews over the ages—continue to debate the details of virtually every single halakha mentioned in its corpora: What constitutes a breach of the Sabbath? How are tefillin supposed to be made? Should Jews live in Israel? What counts as chametz on Pesach? What constitutes a proper conversion to Judaism? What constitutes a proper marriage or divorce? What counts as forbidden gossip?

Jewish philosophy books similarly debate about matters fundamental and arcane: Does God have a body? Does God have feelings? What happens when we die? Who will be resurrected and when? How many messiahs are there? What must a Jew believe?

The main difference between the Torah and all that follows it is the impression of a single narrative voice. Perhaps the lesson here is that this narrative voice of the Torah, which explicitly accompanies its variegated narratives and law collections, and weaves them together into a greater whole, is the same silent yet palpable voice that accompanies all Jewish texts and all Jewish experiences throughout the ages. It is this voice that has succeeded in making the many expressions of Judaism, Jewish practice, and Jewish philosophy into one collective experience – the story of the Jews that has been told for millennia and is still being told today.

Rabbi Zev Farber is the editor of and holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus).  He is the editor of Halakhic Realites: Collected Essays on Brain Death and the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and Their Reception

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