New USY Standards: Peshat, yes; but Derash, too

I, too, see the impending doom of Conservative Judaism in the events of the past week. I scanned the articles that surfaced on news sites and elbowed their way to the top of my Facebook newsfeed and resigned myself to the reality that one of the fundamental principles of Judaism, perhaps the most crucial element of a religion that has thrived for millennia, was blatantly disregarded. Without this basic tenet, Judaism would have long ago vanished into the surrounding cultures. And what is the identity of this religious lifejacket? The concept of derash.

My peers – and many others as well – read the new wording of the USY officer standards and considered it nothing short of pulling the plug on the entire experiment. Rabbis and lay leaders hastily rushed to quell those rumors, claiming that they are proud of their teens for taking such initiative to make all members of the movement feel included. But if this change in phraseology causes more disillusionment and frustration with Conservative Judaism for its young constituents, this is hardly something to be proud of. What saddens and angers me most about the visceral reactions of both sides is that the reactions themselves overlook an integral part of the interpretation process. Their projections for Judaism, based on their one-dimensional understanding of the textual amendation, are decidedly un-Jewish.

Judaism, an indisputably text-based culture, recognizes two distinct methodologies for interpreting text: peshat and derash. At risk of oversimplification, I believe a basic practical difference between the two methodologies is that whereas peshat assumes the autonomy of the text itself, that the objective significance of the words is self-contained, derash allows for more flexibility in the parameters of interpretation, employing many different exegetic tools to derive deeper meaning from the text.

Nearly every blogpost I’ve read has dealt exclusively with the peshat of the new clauses – meticulously analyzing the change in wording and concluding that the omission of an explicit ban logically allows for the understanding that the standard has been watered down to no more than a suggestion. But if we read Torah the same way we’ve been reading the new USY handbook, Jews would still be taking an eye for an eye, and our observance of kashrut would be nothing beyond refraining from cooking a calf in its mother’s milk. Derash allows for a dynamic system, a constant evolution of our understanding of the divinity present in Torah and other texts and their application to our every waking moment.

So why now, in this crucial junction in the lives of young Conservative Jews, have many within the movement disregarded this available interpretive device? The truth is, the movement hasn’t abandoned us; it’s we who have ignored the full spectrum of interpretation granted to us by a key element of the movement, allowing our worst fears to dictate a singular cynical peshat reading of the text and seizing the opportunity to abandon the ship right when it needs a dedicated and capable crew.

Peshat can only look at the Pew studies, crunch the numbers, play the percentages. Peshat oftentimes merely approximates the entire picture, as the limitations of human language cannot possibly encompass the unique experience of singing zemirot at a regional convention or attending a lounge night with friends on any given weekday. Two sentences of Written Torah lend themselves to just one understanding when taken at face value; only with the Oral Torah as a supplement do the written words suddenly spring to life with multi-faceted vibrancy and magnitude.

That’s why hermeneutics exists: to see the larger context. Derash studies the texts preceding the one in question, the juxtaposition providing a new insight into the intended meaning of the whole passage. It points out that, just a few lines before the amended inter-dating clauses, lay clauses concerning a strict Shabbat observance and explicit refrain from lashon harah. What member of the Conservative movement, USYer or otherwise, after reading these clauses as an entire unit, could fail to sense the ethos of serious commitment and obligation that colors the entire sequence?

Armed with derash, I can read the phrases “strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices” and “recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community” liberated from their purely logical implications. I feel comfortable with including them in a serious handbook of standards because I trust that young Conservative Jews are more nuanced than to believe that the peshat reading is all there is to the text. My peers are not so superficial as to jump on a textual loophole and toss away the standard (a standard which I wholeheartedly support and that I believe exists, before and after this year’s International Convention). Intellectual honesty allows them – and, I believe, demands of them – to extract the true intention of a phrase which resonates with them on a deeper, midrashic level, and it renews the vigor with which they participate in a movement which cares both about the strength of tradition and making sure the adherents to that tradition are valued and respected.

The Conservative Judaism I know and love values peshat and derash equally, and its constituents are well versed in both. The expected model of seeing any text in light of both peshat and derashthat is the standard that is in serious question here. If the movement fails to uphold that one, then maybe I might as well grab my religious lifejacket – the derash that has kept us afloat as a people since the beginning – and jump off the sinking ship too.




About the Author
Avidan Halivni, 19, from Deerfield, Illinois, is in his first year at Columbia University after spending a year at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa.
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