A couple of months ago I attended a meeting of the Enoch Seminar in Camaldoli, Italy. The conference, which included an extraordinary range of scholars, grappled with the meaning of the word and concept of “Torah” from the biblical period through Late Antiquity. There were a mix of session topics and formats and I have no intention of trying to summarize the many papers and areas of disagreement. The publication of the papers is being organized by William Schniedewind and Jason Zurawski. I will focus here on my own contributions to the conference and one important area of what I thought was consensus.
My paper was entitled, “Torah: The Material Evidence.” In it, I posed a simple question: If we did not have the literature of the rabbis, what we would know about the Torah and its role in Jewish communities in Late Antiquity? Based on my survey of the artistic, archaeological, epigraphical, (meager) papyrological, and literary (law codes and patristic literature) I developed three main conclusions:
- Scrolls of the Torah were stored, and most likely read, in the synagogues;
- Writings from the Torah served an apotropaic role for Jews (and maybe non-Jews) in Late Antiquity;
- There is no evidence that being learned in Torah was valued by most Jews
As to the first conclusion – well, duh. This is amply attested in rabbinic literature, so no surprise there. The second and third conclusions are more intriguing. At least some Jews saw the Torah as a “magical” text; its actual content could have little to do with this. The absence of mention of Torah learning among the epithets used in epitaphs was also striking, especially when seen in contrast to Jewish epitaphs from the medieval period. These conclusions do not (at least yet) add up to an answer to the question of what “Torah” meant to these Jews but they set some important areas to consider.
I also served as a respondent to a paper by Lutz Doehring called “Torah and Halakhah in the Hellenistic Period.” Lutz’s paper made the case that many Jews during this time used the Torah as a source of “halakhah,” and thus was important, in some sense, to the larger Jewish community. I was skeptical, not only of the entire notion of “halakhah” in the Hellenistic period (the term is used for the first time by the rabbis, who wrote in the Roman period) but of whether almost every case cited by Doehring cannot be explained at least equally well by appealing to traditional Jewish practices that exist independently of Torah, even if they are also attested there. So it is clear that Jews (many? most?) observed the Sabbath in the Hellenistic period but that does not mean that they justified or authorized their practice by appeal to a text. Maybe they did, but there is almost no explicit evidence to this effect.
Now for the agreement: On the narrow philological question of what did the word “torah” mean throughout antiquity, we all agreed that it shifted depending on the author and time. “Torah” never had a stable referent. For most people today, the term is usually taken as referring to a set text (i.e., the Pentateuch). That usage is attested in antiquity, but this is one of its least popular meanings. Early Jewish writers frequently used “torah” in the loose sense of wisdom or teaching (its literal meaning) usually having some connection to the divine or to Moses. For me, some of the more interesting papers argued that in antiquity the word Torah often served as a gerund, denoting a process of transmission rather than its stable contents. In some cases, it was the Sage whose behavior embodied Torah (a notion that can be found in rabbinic literature as well). The conference thus successfully destabilized “Torah,” leaving me with the take-away that there is no linear development in how it was understood but rather that it is a core concept whose exact meaning was (and is?) continually renegotiated in each and every Jewish community.