The Need for Independent Torah Interpretation

For hundreds of years, we Jews have followed the custom of completing the yearly Torah reading in the synagogue on the day of Simchat Torah, only to immediately begin all over again. Why the rush? There is nearly no time to contemplate what one has read the previous year! What is the point of reading something which, for lack of time, cannot even sink in? What, in fact, is the meaning of this annually repeated reading, which is nothing but superficial?

There is indeed a need to learn Torah in depth; no doubt this is included in the commandment to study Torah. It should result in discovering the many possibilities for understanding the text. But this method of study also poses a danger. It could easily result in stagnation of the text. When a text is studied in a particular way and repeated several times to allow it to sink in, what can result is a dogmatic understanding of it. One keeps repeating a specific interpretation, which consequently imprisons the mind and blocks receptivity to totally new ideas and opinions. Once this happens, the essential nature of the Torah is lost. The possibility of chidush (novelty) — of looking into the same text with completely different eyes — is crucial. The call for new interpretations, and not just repeating what we or others have said, is fundamental to genuine Torah learning. Surely, one needs the background to know how to accomplish this, and only proper study can guarantee an authentic new elucidation and insight; but without novelty, Judaism will be unable to survive.

Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi (1513-1586) — disciple of Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), author of the Shulchan Aruch — makes this point extremely clear:

Concerning our faith in the [contemporary] human being, it is said in Parashat Nitzavim [Devarim 29:13-14], “And not with you alone did I establish a covenant …but with those who are here with us and with those who are not here today….” Therefore each one of us, our children and grandchildren, until the conclusion of all the generations.., are duty-bound to examine the secrets of the Torah on our own….Nor ought we be concerned about the interpretations of others — even if they preceded us — preventing our own individual investigation. Much to the contrary… just as [our forebears] did not wish to indiscriminately accept the truth from those who preceded them, so it is fitting for us….Only on the basis of gathering many different opinions will the truth be tested. Thus, it is valuable to us…to investigate [the meaning of the Torah] in accordance with our own mind’s understanding. And even if in the course of investigation into the secrets of the Torah…we err, it will not be judged….because our intent was for the sake of Heaven. But we shall be guilty if we desist from investigating the secrets of our Torah by declaring: The lions have already established supremacy, so let us accept their words as they are….Rather, it is proper for us to investigate and analyze according to our understanding and to write our interpretations for the good of those who come after us, whether they will agree or not….And do not be dismayed by the names of the great personalities when you find them in disagreement with your belief; you must investigate and choose, because for this purpose were you created and wisdom was granted you from Above… (1).

Indeed, this great wisdom is often forgotten in certain religious circles (2). The quick reading of the Torah is to prevent the text from settling in our minds in a particular fashion. It functions as a first reading in the sense that it has the impact of something totally new. Often, a first encounter is the most exciting one. It keeps all possibilities open; nothing has yet been fixed or determined. As when one is struck by a lightning bolt, man is suddenly enlightened by an overwhelming understanding that may override all his earlier insights. Getting used to a text often means killing it. Familiarity breeds contempt.

This, then, could be the purpose of the quick Torah reading in a synagogue. It is not conventional Torah learning, but rather somewhat of a wake-up call. It functions therapeutically in that man is shocked by the text before he even has a chance to get used to its deeper content. And although he has read it for many years, the fact that the story appears again an entire year later, and no earlier, gives him a chance to forget it and then rediscover it as never before. In this way, it remains fresh and continues to amaze the reader with its multiple possibilities and its grand image. This is the true joy of Simchat Torah’s rush.

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(1) Sefer Ma’asei Hashem: Sha’ar Ma’aseh Torah, Parashat Balak (Jerusalem: Merkaz HaSefer, 2005).

(2) See the controversy about Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s most original Chamesh Drashot (translated into English under the title The Rav Speaks: Five Addresses on Israel, History, and the Jewish People), Jerusalem: Tal Orot Institute, 1983/5743, in which Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach, former head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Berak, severely criticizes Rabbi Soloveitchik for devising “from his own mind [ideas] that were not handed down to us from earlier generations” (Letters and Articles, vol. 4, pp. 35-40). Compare this with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s statement: “Halakhic man is a man who longs to create, to bring into being something new, something original. The study of Torah, by definition, means gleaning new, creative insights…” (Halakhic Man. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1983, p. 99). Still, even Rabbi Soloveitchik often deviated from this very notion. See, for example, Rabbi Dr. David Hartman’s severe critique of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s understanding of novelty and its limitations, in The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting & Rethinking Jewish Tradition (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Pub, 2011).