Matthew Soffer

The Torah is Not History, It’s a Memory Garden

The great Spanish essayist and philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset theorized the practice of reading through the metaphor of a garden and a window. Ortega noted that when we read, we can either “[focus] on the garden through the window…[or focus] on the window itself with its confused mass of color as if pasted on it.”

As we read our Torah portion this week, we would be wise to heed the advice of Ortega y Gasset.  With anguish overwhelming the hearts and minds of Jews in Israel and across the world, it seems an almost cruel coincidence that this week every community worldwide will read from the portion of Torah that includes these words:

“When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land; you shall destroy all their figured objects; you shall destroy all their molten images, and you shall demolish all their cult places. You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess.” (Num 33:51-53)

The portion goes on to draw boundaries, with repeated reference to this land as Israel’s “inheritance.”

These are dangerous words if one focuses carelessly on “the garden,” the literal text as if it is an unmitigated account of history. It is not an account of history. Torah is a sacred myth; a story, only more so: a storybook gifted to us from countless generations. It is our storehouse of collective memory. The crossing of the Reed Sea did not happen in literal history, it happened in myth, in memory. The Promising of the Land to the people did not happen in history, it happened in myth, in memory. The Conquest of the Land, and the commandments to the Israelites to destroy its inhabitants: myth, memory; not history. To recognize this is to focus on Ortega y Gasset’s “window,” the frame that enables us to see the text in a certain way, to view the memory garden.

This memory garden, drawn upon with discretion and compassion, has the potential to urge us toward a better world, the world as it should be.  But today the world is polluted by literalist readings, which ignore the possibility of truth and beauty in other peoples’ myths.  This week such readings are dangerous, even toxic. There are more than enough painful, complex reasons for this conflict.  Let’s remove from that lengthy list the notion that the Land belongs to Israel because God said so in this week’s Torah portion.  Even memory gardens need to be weeded.

About the Author
Matthew Soffer is the Senior Associate Rabbi at Temple Israel of Boston, where he leads the social justice efforts, practicing congregation-based community organizing with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO). Matt serves on the Advisory Council of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, the Board of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA), the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, and the Rabbinic Council of Hand-in-Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel.
Related Topics
Related Posts