Two Letters, One Torah

THE FIRST THING YOU NEED to know is that, in Hebrew, the letter D (dalet) looks a lot like the letter R (reish). It’s so easy to confuse the two, in fact, that Source Critics (those who see the Torah as knit together from several other texts) like to explain some of Torah’s eccentricities as scribal errors — handmade typos, if you will.

Now, I mainly hold to the Source Critics’ view of the Torah, in that I believe the text we have now is a redacted compendium of several older documents (a theory better known as the Documentary Hypothesis, or DH). Unlike the critics, however, I don’t believe the Redactor was slipshod; rather, that what we call “mistakes” were actually deliberate features, put there in order to keep us talking about the Torah for lo these many millennia. Case in point, the debate over Deuel vs. Reuel:

Moses’ Midianite father-in-law Jethro (or, in Hebrew, Yitro) is referred to in the Torah by several names. Two of these are Reuel and Deuel. Source Critics point at these two names and cry “Scribal error! it’s really the same name, but the scribe wrote it wrong.”

That may indeed be the actual fact, but to me it lacks imagination compared to how the traditional commentators (those who see the Torah as divine, perfect and mysterious) handle the issue. They look at Deuel and Reuel and break both names into two parts: respectively “deu + El,” and “reu + El,” where “El” is one of the many names of G?d. “Deu” is from a a Hebrew root meaning “knowledge,” and “reu” is from the root meaning “friend.” Thus we have two of Yitro’s names rendered as “Knower of G?d” and “Friend of G?d.”

And this is why, although I hold to the Documentary Hypothesis, I prefer traditional commentary. For me, Torah study is all about going deep with the text: learning not only what it says, but what it says to me. Sure, the names Deuel and Reuel could be the result of a mistake, but Friend- and Knower-of-G?d shed more light on the character of Yitro. Traditional commentators offer something that source critics don’t — they treat the text with reverence, based on the belief that it’s an endless source of wisdom, that everything is contained in it if we just look hard enough. They treat the Torah as being smarter than they are, whereas most Source Critics take the opposite view. And to paraphrase Rabbi Larry Kushner, if you think the Torah is wiser than you are, you can learn something. If not, then all you’re doing is imposing your own spin on it. And what fun is that?

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