The interpretation of texts contradicting orthodox dogma

In traditional rabbinic Judaism we as Jews live not by what is written in the Bible (the Written Torah) but by the Bible as interpreted and understood by the Jewish rabbinic tradition (the Oral Torah) – the foundation of which is the Talmud.  The implications here are enormous – in principle traditional rabbinic Judaism is not fundamentalist (in the sense of a literal understanding of Biblical texts).  Traditional Jews are not bound by the literal meaning of Biblical texts, not bound by what is written explicitly in Biblical texts and not bound by the plain, simple meaning of Biblical texts – and, this is true of the Halacha (legal material), and Aggadah (moral, philosophic and spiritual teachings) of the Jewish tradition.  Most of the material of the Jewish tradition, whether legal material or moral, philosophic and spiritual teachings, is not the plain meaning of Scripture – and is considered midrash (midrash Halacha or midrash Aggadah).  Midrash, originally, was a method of Biblical commentary of the Talmudic rabbis, according to which they elaborated beyond the plain meaning of Scripture, which enabled the Talmudic rabbis to interpret Biblical texts beyond their plain, simple meaning – and thus not to be bound by a literal and fundamentalist understanding of Biblical texts.  For example, the Biblical verse “an eye for an eye” is understood in the Talmud not literally as actual bodily retaliation but metaphorically as monetary compensation.

There is, though, a fundamental difference between Halacha (legal material) and Aggadah (moral, philosophic and spiritual teachings) of the Jewish rabbinic tradition.  Halacha is authoritative relating to issues of what is permissible and forbidden – and the material is authoritative in establishing acceptable or unacceptable behavior, and in demanding obedience to its authority.  It is also the authority of rabbis alone to teach such material and to establish what is permissible and forbidden (to render decisions of law).  Aggadah relates to issues of truth and falsehood, and good and bad (right and wrong) – and the material is not authoritative but is based upon persuasion and conviction (the mind and the heart).  Anyone, and not just rabbis, may teach such material, and there is no obligation or requirement to agree with such material even if it is taught by rabbis.  One accepts or rejects such material on the basis of one’s own mind and heart.

As a teacher of Jewish studies (and not a rabbi) dealing only in the realm of Aggadah and not Halacha, I in the main attempt to analyze and interpret texts and sources in a critical way from a literary point of view in an effort to be faithful to the plain meaning of the texts – but, not necessarily to the literal meaning, as often the plain meaning of the text is metaphorical.  For example, in the messianic vision of Isaiah the prophet, Isaiah says (Isaiah 11, 6) “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the tiger shall lie down with the kid” – and, the literal meaning of the verse is that there will be a change in the animal kingdom from a biological point of view in which animals of prey, such as the wolf or tiger, will no longer be carnivorous and prey upon other animals, such as a lamb or kid.  Such a literal understanding of the verse is a complete distortion of the plain meaning, and is possible only by uprooting the verse from its literary context.  In the context of the passage, it is clear that the prophet, Isaiah, is speaking in poetic and metaphorical terms of peace, justice and equality between people (see Isaiah 11, 4), and that his messianic vision is a moral vision.  The wolf and tiger then represent the strong and rich who oppress and exploit the weak and poor, symbolized by the lamb and kid.

In a critical, literary analysis of texts the interpretation offered (in order to be considered the plain meaning of the text, and not a midrashic elaboration) must fit the words as a piece of clothing is to fit the body.  Adding something that has no basis or support in the text itself is like clothing that is too big; and, distorting and changing the obvious meaning of the text to fit prior preconceptions is like clothing that is too small, bending the body out of shape.  Furthermore, if we continue the analogy of clothing, then just as more than one piece of clothing may fit the body, so too more than one interpretation may fit a particular text.  Yet, just as we may distinguish on an aesthetic basis between two pieces of clothing that both fit the body, we likewise may distinguish between two interpretations that both fit the text on the basis of what they contribute to the enlightenment of the reader morally, intellectually or spiritually.  In a critical, literary analysis an interpretation will be judged first and foremost by whether it fits the text as clothing fits the body, and, second, to what extent it contributes to the enlightenment of the reader by distilling some message or lesson from the text.

There is a Talmudic teaching “no verse loses its plain meaning”, which in its historical origins implicitly gives legitimization to midrashic interpretations not according to the plain meaning of Biblical texts.  We are permitted according to the Jewish tradition to offer interpretations that are an elaboration beyond what the text is teaching.  However, the teaching “no verse loses its plain meaning” implies that we should not forget that we must first attempt to understand what the text is teaching before we elaborate beyond what the text is teaching.  The Talmudic teaching thus gives legitimization to a critical analysis of what texts (Biblical or rabbinic) are teaching even though such analysis may lead us to interpretations that contradict widely accepted viewpoints – especially considering that the Talmudic rabbis codified no binding dogma.

On a widespread basis in the orthodox Jewish world sources (unfortunately, in my eyes) are not studied in a critical way in order to understand what a particular source is teaching in its plain meaning – revealing a lack of commitment to the pursuit of intellectual truth (and I intend such criticism as constructive criticism).  Rather, sources are so often twisted, bent out of shape and rationalized in order to fit orthodox dogma and widely accepted viewpoints in the orthodox world, or to cover up an apparent problem in a text.  I will cite one example.

It is a widely held view, according to modern, historical scholarship that not only did the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) not come from Sinai, but the legal explanations of the Oral Torah (rabbinic tradition) were likewise not from Sinai – contradicting widely accepted orthodox dogma that the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and the legal explanations of the Oral Torah were from Sinai.  It is also a widely held view, according to modern historical scholarship that the covenant renewal ceremony (in which the covenant of Sinai was renewed) described in the Books of Ezra and Nechemiah (Nechemiah 8, 1-18) represents the canonization of the 5 Books of Moses as a literary document as it is known today.  According to this widely held view of historical scholarship, the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) is a composite document composed of several different sources that were produced by differing authorship at different periods of time in the ancient Israelite culture, and which were edited and woven together into the Torah as it is known today.  The earliest of the sources of the Torah were produced long after the period of Moses (1300 – 1200 BCE), perhaps (at the earliest) during the period of David and Solomon (around 900 BCE).  The final editing of the various sources into the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as the document as it is known today, according to such a view, was in the period of Ezra and Nechemiah (around 450 BCE).

There is also a widely held view among historical scholars that the roots of the Oral Torah are also in the period of Ezra and Nechemiah as well.  Such scholars point to the verse in the Book of Ezra as support for such a view – “for Ezra had prepared his heart to interpret the Torah of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments” (7, 10).  The verse here constitutes a clear Biblical precedent for the interpretation and teaching of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a sacred and authoritative document, which is the very essence of the Oral Torah.  The Oral Torah is to a great extent based upon the midrashic method of study or Biblical commentary of the Talmudic rabbis (in which Biblical texts were elaborated upon not according to their plain meaning), as the Talmudic rabbis used the method of midrash in a systematic way in their study of the Bible in order to learn and teach Halacha (law) and Aggadah (moral and philosophic teachings) – and, the term to interpret in the verse from the Book of Ezra is of the same root letters as the rabbinic term midrash.  However, the term interpret in the Biblical verse does not have the meaning of midrash in the rabbinic sense of interpreting Scripture not according to the plain meaning – rather, the term interpret in the verse simply means to interpret in a general way.  It is reasonable to assume that in the period of Ezra and Nechemiah the Torah as a sacred and authoritative text was interpreted according to the plain meaning, and only later was the text elaborated upon (midrashically beyond the plain meaning) leading to the development of the midrashic method of study.  Nevertheless, the verse from Ezra does constitute a clear Biblical precedent for the interpretation and teaching of the Torah as a sacred and authoritative document, which is the very essence of the Oral Torah.

The passage from Nechemiah, describing the covenant renewal ceremony, is extremely problematic in regard to the notion of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and the legal explanations of the Oral Torah being from Sinai (Nechemiah 8, 1-14):

 

And when the seventh month came, and the children of Israel were in their cities, then all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the open place that was before the water gate; and they spoke to Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Torah of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel.  And Ezra the Priest brought the Torah before the congregation both of men and women, and all those who could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month…And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people…So they read in the book, in the Torah of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading…This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.  For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Torah.  Then he said to them, Go your way, eat sumptuously, and drink sweet beverages, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared…do not be grievedAnd all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.  And on the second day, the chiefs of the father’s houses of all the people, the priests, and the levites, were gathered to Ezra the scribe, in order to study the words of the Torah.  And they found written in the Torah…that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month.

Two things stand out in this passage as shocking.  First, when the leaders of the people (“the chiefs of the father’s houses of all the people, the priests, and the levites”) study the Torah with Ezra, the passage says that “they found written in the Torah” – as if the leaders of the people shockingly did not know what was written in the Torah!  What they found written in the Torah is that the people Israel are to dwell in booths on the festival of Succot.  If the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and the legal interpretations of the Oral Torah came from Sinai (as according to widely accepted orthodox dogma), then it is extremely difficult to understand how the leaders of the people could not know about such a fundamental practice as dwelling in booths on Succot.  If, on the other hand, the passage, as according to modern, historical scholarship, is describing the canonization of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a sacred and authoritative document, following the editing together of various sources that may have flourished earlier (lacking authority), it is understandable that the leaders may not have been familiar with what was included in the final document.

Second, the covenant renewal ceremony is described as taking place on the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei) that according to the Jewish tradition is Rosh Hashanah.  Shockingly, no mention whatsoever is made, as according to the Oral Torah, of the day being Rosh Hashanah or the Day of Judgment, nor is there any mention of the blowing of a shofar (ram’s horn), the central practice of Rosh Hashanah.  Further, Ezra informs the people that the first day of the month of Tishrei is not a day of mourning but a day of joy, which is obviously problematic regarding the notion of the legal explanations of the Oral Torah being from Sinai.  Although there are festive meals on Rosh Hashanah, as observed according to the Jewish tradition, the main theme of the day is not joy, and indeed Hallel (the reciting of psalms of joy on festivals) is not recited for that very reason.  Rather, according to the Oral Torah, the main theme of the day is judgment and the day is one of awe, introspection and repentance; and both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Hakippurim, according to the Jewish tradition, are referred to as days of awe.  If the legal explanations of the Oral Torah truly came from Sinai, then surely Ezra and the leaders of the people should have known, and should have so informed the others, that the first day of the month of Tishrei is Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment.

I have heard various attempts (none satisfactory in my eyes) in the orthodox world to reconcile this passage from Nechemiah with widely accepted orthodox dogma.  For example, one such attempt is to claim that the there was a break in the transmission of the Torah, and thus many important things were forgotten by the time of Ezra and Nechemiah.  Such a rationalization strains the imagination, as the passage from Nechemiah speaks of the leaders of the Jewish people (“the chiefs of the father’s houses of all the people, the priests, and the levites”) together with Ezra who “found written in the Torah” that the people Israel are to dwell in booths on the festival of Succot, and who apparently did not know that the first day of the month of Tishrei is Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment.  Can it be that even the leaders of the Jewish people in the time of Ezra and Nechemiah did not know of such a fundamental practice as the dwelling in booths on the festival of Succot, and apparently did not know that the first day of the month of Tishrei is Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment?  If there was indeed a break in the transmission of the Torah to such an extent that even the leaders of the Jewish people in the time of Ezra and Nechemiah did not know of fundamental practices of the Torah, then in effect the Torah was not received from Sinai (even if there had been a revelation on Sinai) – and, in such a case who is to say that the Jewish tradition has correctly reconstructed the revelation of Sinai in claiming according to orthodox dogma that practices like dwelling in booths on Succot, or the hearing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, came from Sinai?

Such an attempt to reconcile the passage from Nechemiah with accepted orthodox dogma is typical of a phenomenon that is widespread in the orthodox world in which sources that do not in their plain meaning fit accepted orthodox dogma are twisted in order to conform to the prevailing orthodox dogma.  Such an attempt is not an explanation of the passage from Nechemiah but a rationalization.  Rationalization is a particular form of explanation.  It is a form of explanation which begins with prior preconceptions, and in light of those prior preconceptions, attempts to cover up a problem, as if the problem no longer exists or is not really a problem.  In this case, the problem is that, according to the plain meaning of the passage from Nechemiah, the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and the legal explanations of the Oral Torah are apparently not from Sinai, while the prior preconception is that they are certainly from Sinai (according to accepted orthodox dogma); and therefore there must be some explanation, such as that of fundamental aspects of the Torah being forgotten until the period of Ezra and Nechemiah – constituting a rationalization in that the source is interpreted in accordance with prior preconceptions to cover up the problem.  Such rationalization is widespread throughout the orthodox world regarding sources (both Biblical and rabbinic) that do not fit widely accepted orthodox dogma.

Such rationalization actually constitutes a fundamental lack of faith or trust in the sources (and their authors) themselves; as the sources are thus not read and interpreted according to what they are actually saying, but twisted in order to conform to what they should say according to prior preconceptions of accepted orthodox dogma.  By contrast, according to the methodology of modern, historical scholarship, an attempt is made in the reading and interpreting of texts to understand the original intention of the text in its plain meaning (in its historical context) without distorting the text to fit prior philosophic preconceptions – in accordance with the standards of modern, empirical science.  Rather, prior preconceptions are to be changed and revised in light of the plain meaning of texts (and even though the plain meaning of texts is a matter of subjective interpretation, the attempt is at least made to be faithful to the plain meaning according to the methodology of modern, historical scholarship).  Even though prior preconceptions cannot be avoided or eliminated regarding empirical and scientific methodology; nevertheless, in modern, empirical and scientific methodology there is a willingness to constantly change or revise prior preconceptions in light of facts, data or sources.  Modern, empirical science does not yield objectivity or certainty (but only probability) even in the realm of the natural sciences, and all the more is this true in the realm of historical scholarship.

I often hear in the orthodox world objection made to the reliance upon modern, historical scholarship in the study of Biblical and rabbinic texts on the grounds that modern, empirical science and scholarship do not yield objectivity or certainty, and that the views of modern, academic scholars are constantly changing and being revised.  Both of these objections are likewise true regarding natural sciences; and, yet, even ultra-orthodox Jews in regard to natural sciences rely upon modern, scientific methodology and knowledge, as evidenced by their use of modern technology – such as the use of cars and electricity.  Such modern technology is a direct result and practical application of modern, empirical science, and thus even ultra-orthodox Jews (who are clearly not willing to give up their use of cars or electricity on the grounds that scientific knowledge is not certain and constantly changing) testify by their behavior that they rely upon modern, empirical and scientific methodology.  There is then, in my mind, an inconsistency among orthodox Jews (modern and ultra-orthodox) who rely upon empirical and scientific methodology in their daily lives, but refuse to do so when it comes to the study of Biblical and rabbinic texts.

One last point – the question as to whether or not the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and the legal explanations of the Oral Torah came from Sinai is not a religious but historical question independent of the religious principle of Divine revelation.  The principle that the Torah is the Divinely revealed word of God is a central religious principle in the Talmudic tradition – however, it is not a dogma that must be accepted, and the principle is subject to differing interpretations.  The Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and the legal explanations of the Oral Torah are Divine and sacred according to the Jewish tradition as a matter of religious principle – no matter when they were produced from a historical point of view.

Note – I am the author of a recently published book on the nature of the Hebrew Bible and Biblical theology (and the nature of Biblical faith), Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham – https://www.amazon.com/Reconciling-Contradictory-Abraham-Orthoprax-Anti-Theological/dp/1946124176/ .

About the Author
Jeffrey Radon is a teacher of Jewish studies and the author of the internet site - www.orthopraxjudaism.com - a site devoted to Jewish studies in a democratic spirit. He studied over 10 years in yeshivot in Israel. He has a teaching degree as a teacher of Jewish studies from Achva (brotherhood) College, a small secular teachers' college in Israel, and a master's degree in Jewish philosophy (from Bar Illan University in Israel). He also has a master's degree in educational psychology (from the Israeli branch of Northeastern University in the United States), as well as certification as a marriage counselor and mediator.
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