They sat at the Shabbat table, discussing the meaning behind yet another mysterious narrative in the Torah. “I accept the simple meaning of the story,” she began, “but there are also many deep teachings to be found here.” She offered several ideas, as found in the works of the Talmudic and Aggadic sages. The response she received is one all too often heard: “Although that is nice, it’s not the p’shat- the simple meaning of the words of the Torah text. It’s just those ‘rabbis’ who made up that interpretation.


This encounter captures a perceived tension in Jewish life between the supposed simple-meaning, or p’shat, of the Torah text on one hand and the interpretations of the Jewish sages, from which most Jewish law and lore is derived, on the other hand. Many harbor an impression that there is an objective simple literal and contextual meaning to the Torah which is superior to – or more legitimate than – rabbinic interpretation.

The ambient influences of academia have a clear role to play in fostering this impression. Some influential biblical academics have long assumed that rabbinic interpretations are forced and self-serving readings of the text. These academics tend to look at the simple contextual meaning as the ‘true’ meaning, and many of us have consciously or subconsciously accepted this approach.

However, this perspective has little or nothing to do with Torah. The Bible is an isolated text, an artifact severed from the social and cultural context in which it was written. Such a text is archaic and abstract, a rich mine of material for creative theorizing. Yet the Bible is not the Torah.

In contrast to the Bible, the Torah signifies not merely a text but rather a dialogue between written text and oral tradition. The written text is known as the Written Torah, the Torah Sheh’b’ktav, and it includes the Five Books of Moses, The Prophets, and The Writings. The Oral Torah, Torah Sheh’b’al-peh, signifies Jewish interpretive tradition. This interpretative tradition contains specific oral teachings as well as a logic system for human derivation.[1]

In other words, the written portions of the Torah were never conceived of by Jews as isolated texts.[2] Jewish tradition views the Torah as a complex living thing, something to be grappled with using the tools of the Oral Torah. Once one chooses to deny the Oral Torah and instead look at the Written Torah as an isolated text, one is no longer dealing with The Torah of Judaism but rather with the Bible of academia.

The tools of the Oral Torah allow for the continual evolution of Jewish law. Some might consider it progressive to interpret the Torah and Jewish law for the modern context, yet this type of evolution has been going on for millennia. Indeed, the term “orthodox”, defined as “customary or conventional”, is in a sense a misnomer when it comes to Judaism: Judaism has been changing to meet the demands of the day, within an ancient framework, for thousands of years.[3]

The concept of an interpretive tradition–an Oral Torah– has unique significance in Jewish spiritual culture, which bestows human intellect with the awesome power to shape divine law. A famous Talmudic legend recounts a great debate regarding a certain point of Jewish law which was raging in the study halls of ancient Babylonia. One sage attempted to back up his claims with open miracles. The walls fell and a Heavenly Voice called out in his favor. However the second sage was unperturbed. He uttered an authoritative declaration which would ring for millennia: “[The Torah] is not in heaven!” The ruling declared by a Heavenly Voice was rejected on the basis of human intellect!

Jewish tradition exalts humans as beings created in the “image” of The One, crowned with a higher intellect. Therefore, human interpretation is itself a divine mechanism which serves to reveal further dimensions of the Torah in every generation. In fact, as soon as the Torah was given, a system of interpreters and arbiters were appointed to interpret the Torah’s teachings and apply them to the daily problems of the nation.[4] It is impossible to divorce Judaism from the Oral Torah and human interpretation.

However, one word might be standing in the way of a wholehearted acceptance of the Oral Torah: “rabbi.” We use this same word to describe both modern day rabbis and the ancient figures of the Gemara. Therefore the way we imagine rabbis today very much colors our perspective on rabbinic interpretation. Today, a rabbi is essentially someone who has received a master’s degree in Jewish law and social work. The rabbinate is conferred upon hundreds of candidates in mass graduations. It represents a certain level of Jewish legal knowledge, but not necessarily much else.

However, semicha, or rabbinic ordination, in the days of the Gemara was of an entirely different nature. Semicha was transferred from teacher to pupil on a very carefully considered individual basis, demanding a level of achievement close to that of a prophet. A rabbinic sage was not just an extremely well-versed and intelligent individual, but one who had purified his mind and body, who had perfected his character traits to an extremely lofty extent.

So when we say “the rabbis made up that interpretation” or “the rabbis created that law,” we really have in mind our local rabbi, graduate of rabbinical school, with a Borsalino hat, or maybe a knit yarmulke, and a suit and tie, already steeped in synagogue politics. Yet, the sages were drastically different, both in physical appearance and in character. They were not saints- they were not by nature on a higher plane. They were quite human, facing the same struggles and challenges that we all face. Yet they were suffused with Ruach HaKodesh, a Sanctified Spirit- not due to a superior nature, but by superior achievement.

It might be difficult to accept such a vision of what it once meant to be a rabbi. The flaws and failings that we see daily in our modern religious leaders have perhaps made us suspicious of human motivation. This suspicion is sensed in the tone with which rabbinic interpretation is described by some, a tone which seems to invoke images of these meddling rabbis, cackling sinisterly as they create yet another Jewish law. To see the sages for what they were, one must see past this cynicism and imagine mankind’s lofty capacity to live beyond greed, lust, anger, or jealousy. Our sages embodied this capacity. Their interpretations were far from power-grabbing tactics.

The simple-meaning of the text, the p’shat, is certainly a very important aspect of Torah. However, it is not by any means superior to or more legitimate than other levels of interpretation. It’s important to be wary of applying the orientation and conjecture of Biblical academia to the Torah. The Bible is simply not the Torah. Torah has always included interpretive traditions which have defined Judaism. These multifaceted traditions have fostered a culture of evolutionary growth and open debate within a framework that preserves us as a nation. Our interpreters are not rabbis as we conceive of them today. They are sages, paradoxical holy men, simultaneously mystics and pragmatists, progressive intellectuals and humble traditionalists.

Torah is described as an orchard, where many different fruits can be plucked. The Hebrew word for orchard is Pardes, which is also an acronym for the four levels of interpretation that we find in the Torah: p’shat-the simple meaning, reh’mez-“hint”, de’rash -“derivation”, and sod –“secret”. Much of Jewish law is found on the levels of drash and remez and much of Jewish mysticism and spirituality on the level of sod. These levels impart an endless depth of beauty and life to Torah. Torah is known as The Living Torah; and live on it has, in the hands of the Jewish people through millennia and across the globe, as other nations and cultures have vanished in the mists of time.  The Jewish people would not have survived without the Oral Torah, our oral traditions, the very heart and soul of Torah.

[1] Such as R’ Ishmael’s 13 means of derivation, found in most siddurim

[2] Even Karaites have a tradition of interpretation, known as “The Yoke of Inheritance.”

[3] In fact, it seems that the term “Orthodox” in reference to Judaism was originally a derogatory term to refer to ‘old’ and ‘backwards’ Jews. (Samson Raphael Hirsch, Religion Allied to Progress, in JMW. p. 198)

[4] This is a fascinating story, recounted in Parshat Yitro in the Book of Shemot. Moshe’s non-Jewish father-in-law Yitro scolds the greatest prophet of the Jewish people for belittling the Israelites by making them stand for hours as he judges them! Yitro advises the appointment of a system of arbiters to interpret and apply the newly received Torah and Moshe obliges-with HaShem’s approval.