My first encounter with Christian missionaries was as a young teenager in Sydney. One of the local bus drivers, Tuvia, was a Messianic. Tuvia was the friendliest bus driver in Bondi. He would welcome every passenger that boarded his bus, and proceeded to give a running commentary en route, as if he were operating a tour bus. Inevitably, despite being a local, you learned something new about the area from Tuvia each time you travelled with him.
But as I say, Tuvia was a Messianic and Messianics have an agenda. Seeing my yarmulke, Tuvia didn’t hesitate to drill me with questions about the Bible. He was dedicated to showing me the light of Jesus. Looking back, I think it was inappropriate for him to be challenging a thirteen year old kid with theological questions, but at the time, I took it in stride and researched and responded to his taunts.
His first question that I will never forget was the biblical verse “Let us make man in our image as our form.” Clearly, said Tuvia, there was more than one divine being that created man – an early hint to G-d’s ‘son and partner’ in creation.
From the perspective of a literal reading, what do we do with a difficult verse like this one?
King Ptolemy once gathered seventy two Jewish elders into seventy two separate chambers and did not tell them for what purpose he had gathered them.
He entered each room and said, “Translate the Torah of your teacher Moses into Greek for me.” The Almighty placed wisdom into the heart of each one and they all reached the same conclusions. (Every time the literal translation would have left the reader with a misunderstanding of the true meaning of the text, they amended it to reflect the true meaning.)
The Talmud goes on to list the various amendments they made. For example, instead of writing “In the beginning created G-d the heavens and the earth,” they wrote, “G-d created in the beginning the heavens and the earth,” lest Ptolemy understand that some other god called ‘in the beginning’ created G-d.
The second amendment listed by the Gemara pertains to the verse “Let us make man in our image and our form,” which they amended to “I shall make man in image and form,” lest Ptolemy understand that there were multiple gods who made man together.
The message of this piece of Gemara is that the Torah is not to be read literally. Indeed, to do so is to misunderstand the true meaning! When Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai, he received both a Written Law and an Oral Law. One without the other is like lecture notes without the lecture, suggests Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch!
Nevertheless, for Tuvia’s sake, what then does the Oral Law say about this verse? Nahmanides explains that after the initial explosion of creation, G-d fashioned everything from the physical earthly matter He had created. Everything was created from the dust, so to speak.
Except man. When it came time to create human beings, G-d turned to the earth and exclaimed, ‘Man will be a combination of physicality and spirituality! Until now all creation has come forth from you, dear earth. Now, we shall create man together. His body will come from you, but his soul will come from Me. Let us create man!’
Of course, it’s impossible to know that without the tradition provided by the Oral Law. And so when Tuvia challenged me, it was my word against his, since he believed that his understanding was closer to the literal meaning of the text. To which I reply, ‘I don’t care what the literal meaning of the text is. Judaism is not fundamentalist!’
In fact, the phenomenon of reading the Bible literally and figuring out the simplest meaning of the text is complete nonsense, since doing so entails using an English or German translation of the original Hebrew. But the only way that we know how to read the words in the Hebrew is because we have an Oral tradition that instructs us how to read each word, where each sentence ends, et cetera. If you were to open up a Torah scroll, you would find no punctuation and the entire thing would be meaningless!
Believe in the Oral Law! Trust in the chain of tradition that was transmitted from generation to generation – from Moses to Joshua and all the way down to our contemporary rabbis. That chain is what makes Torah and keeps Judaism real for all generations!