One Voice Followed By A Symphony

Bernice Lerner
Director, Adult Learning
March 5, 2014

The following exchange between a student (Peter S.) and one of his instructors (Lynne H.) speaks to the Me'ah journey.

Dear Lynne,

It was so nice to see you at the graduation dinner for Me'ah. I still recall happily the beginning of Me'ah two years ago, studying Bible with you. It was very impressive to see the way you used scholarship, teaching, and above all enthusiasm to engage our minds. Nonetheless, after the two years, I am left with a measure of disappointment. I have thought about it a lot, trying to understand why.

In the three other Me'ah courses we took after we had the Bible course with you, and then even more over the summer when we hired a Me'ah teacher on our own for a post-Me'ah course on Maimonides, we saw the amazingly rich way later Jewish thinkers and mystics interpreted the Bible. For some of us this even helped to reconcile faith and reason, or at least to live with the tension. So I would propose to you that a little Maimonides, perhaps a soupcon of Kabbalah, at the start of the Hebrew Bible semester might reset minds to the mysteries of what we are studying, why/how it has survived, and why/how it is relevant.

I hope I shall have a chance to study with you again. Thank you for your efforts.

Peter


Dear Peter,

Thank you for your thoughtful email. Me'ah is like Ravel's "Bolero." The composition begins with one haunting voice, then slowly it builds momentum, incrementally, adding more instruments, more musical voices until in the end there is a full, sonorous orchestra. The Bible is the written Torah, the ancient voice, the voice of God, if you will.

When you start to add the levels of oral Torah — the voices of the generations — it becomes a veritable symphony of learning. Is it any wonder then, that you are unsatisfied with the one voice — the voice of the ancient text, and that you crave also the layers of meaning (of oral Torah) that have been added through the centuries, the ongoing, unfolding revelation, the parchments of meaning and interpretation that have been added by the rabbis; Maimonides; Zoharists and mystics; Hassidic masters; contemporary theologians, thinkers and philosophers, to name but a few.

I appreciate your comments and suggestions. You have defined and articulated the ever-present tension (intellectual/ spiritual/ existential) that I experience as your Bible instructor. Me'ah builds incrementally, from one semester to the next. I know the ultimate "punchlines" (in Medieval, and in Modern), but may not tell them to you. My mandate is to teach the Bible, not Maimonides. Hence, I stressed often in class that you need to listen to the text with the ears of the biblical audience, not your 21st century sensibility; to engage in what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called (in his essay on poetic theory) "the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment"; and, finally, to acknowledge and appreciate that the biblical text is ancient Israelite religion, and not the Rabbinic Judaism that we practice, and therefore, we may not ask of the ancient written Torah text that which it cannot deliver, without the attendant oral text.

If I have left you wanting, then in a strange way, I have done my job well--I gave the class the pure vision of the Bible as it was to the biblical audience. Your succeeding teachers opened up doors of interpretation to you and levels of meaning--the layers of oral torah. Me'ah Bible lays the foundation. You can proceed to put up the walls (Rabbinics, Medieval, Modern) and furnishings only when the cement of the foundation is set. I find it fascinating that you came to your realization NOT in the context of the formal Meah classes, but only afterwards, in the post-Meah sessions that followed. Exactly my point!! You needed to learn the basic texts first, before you could see it through the lens of Maimonides and others. Truth be told, it is only when I teach post Meah courses in the greater Boston area that I am at liberty to do what you suggest — to range back and forth through the centuries of Jewish thought and philosophy.

The journey, the quest, is ongoing — constantly evolving over the centuries, moving forward in an ongoing, unfolding revelation. The ancient biblical text is rooted in the past. Our understanding lies ever in the future, as we explore meaning, question and wrestle with the text. Continue to study. Continue to ask your questions.

All the best,

Lynne