These lessons are based on the approaches discussed in my book Beholding the Tree of Life: A Rabbinic Approach to the Book of Mormon and are FREE to anyone who wishes to download them.
I know that the Jews do understand the things of the prophets, and there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews. (2 Nephi 25:5)
It had been a good session. We had not covered very much of Leviticus, but the discussion had been lively, insightful, and diverse. David decided to chant the first few verses instead of reading them, mesmerizing everyone with his beautiful voice; Andrea read next and reminded us that the word translated as “unclean” in our chumashim actually means “ritually impure”; Wallace then expanded upon this idea and explained that the purpose of bringing a leper to the priest was to confirm purity and not to treat illness; Nan, nonetheless, asked about the state of Israelite medicine at the time, and Mark compared it to a United States without the Affordable Care Act; several hands went up at this point; however, Rabbi Friedman quickly turned the group’s attention back to Leviticus, which is where it remained, for the most part, until it was time to go.
“Thanks for coming,” Bob said as he held the synagogue door open for me. “I am continually amazed that a Mormon would come to a Torah class.”
“Thanks for having me,” I responded. “I am continually amazed that you all would allow a Mormon to attend a Torah class.” Bob smiled, let me pass and then quickly caught up with me as I made my way to the parking lot. He seemed to have something on his mind.
“So when are you going to convert?” he asked.
I stopped and looked Bob over. We had talked several times about my project. He knew I was writing a book and that I was attending Torah class so that I could better apply Jewish interpretive techniques to the Book of Mormon. He also he knew I was committed to my LDS faith. I stared at him for several moments, not knowing how to respond. Finally, he cracked a sly smile and punched me playfully. “Just kidding, Brad. I know you are not here to convert.” Relieved, I laughed back and returned his punch. He was right. I was not there to convert, but that did not mean that my experience with this class had not changed me—or affected my Mormonism.
The Book of Mormon states that no other people understand those things written to the Jews like the Jews. Since the Book of Mormon itself is one of those things written to the Jews (as well as to others), I have attempted to learn how Jews approach scripture by attending, for the past five years, Torah classes at a local synagogue.
This may seem like an odd thing to say, but I am a better Latter-day Saint for having my Jewish friends. The way they have welcomed me has made me more welcoming. The way they have accepted me has made me more accepting. The way they have openly expressed their faith as well as their doubts has made me more open and more faithful. But most of all, the way they studied their scriptures has made me more studious and taught me several lessons that has deepened my experience with my own LDS scriptures, especially with the Book of Mormon.
Lesson one: Torah class taught me the value of reading scripture slowly, carefully, one verse as a time. In many ways, Torah class is similar to a typical LDS Gospel Doctrine class. Twenty to twenty-five adults usually attend. Some are converts to Judaism, and some are “lifers.” Some seemingly know everything about their heritage and history, and some know very little. Some speak their minds easily, immediately, developing their ideas as they talk, and some are more hesitant, preferring to wait until their ideas are fully formed to say something. Nonetheless, despite these similarities, the rate at which this class studies scripture is radically different. Rather than racing through an entire biblical book in thirty minutes, this class is lucky to cover five or six verses in an hour and a half.
The reason for this slower pace is that the purpose of Torah Study is radically different. In this class, no one expects the text to have a main point, a single fulfillment, or one important lesson that they can take home and apply to their lives on a daily basis. In fact, the idea that there is a single main meaning to a Torah reading, no matter how small, is absolutely foreign to many Jews. To them, the purpose of Torah study is to dive into the text, to feel its words and ideas and images swirl and churn around one, and to have a multifaceted, multi-leveled, multisensory experience with it. As the blessing they recite at the start of each Torah class goes: “Blessed art thou, Lord, our God, Master of the Universe who sanctifies us through his commandments and commands us to immerse ourselves in the words of the Torah.”
Such an approach was an adjustment for me. At first it felt more like wallowing than immersing. I wanted the class to move on, to speed up, to get to what I thought were larger, more important matters. However, as I tried it out on the Book of Mormon, concentrating on just one verse at a time, reading it slowly, carefully, just as we read the Torah in Torah class, I began to see its enchantments.
For instance, the first line in the Book of Mormon, “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents,” when I read it this way, seemed to invite me to inject myself into Nephi’s story. Its use of first-person pronouns connected me instantly to him psychologically as well as grammatically and prepared me to walk with Nephi, imaginatively, as he journeyed to the Promised Land. I may not agree with every choice Nephi made, but I was there with him as “I, Nephi” attempted to deal with his family’s sudden departure (I Ne. 2:16), as “I, Nephi” declared his willingness to return with his brothers to Jerusalem for the brass plates (3:7), as “I, Nephi” puzzled over what to do after their initial attempts to obtain the brass plates failed (4: 5), and as “I, Nephi” struggled to determine what to do with the drunk Laban who lay in front of him (4:14). His days became my days, and I understood better what immersing myself in the words of scripture was all about.
Lesson two: Torah class also showed me the value of reading scripture out loud. After reciting the blessing with the class, Rabbi Friedman does not deliver a lecture or present a sermonette for the class to consider. Instead he goes immediately to the text and asks a member of the class to read the next verse aloud, first in Hebrew and then in English. Not everyone in the class can read Hebrew, and only a few can read it fluently. Many stumble (including myself) as they sound out, syllable by syllable, new or unfamiliar words. Such an approach may seem inefficient or even tedious. However, hearing the words of the Torah read slowly, deliberately, sometimes even haltingly, serves to focus our attention firmly on the sounds of the Torah and in so doing opens us up to new insights.
During one session, a sofer, or scribe, was invited to discuss his perspective on the Torah. He brought in a scroll he was repairing, unrolled it over several long tables, and had us scrutinize it up close. To him, everything about this scroll had a divine significance—the parchment, the stitches, the margins, but especially the words. He asked us to pay particular attention to the name of God (YHWH, as it is transcribed into English). He then asked us to pronounce the letters of this name, not the name itself, just the letters. We did so, and he then asked us what those letters sounded like. No one responded. After a few seconds of silence, the sofer suggested that what we had heard was the voice of God—a whisper, a sigh, a quiet plea from Sinai, carried on a desert wind, calling to his scattered children. It was a mystical moment.
As I reread Nephi’s first verse out loud, I found its sounds similarly transporting. There clause follows hard upon clause, twisting and turning through awkward conjunctions and sudden pauses—all grammatically correct but forming a sentence too long and complicated to be read aloud without necessitating several breaths—and in them I heard the sounds of Nephi’s journey, a trip full of effort and pain and difficulty, a trek that that went on much longer than Nephi had expected but had nevertheless led him to profound discoveries, treasures too wondrous and valuable to keep to himself. And I found myself eager to travel with him into his wilderness and learn all that it had to teach me.
Point three: Torah class taught me to read scripture carefully and to contemplate not only the significance of every word but to consider the presentation of that word. Since the Torah reading includes Hebrew as well as English, class members often ask about the accuracy of the translation we use and suggest additional interpretations of key Hebrew words. They also notice how words appear in sentences, what verbal patterns they make (and break), as well as how they may resonate with other passages of scripture. For instance, after reading Leviticus 19:3, one class member asked why this verse instructed the ancient Israelites to fear their parents, while in Exodus 20:12 they were commanded to honor them.
As a Reform Jew, Rabbi Friedman is not committed to the divine authorship of the entire Torah and therefore frequently explains differences in Pentateuchal wording as evidence of different human sources. But not always. This time he saw great significance not only in the different words used with regard to the attitude children should have towards their parents but in the fact that in Leviticus mothers are mentioned first while fathers come first in Exodus. As he explained, fathers are often feared but not always honored while mothers are often honored but not always feared. These two verses therefore balance out these different attitudes and promote a healthier, more complete approach to one’s parents.
As I reread Nephi’s first sentence a third time, I noticed that the order of its clauses was similarly significant, that they presaged the events of 1 Nephi and did so in order. Chapter 1, for instance, describes the situation of Nephi’s “goodly parents,” especially his father’s prayer and prophetic call. Chapter 2 relates several experiences Nephi had with Lehi where he was taught “somewhat in all the learning of [his] father.” Chapters 3 through 7 details Nephi’s efforts to procure the brass plates and consequently suffers “many afflictions in the course of [his] days.” And the pattern continues, as chapters 11 through 14 lays out the “great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God” Nephi receives from a marvelous vision, and chapter 19 shows Nephi being commanded to “make a record of [his] proceedings in [his] days.” Right from the start, Nephi seems to be putting his journey in divine perspective, as something positive or productive, and in so doing encourages me to do the same with mine.
Ask lots of questions
Lesson four: Torah class taught me to ask lots of questions about the scriptures and encouraged me to discuss my answers with others. Questions seem to come easily to the members of my Torah class—not just questions about a verse’s translation or its connection to other scriptural passages but about its historical accuracy, impact on rabbinic tradition, significance in Jewish history, effect on synagogue politics as well as commentary on recent governmental policies, scientific trends, familial experiences, and current events. These questions are not veiled attacks, attempts at putting down or making fun of or destroying faith. They are actually as acts of faith, earnest affirmations that there really are answers and that sustained and vigorous and open discussion will eventually reveal them.
Rereading 1 Nephi 1 yet again, this time with my Torah classmates in mind, I saw a number of questions they would enjoy discussing. Why “goodly” instead of “good”? Why was Nephi taught only “somewhat” in the learning of his father? Why “course of my days” instead of just “days”? I could easily see my Jewish friends coming up with all sorts of answers to these questions. But would the same approach work with Latter-day Saints? I did not know. As an experiment, I asked a group of Latter-day Saints why they thought the Book of Mormon began with “I.”
It was a simple question on the smallest amount of text I could find, and yet it generated a wonderful discussion and an amazing array of answers. Several agreed with me that it connected us to Nephi in a very personal way and instantly inserted us into his story. Others said that it set his book up as a legal document, and they then discussed the possibility that Nephi was here swearing to the accuracy of his story and presenting it as a kind of last will or testament. One man focused on the shape of the letter “I” and explained that since the Book of Mormon seeks to connect heaven and earth, it was only appropriate that the book begin with a letter shaped like a conduit between the two. Two women brainstormed on the sound of the book’s first letter and found profound meaning in the role of seeing with our “eyes” in 1 Nephi as well as its propensity to make positive, affirming statements, “ayes,” as it were. The possibilities seemed endless—even for Latter-day Saints.
Leave questions unanswered and return to them again and again
And that is perhaps the ultimate lesson I learned from my Torah class—that scripture study never really ends. It may be suspended temporarily, but the journey goes on. Precisely at 10:30 a.m. Rabbi Friedman closes his book, wishes everyone a Good Sabbath, and rushes off to officiate at someone’s bar or bat mitzvah. He does not summarize the session or in any way attempt to wrap up what has been said. He simply leaves, as does the rest of us, secure in the knowledge that next month we will pick up where we left off, reading more verses, asking more questions, discussing more answers, and finding more meaning in the Torah. With it, as well as with the Book of Mormon, there is always more to learn and to discuss.
Bob and I continued to talk as we walked back to our cars. He asked me again about my book, and I explained again that I was attempting to apply the lessons I had learned from this class as well as my readings in Judaism to the Book of Mormon. Again, he said that what I was doing sounded interesting and encouraged me in my work. As we reached our cars and were about to go our separate ways, he asked me if he, as a Jew, could understand the Book of Mormon if he read it.
“I think so,” I responded. “In any case, I would be grateful if you would give it a try and tell me what you think of it. Not many Jews have read the Book of Mormon.”
He smiled his sly smile again. “Well, you have, and you are almost a Jew.”
Almost a Jew? Considering what I had learned in Torah class, I considered that a supreme compliment. And I told him so.
Bradley J. Kramer has been participating in Torah and Talmud classes at Durham’s Judea Reform Congregation for the past five years. He is the author of Beholding the Tree of Life: A Rabbinic Approach to the Book of Mormon and Gathered in One: How the Book of Mormon Counters Anti-Semitism in the New Testament.