Black Fire on White Fire
by David Stern
University of Washington Press, 320 pp., $50
What is a Torah, exactly? If you were trying to explain it to a visitor from Mars, the easiest way might be to lead him to a synagogue, open the ark, and point: This scroll of parchment covered with ink is what Jews call a Torah. But of course such a response would not come close to exhausting the meaning of Torah for Judaism. After all, the ancient rabbis believed that it preexisted the created world, which obviously cannot be true of any physical object. Unlike every other book, which comes into existence only in the act of writing, the text of the Torah is prior to its script. When the Talmud says that the Torah given to Moses was written “in black fire on white fire,” it again emphasizes the distinction between the language of the Torah, which exists eternally (or, as we now say, virtually), and its physical medium.
It is a kind of paradox then that the Torah scroll is the most changeless of Jewish objects. If the original Torah was made of fire, why should it matter whether we read it as a parchment scroll or a printed codex, or for that matter on an iPhone screen? Why do Jews reading Torah in a synagogue today use exactly the same technology as their ancestors two thousand years ago? In the first chapter of The Jewish Bible: A Material History, his brilliant and fascinating new book, David Stern makes the point with a pair of images. One illustration depicts the oldest surviving complete Torah scroll, a product of Babylonia in the 12th century; the other shows a Torah scroll written in the United States in the 20th century (actually, a Torah in use at Harvard Hillel). Both are open to the same passage, the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15, which is written in a distinctive pattern known as “a small brick atop a full brick.” The text and its layout are identical in both scrolls; the passage of eight hundred years has changed the physical appearance of the Torah not at all.
As Stern points out, the highly conservative nature of the Torah scroll makes it difficult to study its history as an object. “Because these scrolls cannot contain any extratextual notes or features, it is very difficult to date or localize Torah scrolls with certainty or to trace their histories,” he writes. Yet in the last half-century, the scholarly turn toward “the history of the book”—to study books as the material objects that actual readers encountered rather than disembodied texts—has affected Jewish studies no less than other fields in the humanities. In The Jewish Bible, Stern masterfully synthesizes this scholarship, offering a chronological history of Jewish sacred books from Qumran to the JPS Tanakh. For if the Sefer Torah itself hasn’t changed, other ways Jews encounter their scripture definitely have. Indeed, as Stern shows, the Jewish book serves as a lens through which we can study central themes of Jewish history and thought.