Rabbi Borak focused his discussion around the central moral problem in the story: the text states that God hardened Pharoah’s heart against the Israelites, implying that God is ultimately responsible for the suffering of both the Egyptians and the Israelites. From the Rabbi’s discussion handout:
If we are reading this bit of Torah correctly, Pharoah is not responsible for the plagues and all the suffering that ensued from them—God is! It was God who ordained that Pharoah would not be swayed. And it’s not just the suffering of the Egyptians at issue here, but the suffering of the Hebrews as awell. This clearly seems to make God immoral. How can it possibly be that a moral, loving and just God would punish a people and their ruler for a hard-heartedness that was not of their own making?
Rabbi Borak entered the passage by way of an interpretive problem that raised difficult moral questions. He then brought other texts to bear on the problem, including the story of Akhnai’s Oven from the Baylonian Talmud in which a trio of rabbis energetically debates the lawfulness of a ceramic oven. In the end—the end of the story of Akhnai’s oven and of Rabbi Borak’s presentation—a range of viewpoints was acknowledged. The resolution came not in providing an authoritative answer but rather in affirming the work of interpretation itself. Rabbi Borak approached scripture with an eye for questions, problems and challenges; his method modeled a deep mutual respect between the integrity of the text and the human practice of interpretation.When Latter-day Saints open the scriptures, they are generally not in search of questions but of answers—or at least a state of mind in which spiritual answers can be felt. Daily personal and family scripture study is a central devotional practice for LDS, together with personal and family prayer, and we’re taught to turn to the scriptures for comfort and guidance in our everyday lives. The LDS approach to scripture study emphasizes the clarity and simplicity of scriptural teachings: a major theme of the Book of Mormon is the “plain and precious” truth of Christ’s gospel. We’re encouraged to “liken the scriptures” to our own lives, to apply their truths to our personal situations and find in them direction for the choices we face. It’s not the process of textual interpretation that LDS value so much as its result, in the form of inspired answers to sincere personal seeking. Where Rabbi Borak’s approach to scripture values inquiry, challenge and exegesis, the Latter-day Saint approach values instruction, clarity and relevance; where the Rabbi’s relationship to the Torah is marked by mutual respect, the LDS relationship to scripture is intimate and familiar.
Both approaches have their strengths, each has its limitation. I spent years in school acquiring specialized tools to read and interpret texts, and in many ways I envy the Jewish tradition of rigorous textual study and interpretation. Only that kind of painstaking attention to every nuance of every word could have yielded the richness and ethical sophistication of the Talmudic literature; it can also, sometimes, lead to a kind of legalism in which forests hide behind trees. In the same vein, the Latter-day Saint emphasis on clear personal answers can, sometimes, produce a too-facile engagement with the deep strangeness and affront of scripture. On the other hand, the familiarity of the LDS approach opens the scriptures to all, not only to the scholars, and makes scriptural knowledge accessible to any willing reader.
Any attempt to draw out differences between faith traditions is bound to be too stark, of course, as mine is here. Jewish readers find answers and comfort in the Torah, and Latter-day Saints wrestle with difficult passages. Both groups are “people of the book,” and although we define our relationships to scripture differently, the mythos of ancient Israel continues to inform our respective narratives and sustain our communities until the present day.