In the book of Psalms it is written: “One thing God has spoken; two things have I heard” (62:12). The rabbis in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 34a) asserted that this means there are multiple interpretations of each verse of Scripture that can be correct, and the word of God, even if from our limited perspective they contradict one another.
The Hebrew term for this concept of pluralistic interpretation of sacred scriptures is; Shivim Panim LaTorah (each verse of Torah has 70 different faces).
Anyone who studies the Hebrew Scriptures from a Rabbinic Bible is struck by the number of different commentaries that surround the few lines of the Biblical text on each page. Most religions that have a sacred scripture, have editions that come with a commentary. Occasionally, some religions have an edition with two or three commentaries. The standard Jewish study Bible, Mikraot Gedolot, usually comes with at least 5-10 different commentaries.
Of course, we know of no verse that has 70 different interpretations; yet. After all, if we knew all 70 glosses to a verse we would understand it as well as it author; which is impossible. Also, what would be left for future generations of Biblical scholars to do. But, most verses have at least three or four different glosses and some important ones have five or ten different insights.
Jewish tradition recognizes four types of interpretation. P’shat; the plain simple meaning. Remez; the allegorical metaphorical meaning. De-rash; the moral educational meaning. And Sod; the mystical hidden meaning. For example: what kind of a tree was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:17 and 3:6). Most people think it was an apple tree. They have no idea why, or what that interpretation is supposed to mean.
The Rabbis offer four different interpretations of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; and each of them provides insights into the meaning of the Torah’s account of what makes humans special and what it means to be “like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5)
Among Jews some said that it was a grape tree, or barley, or a date or fig tree.
Rabbi Yose said it was a fig tree, for as soon as they ate from it their eyes were open and they covered themselves with fig leaves. (Genesis 3:7) This is the simplest explanation and has the most textual support, but it doesn’t tell us why figs represent morality.
Rabbi Judah bar Ilai said they ate from a grapevine i.e. wine (alcohol) represents good and evil because
humans have the free choice; to use wine to sanctify the Sabbath, or to become an alcoholic.
Rabbi Meir said it was a wheat tree because wheat was the first crop to be domesticated and thus is a good metaphor representing the beginning of farming and then urbanization and civilization. Settled life is a great test of social morality because nomads can always split apart if they can’t live together, but settled people must develop an ongoing legal system and abide by it.
Rabbi Abba said it was an etrog tree. An etrog, used for Sukkot-harvest festival, is called a goodly tree and it is good to thank God for the harvest (Leviticus 23:39-42). Gratitude is a spiritual personal value transcending ethics, involving attitude, personality and feeling.
The etrog, according to the Rabbis is special because it’s outside (bark and wood) tastes the same as the inside of the fruit. Thus a good religious person should be the same inside and outside.
These four ways of interpreting a sacred text illustrate the four kinds of Midrash:
1- The plain meaning of Rabbi Yose.
2- The moral lesson pedagogic way of Rabbi Judah bar Ilai who wants to teach people that many things like the grapevine are capable of being used for good or evil purposes. They are not intrinsically good or evil. We can choose how we use them, so we make them good or evil. (Sex, money and meat eating are other examples.)
3- The metaphorical meaning of Rabbi Meir. who was reputed to know dozens of fox fables. Rabbi Meir thinks social morality is the primary sign of humanity. Farming brings about relatively dense settlements, property disputes, government and economic hierarchies. All of this calls for a just legal system. Thus wheat is a good metaphor.
4- The forth way is the personal insight, mystical psychological way of Rabbi Abba. An etrog fruit is part of the citrus family. Unlike an orange, a lemon or a grapefruit an etrog has no commercial value. Jews give it a high value (each one costs 50-100 times what a lemon costs) for spiritual reasons. So too does morality have a spiritual value much greater than simple humanistic ethics.
Because there are 70 different faces to every verse in the Torah, there is a special blessing that should be said when one sees a crowd of Jews, that must contain within them, a large number of Jews with different ideas and opinions: “ One who sees a crowd of Jews should say: Blessed is the Sage of Enigmas; for their opinions are not similar one to another, and their faces are not similar one to another.” (Talmud Berakhot 58a)
One of the most famous debates over the meaning of a verse occurs in reference to Noah. The rabbis were not certain how to Understand this verse: “Noah was a righteous man, wholehearted in his generations.” (Genesis 6:9)
Some said that if, in his wicked generations, he could maintain his righteousness, how much more so would he have shone in a better age like that of Abraham. But others argued that only in relation to the low standards of his age was Noah righteous; had he lived in Abraham’s generations he would not have been particularly great.
I think it is much harder to be good at a time and place when society makes it easy to be evil. Take Europe under Nazi occupation. The Nazis rewarded anyone betraying Jews. Anyone who was caught helping or hiding a Jew was severely punished, often with his or her family.
Those who did help, at great risk. were very good; they were righteous and wholehearted for all generations. For example, almost 2,800 (15%) of all Polish priests and monks were killed by the Nazis during the occupation. Of them, 60 (2%) were executed for helping Jews. Of 17,000 nuns, 289 were killed. Of them, 10 (3%) were shot for helping Jews.
Some might say that 70 Polish clergy killed for helping rescue Jews was a small number, but that number is much higher than the the number of German or French clergy killed for the same ‘crime’.
Similarly, many more Poles than French were awarded Righteous among the Nations medals as of 1/1/12, (6,339 compared to 3,513) yet the percentage of Jews surviving in France was greater than in Poland. Good people can help, but in evil times, that may not be enough.
But even among the majority who did not help, there were many who knew and did not betray. Or helped a little, but still could not change the terrible outcome. Although they were not very good, they were still good.
First the evil: On November 23, 1939, Hans Frank, head of the Nazi Government General that ruled central Poland, declared that all Jews above ten years of age were to wear a white badge with a Star of David on their right arm. By October of 1940, almost 400,000 Polish Jews had been confined in a 3.5 square mile ghetto in Warsaw, an area which normally housed about 160,000 people. The Warsaw ghetto was surrounded by a wall 10 feet high that was sealed off on November 15, 1940. Jews were forbidden to go outside the area on penalty of being shot on sight.
Then the good: One day, a young Jewish woman who had escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto a few days before it was sealed shut, was riding on a streetcar when Gestapo men boarded and begin checking identity papers. The woman had no papers and was not wearing the Jewish star. In panic she turned to a older Polish gentleman siting next to her, and in a whisper asked for his help.
He starts to yell, “Foolish woman, how can you be so stupid.” A Gestapo officer quickly walks over asking, “What is going on?” The man looks at the Jewish woman and says, “I tell her every day to remember to carry her papers with her. Now this idiot tells me she left them in the hall closet.” The Gestapo officer smiles, shrugs his shoulders and passes by.
Months later the woman tells her story to some other Jews who are also in hiding. The story survived. I do not know if the woman did. There must have been thousands of incidents like this, where a Jew was rescued, and then later murdered. Thus, these sparks of light in the terrible darkness have never been reported to the Israeli organization Yad V’Shem, that already has honored over 6,400 Poles who rescued Jews who did survive to bare witness to their stories..
We are all created in the image of the one God; and yet due to God’s greatness, we all look and think differently from one another. For this we should bless God.