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Jewish Tahrif Is A Double Negative Positive – OpEd

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The Islamic concept of Tahrif usually is meant to refer to a twisted, distorted or incorrect interpretation of a whole verse or just one word in the Bible; but sometimes it refers to the actual elimination of some words or even a whole verse from a holy text. A good Jewish example of this in the Biblical book of Nehemiah 10:35 is given by Dr. Alex P. Jassen, Associate Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.

“Bringing wood for the Jerusalem Temple altar was an important celebration in Second Temple times. To ground this customary practice in the (written) Torah, Nehemiah (10:35) describes it as a Torah law, while the Dead Sea Qumran Scrolls ‘Temple Scroll’ (11Q19) and the ‘Reworked Pentateuch Scroll’ (4Q365) include it in their biblical festival calendar.

Nehemiah states (10:35: “We have cast lots [among] the priests, the Levites, and the (non-priest Jewish) people, to bring the wood offering to the house of our God (clan) by clan annually at set times in order to provide fuel for the altar of our God, as is written in the Torah”. 

But this custom is not written anywhere in the Torah or any of the books of the Hebrew Prophets. 

It is true says Dr. Jassen, that during the Second Temple period, a ritual or festival of bringing wood to the Temple was observed. The first century CE Jewish historian Josephus describes the practice: On the next day (14th of Av), which was the Feast of Wood-carrying, on which it was a custom for everyone to bring chopped wood to the altar so that fuel for the fire might never end. 

The first century Jewish historian Josephus, who was also from the priestly tribe of the Cohens, implicitly connects the practice of donating wood to Leviticus 6:5-6: “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being. A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar.” 

But it is not written explicitly: “We have cast lots [among] the priests, the Levites, and the people, to bring the wood offering to the house of our God (clan) by clan annually at set times in order to provide fuel for the altar of our God” 

The Jewish scribes and rabbis who transmitted these Torah texts did not always copy their texts verbatim, but engaged in the editorial practices of harmonization and expansion that would centuries later be objected to by the Qur’an.

In order to understand the Islamic view of Tahrif and why four verses in the Qur’an refer to the tafsir (interpretation) practices of many Orthodox Jewish rabbis as tahrif; we must begin with these four verses themselves. 

1—”O Muslims, do you then expect that these people will accept your invitation and become believers? whereas there have always been among them some who have been hearing the Word of God, understanding it well and then perverting and tampering with it knowingly.” (2:74)

2—”But woe to them who fake the Scriptures and say: “This is from God,” so that they might earn some profit thereby; and woe to them for what they fake, and woe to them for what they earn from it!” (2:78)

3—”Among the Jews are those (some) who distort words from their [proper] usages and say, “We hear and disobey” and “Hear but be not heard” and “Ra’ina,” twisting their tongues and defaming the religion. And if they had said [instead], “We hear and obey” and “Wait for us [to understand],” it would have been better for them and more suitable. But Allah cursed them for their disbelief, so they believe not, except for a few (some).” (4:46)

4—”And, behold, there are indeed some among them who distort the Bible with their tongues, to make you think that [what they say] is from the Bible, the while it is not from the Bible; and who say, “This is from God,” the while it is not from God: and thus do they tell a lie about God, being well aware [it is a lie].” (3:78)

Bryan Schwartz says that the rabbis who engaged in the editorial practices of harmonization and expansion also supported including a short book called Kohelet in Hebrew, or Ecclesiastes in Anglicized Greek, that was full of the author’s despair that nothing about him will last beyond his death. 

Wealth? So much work to obtain, so much stress to maintain, and then you die and someone else gets it. Sons? You can have a thousand, and who will remember you? Women? Enchantresses who lead you to folly. Acquiring wisdom itself? Better than wallowing in folly. But still no answer. “A live dog is better than a dead lion…because the lion knows nothing….but the dog knows…it will die.” 

However, Kohelet created something that still endures – his book of despair. Kohelet did die, but Kohelet the book, has been alive for two thousand plus years. The words are still read in their original Hebrew and are chanted in the synagogue during the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot every year.

Scholars – of many faiths or none – still study each word. Today’s preachers ponder and draw lessons from them. Kohelet achieved his literary immortality because his sayings, embodied in a scroll of its own, entered into the Jewish Bible and from there into the Christian Bible and the wider world. 

For Kohelet, there is no “enteral Thou.” Rather, God appears to be distant and beyond dialogue with mortals. Kohelet does not pray to Him. His audience is a human one, and he complains to them that God does not seem to reward the just and punish the wicked in a timely way, and sometimes not at all.

Kohlet states: “For there is a happening for humans, and there is a happening for beasts-and they have one happening-like the death of this one is the death of that one, and all have one spirit, and the superiority of humans over beast is zero, for all is vanity.” No religious comfort here. 

The Jewish Bible elsewhere proclaims that posterity is achieved by passing on the sacred teachings from generation to generation. The holy books invite individuals to find meaning in being part of a collective that has a momentous past and endless future. They are pivotal moments in Israel’s history where pain and perseverance lead to progress. 

Centuries of bondage in Egypt teach a nation to remember its own oppression and to seek justice for all. The revelation at Sinai, and its acceptance by the people, provide an enduring national constitution. 

The rabbinic midrash on Kohelet tends to ignore Kohelet’s dire worldview and instead selects individual phrases which it then connects to more inspiring texts; a good means of coping with Kohelet, of singing over his own dirges. Why was Kohelet’s voice even preserved in the first place? 

To prove by Kohelet’s example that a life without faith is both depressing and painful! 

While the whole book of Kohelet is Tahrif from the Islamic point of view; the rabbis saw God’s presence even in times of despair and defeat; which is why Jews are still here long after their oppressors are gone.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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