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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

Existential Peshat as a Possible Response to Current Needs

The time is not ripe for a new collective midrash. We have only just emerged from an era of collective certainties, and a time of searching may follow the current transitional period of alienation. Peshat is essentially an open‐ended quest. While derash is generally founded on a priori acceptance of certain truths, peshat depends on the credibility of method. The seeker of peshat is not supposed to know in advance what may be found in the text; the only prerequisites are philological exactitude, common sense, intellectual honesty, an open mind, and an awareness of the distinctiveness of the ancient text. If its religious nature, which can no longer be denied, is not to erect a barrier between an avowed nonbeliever and the Book, he or she must be on guard against secular arrogance toward religious faith, and perhaps also overcome the fear of being bewitched by its charms, and listen with an open mind and heart to the direct voice of the text. Intelligence, imagination, and empathy will help to understand the meaning of the words “says the LORD” when uttered by a prophet, as well as their implications for the messenger's attitude to his Master and to his mission. On the other hand, one can understand a biblical passageproperly without having to accept it as factual truth or normatively binding. One must refrain from negating the text a priori, enter into a dialogue with the text, and thereby enhance one's ability to listen to it on its merits.

The national midrash built an educational analogy between past and present, but the seeker of peshat, in the quest for the primary meaning of the text, does not ignore the differences between past and present. A heightened awareness of passing time teaches one that even religious values and institutions are dependent on historical context. This historical sense can protect us from the fundamentalism that uncritically embraces biblical norms (such as political violence) in utterly changed circumstances. The seeker of peshat must also scrutinize the Bible against the background of its environment, gaining a broad perspective that indicates the limits of our national uniqueness, the relationship between adoption (say, of Canaanite language and poetics) and rejection (for instance, of Babylonian ethical and legal norms). Identification with biblical heroes, too, is no longer romantic but critical, in the spirit of the fervent inner criticism discernible in the Bible itself. This sober realism of peshat is accompanied by the quest for truth, and this may enhance the attraction of peshat for those who have lost trust and interest in the high‐flown idealism of the national midrash.

Peshat is inconceivable without methodological awareness: It is relative, derived from scant information (because of the extreme brevity of biblical historiography and the scarcity of contemporary extrabiblical documentation), and constrained by the scholar's scientific school and personality. This methodological awareness must go hand in hand with hermeneutic awareness that a text may tolerate more than one interpretation. The time of arrogant peshat, professing to be the supreme, exclusive, scientific truth, is over; the time has come for peshat which, though conscious of its advantages—rigorous discipline, rationality, consistency, independence, immediacy—is also acutely aware of the attendant disadvantages—clinging to the past, exclusive attention to the rational, and aversion to ambivalence. This peshat, far from disdaining midrash, recognizes its contribution. It is therefore vital that departments of biblical studies at universities and high schools introduce the thorough, systematic study of rabbinic midrash. Students at all levels should be capable of evaluating the nature of creative, nonphilological exegesis and thereby of understanding the sterling value of midrash down through the generations, from those remote times when religious creativity shifted from revelation to interpretation, to the recent times when a modern national movement found it necessary to connect with its ancient source of inspiration. The attraction of Bible studies will be enhanced if students realize that they demand not only proficiency and understanding of the text, but also methodological sophistication. One cannot simply say anything that comes to mind; but differences of opinion and variant exegetical methods are legitimate, each generation having its own interpreters.

Existential peshat is based on critical peshat, but the two are not identical. While many scholars must keep the text at a distance, behind a barrier, an interpreter seeking to make the Bible relevant to his or her personal existence is thereby regarding himor herself as one of those to whom it is addressed. The Bible's role as the foundation text of the Jewish people is not dissimilar to the role of parents: One can develop relationships of all kinds toward them, but one cannot relate to them as strangers. Just so, a member of the Jewish people may respect the Bible, love it, obey it; but may equally well disobey it, rebel against it, or feel estranged from it. Whatever the case, that person cannot view the Bible as “just another book.” This is aptly demonstrated by a recent show, “Va‐yoʾmer va‐yelekh” (“And he said, and he went”), staged by the Ittim ensemble under the direction of Rina Yerushalmi, who writes in the program notes that, after staging two Shakespeare plays, “wefelt that the time had come to reach out to our own text, and the Bible is our primeval text.” As a prodigal son returning to his parents, this powerful show comes back to the Bible, with admiration, love, anger, bitter mockery, and pain.

Existential peshat will never be able to place the Bible at the center of public life. Instead of struggling in vain to recreate a bygone situation, it is more realistic to promote understanding of the Bible as it is, with its beliefs, inner tensions, and chronological and geographical contexts; and, at the same time, to bring out the relevance of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings for our own time. No exegetical technique, however, can create unassisted the motivation for its use. Lacking thirst, there is no sure need for the well or the pump. Good teachers are capable of provoking thirst, but their numbers are steadily decreasing for lack of a supportive public atmosphere. Nevertheless, if we can believe the many signs that herald the beginning of a new era, marked by reaction to the prevalent cynicism and nihilism, by growing awareness of the benefit inherent in a definition of personal and collective identity, in a commitment to norms and values, and in the awe confronting spiritual greatness—if we can trust these signs, there are good prospects that all these will be sought first and foremost in that wonderful book which rests, well‐nigh forgotten, on the bottom shelf of the “Jewish bookcase.”

[URIEL SIMON]

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