It All Depends: Finding the Middle of the Torah

Tzav, Leviticus 6:1−8:36

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Lance J. Sussman

Middle of the road that symbolizes the middle of the Torah

“Dad, are we almost there?” “Mom, how much longer until we are there?” Anyone, who has taken a family driving trip is well acquainted with these questions from the back seat. Those of us familiar with these junior AAA inquiries also know that answering them exactly is no easy task. Do we simply say, “40 more miles” or do we say, “about an hour”? It all depends on the type of road, traffic, weather, driving style, and possible unplanned stops along the way. Figuring out how to answer “how much longer” or “are we halfway there” is not always an exact science.

Finding the midpoint in the Torah is also a matter of considerable debate. Logically, you might think you could simply unroll a Torah scroll, measure it, and divide that number in half. Basically, that should land you somewhere in the Book of Leviticus, the third of five books of the Torah, assuming that each book of the Torah is about the same length. In fact, they are not equal. Genesis is the longest book, Leviticus is the shortest, and Exodus is longer than Deuteronomy. With the Torah weighted toward the first two books, it makes sense that the midpoint should be somewhere toward the front of the middle book. But that is about all tradition can agree upon with respect to the Torah’s centroid. Once you drill down into the details of counting the problem becomes increasingly complicated and finding the middle of the Torah, both mathematically and theologically, is no easy task. It all depends on what you mean exactly by “the middle of the Torah!”

While a tight statistical control of the text of the Torah has been part of Jewish tradition at least since the closing of the Babylonian Talmud over 15 centuries ago, only with the invention of modern printing, and its mathematically informed computation of book size, did a limited consensus develop as to the middle of the Torah. A commentary to the Talmud, Massoret ha-Shas by an Italian Sephardi Rabbi, Joshua Boaz ben Simon Baruch (d. 1557) puts the midpoint of the Torah in this week’s portion, Parashat Tzav, in a section that discusses the clothing of the High Priest (see Lev. 8:7-8). He observed that “in every Chumash and in the reliable tikkunim in Parashat Tzav [at the point where it says], ‘And he put upon him the tunic’ [Leviticus 8:7-8], it is printed in the margin ‘half the Torah in verses,’ which is still the practice to this day.” Of course, not everyone was convinced. A second Italian rabbi from a subsequent generation, Yedidiah Solomon ben Abraham Norzi (d.1626), unable to reconcile earlier determinations of the Torah’s center based not on verses, but on words and letters, essentially gave up and declared that we “must wait for the prophet Elijah to come to sort things out.”

Perhaps the earliest discussion about determining the mathematical center of Torah can be found in the Babylonian Talmud in Kiddushin 30a. Here we read about a group of ancient scholars called the soferim. The Gemara explains that this particular group of soferim, professional ancestors of our current day Torah scribes, counted the letters of the Torah to insure the accuracy of the text as it was hand copied and there was a reasonable risk of error, or what might be called “quality control.”

According to the soferim, the midpoint of the Torah could best be determined in two ways: either by counting by letters or by counting words. Counting by letters only, they determined that the middle letter of the Torah is the vav in the word gachon, “belly,” in Leviticus 11:42. But by counting by words, they determined that the phrase darosh darash, “diligently inquire” (Leviticus 10:16), is the exact center of the Torah. Finally, they determined that Leviticus 13:33 marked the middle of the Torah if one counted by verses, if there are 5,888 verses in the Torah. But then they immediately added that there are multiple traditions for versification even within the Jewish tradition, so the “middle by verse” could not be definitively determined. No wonder Rabbi Norzi gave up!

Of course, tradition was not willing simply to give up and wait for the Messiah to determine the center of the Torah. Thus, a second, essentialist approach to the question of the essential teaching of the Torah or lev haTorah, “heart of the Torah,” was also explored by the Rabbis. In this case, however, the question is not a mathematical challenge but a philosophical one. The discussion is well known. The core passage is found in the Jerusalem Talmud, N’darim 30b:Rabbi Akiva (second century CE) taught: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18). This is the most important rule in the Torah. But Ben Azzai says: ‘This is the Book of Chronologies of Adam’ (Genesis 5:1).” 

Ben Azzai’s challenge to Akiva’s teaching is based on the meaning of the word “neighbor.” In the context of the original passage in Leviticus, neighbor could be understood narrowly as “someone you already know” or “your Jewish neighbor.” Seeking to universalize the commandment, Ben Azzai demonstrates that all people, Jewish and non-Jewish, are all descendants of Adam and, therefore, all neighbors. The (Ashkenazic) haftarah to Leviticus 19 from Amos 9:7 deflects Ben Azzai’s comment by reminding the Jewish people that they, the Jews, and the Ethiopians are all equal in the eyes of God.

It is also possible to discover essentialist meaning in the mathematically determined “hearts” of the Torah. For example, following the word count of the soferim, the word, belly, suggesting gastronomical Judaism, is key for many people. Keeping kosher or eating traditional Jewish holiday food is, for a number of people today, their principle tie to the Jewish tradition. For others, darosh darash, diligently inquire, is the essential principle of Judaism. “The study of Torah,” the ancient Rabbis assure us, leads us to the performance of other mitzvot. Today, we even have a widespread phenomenon in the Reform Movement of people who come regularly to Shabbat morning Torah study, delve deeply into the weekly portion, and then promptly leave before services begin. Darosh darash is their middle of the Torah.

What about “putting on the tunic?” Very often, particularly at occasions at bnei mitzvah services, weddings, and funerals, people who neither keep kosher nor study Torah insist on wearing a kippah or a women’s head covering. It makes them feel connected to the tradition, even authentic. For them, “putting on the tunic” is the middle of the Torah.

Finally, the classic middle or heart of the Torah for a large, if not majority of Jewish people today is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Particularly in its expanded, more universalistic meaning, this reflects the view that the essence of Judaism is ethics. In this view, the essence of Yiddishkeit is menschlichkeit, that is, the uber principle of Judaism is ethics. The principle seems to work equally well for believers and nonbelievers. And as for our super Jewish patriots or Jewish nationalists, the sociologically narrower view of “love your [Jewish] neighbor” works as the middle point for them as well.  

Finding the middle of the Torah is no easy matter and the fact is that the lack of a widely agreed upon central teaching creates numerous challenges for the Jewish people. Very frequently, a sincere Christian will say to me that the heart of their faith is “love” and then ask, “What is the central teaching of Judaism?” How we answer that query says as much about us as it says about Judaism. Reform Judaism itself is not above this challenge. We have our principles and we have our practices, but what is the middle of our Torah? I guess it all depends on what you mean by middle and whether the concept of middle as an essentialist viewpoint is even the right way to conceptualize our tradition.

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., is the senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA. He has written numerous books and articles in the field of American Jewish history and has taught at Princeton University, Binghamton University (SUNY), and Hunter College (CUNY). Rabbi Sussman is currently working on a book on Jews, Judaism, and law in America.

Finding Value in the Middle

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Larry Freedman

Family with both parents holding hands of the middle child symbolizing the middle of the Torah

I’m a middle child. I’m middle aged. My teaching style offers conservative challenges to liberals and liberal challenges to conservatives to bring them toward the middle. The middle is where it’s at. The middle takes the wisdom from this side and the wisdom from that side to forge some sort of pragmatic approach. The middle is concerned with making headway, making progress to help the most people. The middle doesn’t get sucked in to the drama of ideologues.

In other words, the middle is boring. Oy, the middle is so boring. No one wants to be in the middle because it is too practical, and offers the measured conversation of people making progress and working together. We live in an age where we prefer placards and protests and posts to scare the daylights out of people: You must join our fringe position! The other side will kill us all!

In his commentary to Parashat Tzav, Rabbi Sussman gave us a lovely tour of the meaning of the middle of the Torah. Let me point out problems from the fringe. Many people read the Torah starting with God creating the universe out of nothing: “In the beginning.” And then they quit. How foolish, they think, to read some book that doesn’t even acknowledge evolution. There are others who point to the other side of the Torah where Moses goes up to Mt. Nebo, dies after 120 years, and then is buried… by God. As if that doesn’t put them off, they remember that Moses wrote these words about his own death himself. Foolishness, they cry, and then close the book.

Pity. This type of reader will miss all that is in the middle. There we find our ancestors behaving well, behaving badly, behaving like people. There we find faithful faith and jaundiced skepticism. We find law and we find grace. We find Divine miracles and human effort. There is so much in the middle that the fringes obscure. There is so much to Torah if we are willing to put aside our predetermined position and reach toward the middle. The edges make for more provocative pronouncements but the truth is in the middle. The middle is where it’s at.

Rabbi Larry Freedman is the rabbi at Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh, NY. He serves as a chaplain in the NY Air National Guard with a rank of major and has worked at URJ summer camps including five years at Crane Lake Camp.

Reference Materials

Tzav, Leviticus 6:1–8:36 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 781–798; Revised Edition, pp. 686–700; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 593–614
Haftarah, Malachi 3:4-24
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,654-1,656; Revised Edition, pp. 1,459-1,461

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