Bringing the Text Outside Its Bounds

Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30

By Beth Kissileff

Published September 14, 2006, issue of September 15, 2006.

Literary critic Frank Kermode, in his 1996 work, “The Sense of an Ending,” reminds us that we must often re-evaluate an entire text in light of its conclusion. With that in mind, let us examine the end of the Torah. On a plot level, we all know that Moses dies. Fine. But which are the last of all the 613 injunctions rabbinic interpretation derives from the Torah text?

This week’s portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech, contains the last two imperatives of the Torah, read by the rabbis as commandments with legal compulsion. These are to gather the people for a public hearing of the Torah every seven years, and to write a Torah scroll for oneself. Following these injunctions are three more chapters of Deuteronomy, which contain a poetic teaching of Moses’ to the people and his blessing to specific tribes.

Why are these two commandments last? Both the public assembly to read the Torah and writing a scroll of the Torah are concerned with bringing the text outside its formal genre bounds, breaching its formulation as mere book. They are trying to force the message of the text to leach out of its written words and become an integral part of the lives of those who come in contact with it. The mandated public reading at the end of the seventh year is a gathering for “men, women, children and the stranger within your gates so that they may listen and they may learn and… do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 31:12). The Torah text should be entirely transparent to every member of Israelite society, from those wholly franchised to those entirely marginal. The words are not to remain in a scroll or on a page, but go out into the world, into the ears of all segments of the population. I see an analogy to experimental theater, where the audience assumes that the actors will keep to the stage, and is surprised to find actors breaking those bounds, popping up in the audience’s seats, asking the audience for responses, forcing them to become participants rather than observers. The scroll is surprising us here, going out of itself in this way.

The final injunction of the Torah challenges our notion of the book’s limits in a stronger way. A literal look at the verse that mandates it does not make this command obvious. “Therefore write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel” (Deut 31:19). It is rather intriguing that the Hebrew word here, shira, “song” or “poem,” is seen by later interpreters as a stand-in for the text as whole. These rabbis even interpret this verse to mean that each individual should write (or have written for them) a copy of the Torah. Why? Each person must own a scroll so there is no necessity of going to a neighbor to borrow one, according to the 13th-century Sefer Hahinuch.

Noted 20th-century bibliophile and critic Walter Benjamin speaks of “ownership” of an object as something that transforms its owner, and remarks, “Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” This is what the Torah is suggesting with the requirement that each individual make a copy of the Torah. When we own it, possess it, keep it in our homes, we will live in it. In an essay, “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin states that the “presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.” If we moderns accept this notion of the need for an original, how will we know where among our swarming multiplicity of Torah scrolls the authority lies?

The Torah does not fear that a copy will yield less authenticity; it mandates those copies. For it is not the text itself that yields authenticity, it is how the words are lived. How can we each become our own scrolls, authentic living models of the values of the Torah? There is a group in Israel called bemaaglei tzedek, “in paths of righteousness,” that is, it seems to me, addressing this issue. Its goal is to grant certificates to kosher restaurants to certify that they are running properly by giving the workers minimum wages, not having them work excessive hours, giving them minimum benefits — all the things that are necessary for a just society. If they succeed, when we eat in a kosher restaurant, we will know that the workers as well as the food have been treated in accordance with the values of the Torah.

Though this year’s reading of the text of the Torah is coming to an end, these two final commands of gathering to hear the text and making personal copies give us a mode of enabling the text to spill out into the world. Until the Torah is truly in the world, we still must perform our various scribal labors.

Beth Kissileff is revising her first novel, “Questioning Return”; she has taught bible and English literature at Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges.



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