Sacred Scriptures must have Pardais and Tafsir commentaries because God’s revelation in not just for the century when it was given, but for all the centuries to come. Some centuries mark little change; while other centuries provide vast and significant changes. How can the holy text speak to people living in such changed circumstances without scholars who are rooted in their tradition, but also open to applying new insights into ancient wisdom.
Academic scholars are wrong to equate the “true” meaning of the Qur’an and the Torah; with what it meant in its original, historical setting. It is wrong to locate the Torah’s and the Qur’an’s meaning solely in the text words of the Bible/Qur’an as academics understand it in their original setting. That’s where revelation began, but not where it is now.
For example, the Torah does not tell Jews the details of how to keep the Sabbath; nor does Torah teach all the laws and practices of kosher food preparation. And the Qur’an does not explain all the complicated rules about inheritance. Islam today relies largely on centuries of interpretations by the four schools of Sha’ariah; and Judaism depends largely on centuries of Talmudic discussions.
So the scope of the Torah gradually grew wider and more expansive; its Mitzvot [commandments] came to include more and more practices as time went on, and the Qur’an and Torah words on the page, became the Qur’an and Torah as its believers understand it now.
The laws of the Qur’an and the Torah are notoriously terse and sometimes cryptic, leaving it to the ulema and the rabbinic judges to build on the words of the holy text; and flesh out the unstated ramifications as they develop the way of Sha’ariah and Halakah respectively.
The Qur’an and the Torah’s laws, however many centuries ago they might have been promulgated, are still binding and valid, even when this meant applying them to altogether new situations and conditions. This is not innovation; it is honestly applying the belief that the sacred text is still alive for now and all future situations.
Huston Smith, the renowned author of The World’s Religions, a book that has sold over one million copies worldwide, claims that revelations, like the Torah, the Gospels, the Qur’an and other Sacred Scriptures, have to be interpreted, and “These interpretations progress through four stages of ascending importance: the literal, the ethical, the allegorical and the anagogic.” (The anagogic refers to what capacity the text has to inspire)
These four categories are somewhat similar to the traditional four rabbinic categories of PARDAIS: P’shot-literal, Remez-allegorical, D’rash-moral education, and Sod (usually glossed as mystical but in reality much closer to Smith’s anagogic). Jewish tradition does not rank the four categories, although individual Biblical commentators clearly had their preferences; but if Jewish tradition did rank the four, it would place the importance of D’rash-moral education above Remez-allegorical.
Kabbalistic Commentators definitely preferred Sod, and that is why it is usually considered to be a style of mystical gloss. But in reality, Smith’s term of anagogic, is a better explanation of what Sod tries to accomplish. The word Sod literally means secret or hidden. Just as seeds are hidden within a fruit, and nuts are hidden inside a shell, so too there are hidden meanings within each verse.
Just as the hidden seeds enable life to continue from generation to generation, so too do the hidden meanings within each verse provide inspiration for future generations, when they discover them. Jewish Kabbalah-mystics between the 11th and the 17th centuries found many new mystical teachings in the Torah; like reincarnation.
Hassidic Rabbis found many new Torah insights into the importance of trust and joy in praying to God during the 18th and 19th centuries.
However, the most important example of the power of Sod to inspire pious behavior in future generations can be found in the development of the Jewish legal system; an area that is rarely associated with Sod. During the Talmudic period, 1st century BCE to the 6th century CE, the rabbis greatly expanded and refined the rules of Shabbat observance and keeping Kosher.
Often this expansion was based on an oral tradition that described the customary way that pious Jewish people had observed these things in previous generations.
This was called the oral Torah, in contrast to the written Torah, i.e. what was written in a Torah scroll that was read during Shabbat and Holiday services. As time went on, more and more of the development of Jewish law shifted from oral Torah (as in the Mishnah) to text interpretation according to the hermeneutic rules established by the Rabbis (especially Rabbi Akiba and his disciples).
The rabbis believed that all future developments within Jewish law that future rabbis would find, were already there; hidden seeds within the original text. Thus, although in many areas of Jewish religious life, Orthodox Judaism seems very remote from Biblical Judaism, it really is not further away than many American Supreme Court decisions that are supposed to be based on the two centuries young Constitution.
For example, the Supreme Court maintains that there is a Constitutional right to privacy, but it is not literally written anywhere in the U.S. constitution. The Supreme Court rather derives the hidden seeds of a right to privacy from the Bill of Rights explicit limits to government interference in a citizens private life. From a Jewish hermeneutic perspective, this is a Sod inspired insight from the constitution’s regard for the civil rights of all Americans.
Religious fundamentalists, who usually take Scripture literally and simplistically, always have problems with the obvious development of their religious tradition over the centuries. They often call these developments; deviations, distortions and even degenerations. They believe that only the behaviors and understandings of the first few generations of believers are correct.
But all religions that grown for more than two or three centuries, must rely on Sod inspiration interpretations to met the changing circumstances of human history; and that is why they are still alive today. Indeed, it is the ability of Sacred Scriptures to inspire people who live in very different circumstances from the original group of believers, that provides evidence that the original texts are more than simply human creations.
A religious text offers several messages to those who study it with the four paths of Pardais. At different times in our personal lives, and in the life of our community and our nation, different people will need and will find different insights in God’s inspired words. As Psalm 62:12 says, “One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard.” There are very few verses in the Torah, or other Sacred Scriptures, that have only one meaning! Jewish sages proclaim that every verse in the Torah has up to 70 different facets.
No one person and no one generation knows all 70 aspects because there are questions that future generation will ask that previous generations could not even imagine. Yet Jews believe that each generation will find its answers in Torah through the four methods of Pardais study of the Jewish tradition.
Indeed, the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) states that contending interpretations of religious texts are both the words of the living God. “Rabbi Abba stated in the name of Samuel: For three years there was a dispute between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel, the former asserting, “the Halacha (legal ruling) is in agreement with our views,” and the latter contending, “the Halacha (legal ruling) is in agreement with our views’. Then a bat kol (a heavenly voice) announced, “Both (views) are the words of the living God, but the Halacha is in agreement with the rulings of the School of Hillel.”
Since, “both are the words of the living God,” what was it that entitled the School of Hillel to have most of the Halacha fixed in agreement with their rulings? – Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of the House of Shammai. Not only that, but they stated the opinion of the School of Shammai before they stated their own opinion.” Thus there also are four different, authentic schools of Sha’ariah law plus Shi’a schools.
Another section of the Talmud (Megillah 15-16) does not limit Divinely approved disagreements and differences to two. Discussing a verse in the book of Esther when Queen Esther says, “Let the king and Haman come to my banquet” (5:4) the question is asked; “What was Esther’s reason for inviting Haman?
R. Eleazar said: she set a trap for him. R. Joshua said: she had learned in her father house “If your enemy is hungry give him bread to eat” (Proverbs 25:21) R. Meir said: so Haman would not plot a coup. R. Judah said: so no one would suspect Esther was Jewish. R. Nehemiah said: so the Jewish people should not depend on her and stop praying. R. Jose said: so she could keep her eye on him. R. Joshua ben Korha said: she thought—I will encourage Haman’s attentions, so the king will be enraged and kill us both. R. Eliezer of Modi’im said she made the king jealous of Haman and she also made the princes jealous of him.
When Rabbah ben Abbuha later came across Elijah the prophet, he asked him: Which of these (eight different) reasons actually prompted Queen Esther to act as she did? Elijah replied: “All of them. All the reasons given by the Rabbis are correct.” People have mixed motivations in any action, so it is wise not to judge the motivations and intentions of others too quickly, or too simply.
Public rules for community behavior may need to have one view prevail, but personal and private individual issues can be respected even if we disagree. Judaism has changed more than Islam because it has lived much longer than Islam.
The great blessing Muslims receive from their four different Islamic schools of law; and the many blessings Jews receive from their four different types of glossing sacred scripture; is to learn respect for those who share our faith in God’s ongoing revelations; but not always our own specific beliefs.