Joho the Bloghermeneutics Archives - Joho the Blog

March 18, 2017

How a thirteen-year-old interprets what's been given

“Of course what I’ve just said may not be right,” concluded the thirteen year old girl, “but what’s important is to engage in the interpretation and to participate in the discussion that has been going on for thousands of years.”

So said the bas mitzvah girl at an orthodox Jewish synagogue this afternoon. She is the daughter of friends, so I went. And because it is an orthodox synagogue, I didn’t violate the Sabbath by taking notes. Thus that quote isn’t even close enough to count as a paraphrase. But that is the thought that she ended her D’var Torah with. (I’m sure as heck violating the Sabbath now by writing this, but I am not an observant Jew.)

The D’var Torah is a talk on that week’s portion of the Torah. Presenting one before the congregation is a mark of one’s coming of age. The bas mitzvah girl (or bar mitzvah boy) labors for months on the talk, which at least in the orthodox world is a work of scholarship that shows command of the Hebrew sources, that interprets the words of the Torah to find some relevant meaning and frequently some surprising insight, and that follows the carefully worked out rules that guide this interpretation as a fundamental practice of the religion.

While the Torah’s words themselves are taken as sacred and as given by G-d, they are understood to have been given to us human beings to be interpreted and applied. Further, that interpretation requires one to consult the most revered teachers (rabbis) in the tradition. An interpretation that does not present the interpretations of revered rabbis who disagree about the topic is likely to be flawed. An interpretation that writes off prior interpretations with which one disagrees is not listening carefully enough and is likely to be flawed. An interpretation that declares that it is unequivocally the correct interpretation is wrong in that certainty and is likely to be flawed in its stance.

It seems to me — and of course I’m biased — that these principles could be very helpful regardless of one’s religion or discipline. Jewish interpretation takes the Word as the given. Secular fields take facts as the given. The given is not given unless it is taken, and taking is an act of interpretation. Always.

If that taking is assumed to be subjective and without boundaries, then we end up living in fantasy worlds, shouting at those bastards who believe different fantasies. But if there are established principles that guide the interpretations, then we can talk and learn from one another.

If we interpret without consulting prior interpretations, then we’re missing the chance to reflect on the history that has shaped our ideas. This is not just arrogance but stupidity.

If we fail to consult interpretations that disagree with one another, we not only will likely miss the truth, but we will emerge from the darkness certain that we are right.

If we consult prior interpretations that disagree but insist that we must declare one right and the other wrong, we are being so arrogant that we think we can stand in unequivocal judgment of the greatest minds in our history.

If we come out of the interpretation certain that we are right, then we are far more foolish than the thirteen year old I heard speak this morning.

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March 7, 2012

Contentious hermeneutics

My friend AKMA has posted part I of his research and reflections into the “Old Testament” writings about death. AKMA is a friend, and a truly learned, open-minded, and open-hearted theologian. It’s fascinating watching him doing his preliminary research, sorting through the death references from within his Christian frame, although AKMA being AKMA, he’s mainly pointing out ways the Jewish testament does not support the Christian testament’s ideas about death; AKMA is carefully avoiding (I believe) the assumption that Christianity completes the Jewish beginning.

Even so, as I read his thoughtful interpretation, I was struck by how differently he proceeds than would my orthodox Jewish friends (one of whom is my wife :). They’re learned scholars as well, and they of course at times traverse the testament to find all the references to a topic under discussion. But the next step is different. My orthodox friends understand the text only in conversation with the tradition of great scholars — rabbis — who are interpreting the text. It wouldn’t occur to them to try to understand the text apart from that great conversation. Of course AKMA also understands the text through the interpretations that surround it; he is, after all, an extremely well-versed scholar. But it’s different. For the Jews, the rabbinic conversation is, essentially, a part of the text.

And, it’s worth pointing out that that interpretative tradition is fully embraced as unresolved. The rabbis disagree, and this is a good thing. A scholarly discussion that does not point out and defend the disputations has failed. Thus, the tradition is self-contradictory. But, my orthodox friends bridle at that phrase because when you call something self-contradictory, you usually mean to say that it’s flawed; at least one of the sides needs to be rejected, or you need to mystically embrace the paradox. For orthodox scholars, to reject one of the great sources would be to lessen the tradition. And mystically accepting all sides would end the perpetual argument that in a real sense is Judaism. Rather, it’s accepted that we humans are not up to the task of finally understanding the world or the G-d that created it. But we are commanded to keep trying. So, we need as many learned points of view as possible, and we especially need to understand them in their very disagreement. The Jewish understanding of its eternal text is the continuing contentious discussion.

This divergence of argument occurs on the basis of agreement about an unchanging text. We’ve been given an original text that stays literally the same; its letters are copied from one text to another with error-checking procedures that keep the sequences of letters quite reliable. But the text does not speak for itself. It needs to be read and interpreted. That interpretation cannot be accomplished by an individual or even by a community. It requires a history: a set of conversations within the community, arguing about the text across time and circumstance. Thus, an unchanging text can remain relevant because its meaning is not apart from or behind the interpretation, but is in the history of interpretation by an argumentative community.

The perpetual argument is driven by a need to resolve questions of behavior: how the Law is to be applied to a particular dilemma. What constitutes sufficiently koshering an oven when you move into a new apartment? Your rabbi rules, citing text, tradition and its interpreters. The rabbi one synagogue over might well rule differently. That’s ok. That’s how it works: local rabbis refer to a contentious set of interpreters operating from a single text, following rules of argument and evidence. This ties the community to a continuous tradition and an eternal text, while allowing for progressively relevant interpretation and for a multiplicity that enables Jews to not only to live with disagreement, but to flourish within it.

AKMA has written brilliantly about the diversity of interpretation as reflected through his own commitment: differential hermeneutics , and also here and here, among other places. This is a difference in traditions that is reflected in differences in interpretative practices. It is a difference we should embrace.

[Disclosure: I am a non-observant, agnostic Jew. There is no chance that I have gotten the above right.]


My friend Jacob Meskin read a draft of this and has been very helpful, as have several other people, none of whom entirely agree with what I’ve written. Jacob passed along the following from Levinas:

“The Revelation as calling to the unique within me is the significance particular to the signifying of the Revelation. It is as if the multiplicity of persons — is not this the very meaning of the personal? — were the condition for the plenitude of ‘absolute truth’; as if every person, through his uniqueness, were the guarantee of the revelation of a unique aspect of truth, and some of its points would never have been revealed if some people had been absent from mankind. This is not to say that truth is acquired anonymously in History, and that it finds ‘supporters’ in it! On the contrary, it is to suggest that the totality of the true is constituted from the contribution of multiple people: the uniqueness of each act of listening carrying the secret of the text; the voice of the Revelation, as inflected, precisely, by each person’s ear, would be necessary to the ‘Whole’ of the truth. That the Word of the living God may be heard in diverse ways does not mean only that the Revelation measures up to those listening to it, but that this measuring up measures up the Revelation: the multiplicity of irreducible people is necessary to the dimensions of meaning; the multiple meanings are multiple people. We can thus see the whole impact of the reference made by the Revelation to exegesis, to the freedom of this exegesis, the participation of the person listening to the Word making itself heard, but also the possibility for the Word to travel down the ages to announce the same truth in different times.” [ From “Revelation in the Jewish Tradition” (1977), in Beyond The Verse, trans. Gary D. Mole, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp.133-134]

Jacob points out that Levinas is saying this within a context that assumes a tradition of revered rabbinic commentators who are touchstones for the conversation. Without that understanding, this particular passage could lead one to think that Jews feel free to interpret any which way they want. No, our argument has bounds.