Some Underlying Assumptions
The basis of rabbinic Judaism is the view that alongside the ‘written Torah’, the ‘five books of Moses’, given by God to Moses on Mt Sinai, there was a verbal teaching from God to accompany it, the ‘oral Torah’. This was to enable the Jewish people to apply the teachings and legal precepts of the ‘written Torah’ to new or changing circumstances. (The term ‘Torah’, from a root meaning to shoot arrows at a target, hence also indicate a direction, is used in a narrow sense in the Hebrew Bible for an individual legal precept and more broadly for the generality of laws and teachings of divine origin (Psalms 19, 119). Thus the frequently used translation as ‘law’ is too restrictive for a term that, in Judaism, came to embrace law and lore—indeed, all teachings ultimately derived from the study of traditional sources.) The commandment in Deuteronomy (4: 2; 13: 1) that one should neither ‘add to nor subtract from’ the words of Torah, effectively sealed the text of the Pentateuch, and ultimately the entire scriptural canon. Yet precisely this closure inevitably opened the doors to the process of interpretation. Such exercises in reading the text of Scripture so as to understand the contemporary situation and determine one's actions became the common activity for all the different Jewish groups and communities competing for authority as the legitimate heirs of the biblical tradition.
The precise origins of the materials that came to make up the ‘oral Torah’ is unknown. They were compiled and edited about 200 CE in a collection known as the Mishnah, the work being attributed to Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi, the ‘patriarch’, the political and spiritual leader of the Diaspora communities. The term ‘Mishnah’ means ‘repetition’ and presumably reflects the method whereby the oral tradition was memorized, studied, and handed on through oral repetition to others. It has six divisions, or ‘orders’, divided into ‘tractates’ and subdivided into chapters. Over the following two to five centuries the rabbis undertook a major examination of the contents of the Mishnah, in part seeking to relate them to the appropriate legal passages from the ‘written Torah’. This activity led to two enormous compilations of comment and discussion: the Palestinian Talmud (edited in about the fourth century) and the Babylonian Talmud (edited by the seventh century). (The term ‘talmud’ derives from the Hebrew root meaning to ‘study’ or to ‘teach’.) The former shows evidence of incompleteness, probably because of the deterioration of Jewish life in Palestine. The latter became the central source of study, both for the purpose of deriving new laws and practices for the community and for its own sake as a spiritual task.
The materials in the two Talmuds are orientated around the Mishnah; nevertheless, they contain considerable numbers of examples of biblical exegesis. The other great collections of rabbinic materials, that are known under the title ‘Midrash’, are structured around the biblical materials as commentaries on individual books or under the name of the eponymous author.
Considerable scholarly debate surrounds the meaning of two crucial terms that underlie the rabbinic approach to exegesis. Peshat, literally ‘to strip off’, is used to clarify the ‘plain meaning’, which is not always to be equated with the literal meaning of a text. Rimon Kasher defines it as ‘an exegetical method that seeks to expose the meaning of scripture by considering its context, using philological insights and with historical “awareness”’ (Kasher 1988: 553; emphasis original). He describes the difficulty of defining midrashic interpretation thus:
A cursory glance at the scholarly research on midrashic literature suffices to indicate the incredible number of conceptions, definitions and characterizations. Some emphasize the purpose (religious, educational or social), some focus on the function of midrashic literature in Jewish society, others attempt to characterize the midrash by its literary genre, while still others emphasize techniques and methods. It seems to me that we ought to define midrashic by referring to the definition of peshat. In other words, an interpretation which does not fit the criteria for peshat will be considered as midrash/derash.
Peshat consists of two principal elements: 1. Exposing the original or contextual meaning of the text through a historical awareness and 2. use of methods based mainly on context and philology. Thus, a midrash does not always fulfil both requirements: it does not always seek to reveal the original or contextual meaning of scripture, nor is it always a response to legitimate problems of interpretation. Moreover, even when the midrash does answer to the first requirements of peshat, the difference between the method of the midrash and of the peshat is particularly striking. The midrash completely ignores both the context and the rules of biblical language. (Kasher 1988: 560; emphasis original)
David Weiss Halivni warns against making a value judgement on the rabbinic approach to exegesis.
It is my contention that the rabbis did not share our devotion to the simple literal meaning. Exegesis is ‘timebound’. Each interpretive state of mind has its own system of exegesis, and the rabbis' interpretive state of mind did not dictate to them that the simple, literal meaning was inherently superior to the applied meaning. Although they generally began their interpretations of the Bible with the simple, literal meaning of the text, they did not feel committed to it. The slightest provocation, most often an apparently superfluous word or letter, moved them to abandon it.
This position is difficult for a modem exegete to grasp. The modem state of mind demands a greater faithfulness to the simple, literal meaning (to the peshat), and a greater obligation to preserve it. Only in the face of virtually insurmountable problems is this approach abandoned. The presence of an extra word, letter, or even an entire phrase can be easily seen as a stylistic peculiarity. Peshat, from this point of view, is synonymous with exegetical truth, and one does not abandon truth lightly. But to the rabbis of the Talmud, deviation from peshat was not repugnant. Their interpretative state of mind saw no fault with an occasional reading in. It was not against their exegetical conscience, even though it may be against ours. (Halivni 1991: 8–9)
We will examine the Midrash further in the next section, after addressing the more general issue of some of the assumptions underlying rabbinic interpretation.
Given that the Hebrew Bible is seen as the word of God, and thus the potential source of all knowledge, wisdom, and practice, there are nevertheless two broad divisions in the approach to interpretation, though they may overlap and be expressed in different forms and terminologies in different periods. One approach seeks to be rational, and insists on the plain meaning of the text as being the prime source of information about the will of God. Nevertheless, there is considerable debate about what constitutes the ‘plain meaning’ in any given context. This approach is characterized by the Talmudic axiom that occurs three times: dibra tora kil'shon b ‘nei-adam, ‘The words of Torah are expressed in human language’ (Berakhot 31b; Sanhedrin 85a; Nedarim 3a). In these contexts are sentences wherein certain words are repeated, and the axiom asserts that these repetitions are simply conventional forms of expression in biblical Hebrew. The intention is to counter the approach, commonly found in the Midrash, that is not bound by the plain meaning and seeks in every seemingly redundant word or even letter a hint of a further concealed truth. An example would be the way an interpreter addresses the particle et, which simply indicates that the word that follows is the object of the verb. Those who follow the teachings of Rabbi Aqiba would seek in each use of et additional elements to be governed by the particular law.
A second axiom mediates between the two approaches: ein miqra yotzei middei peshuto, ‘no biblical verse ever loses its plain meaning’ (Shabbat 63a). That is to say, whatever midrashic interpretations may be found, the plain meaning remains and must be reckoned with. The distinction between peshat and derash is not universally made in the early rabbinic materials, but became more directly addressed in the medieval rabbinic commentaries.
The same rational tendency can be seen at work in the formulation of hermeneutic rules to govern the modes of interpretation of legal matters. Thirteen such rules are attributed to Rabbi Ishmael, a text to be found in standard editions of Jewish daily liturgy, and other collections exist. They seek to provide a consistent and logical methodology: for example, the argument from minor to major, the comparison of two passages because of the appearance of a common word in both, or how to treat cases in the Bible where a general rule is followed by a detailed example, and vice versa. Such principles are not always followed, nor do they account for all the exegetical methods employed by the rabbis. Nevertheless, they do point to the desire to find a rational basis to the interpretation and application of the law.
The tension between these approaches, which we might term ‘rational’ and ‘mystical’, can be seen in the different ways in which the rabbis approached the chronology within the Hebrew Bible. The question arises as to who wrote the last verses of the book of Deuteronomy that record the death of Moses. One view conforms with the rational approach: ‘Moses wrote his own book and the section [in Numbers 22–4] about Balaam, as well as the Book of Job. Joshua wrote his own book and the last eight verses of the Book of Deuteronomy’ (Baba Bathra 14b). This view is given in the name of Rabbi Joshua or Rabbi Nehemiah, but is challenged by Rabbi Simeon: ‘ “Could the scroll of the Torah be short of even a single word?! Yet it is written: Take this book of the Torah (Deut 31: 26). Rather, from here onwards [i.e. the last eight verses of Deuteronomy] the Holy One, blessed be He, dictated and Moses wrote it down with tears in his eyes” ’ (Baba Bathra 15a). Rabbi Simeon's view, that divine inspiration, or human imagination, transcends the limitations of chronology, became the dominating approach in ‘Aggadic’ Midrash. (The term ‘Aggadah’, literally ‘narrative’, designates all the material not of a legal (‘Halakhic’) character in the Midrash.) The Torah thus becomes a document that transcends time and space. Biblical characters and events become alive and actual in any contemporary situation, a constant source of inspiration and guidance.
One final feature of rabbinic discourse, common to Talmud and Midrash, needs to be noted: namely, the acceptance of a plurality of views on the possible meaning of an individual passage standing alongside one another, and seemingly given equal weight. How could it be otherwise, the argument seems to run, when the words of Scripture are those of an all-powerful and all-knowing God, and thus could not possibly be contained within a single meaning. It is articulated in the rabbinic phrase that there are ‘seventy faces to the Torah’ (Otiyyot d'Rabbi Aqiba 8a). The Midrash describes its own activity in precisely these terms in a justly celebrated image: ‘Someone from the school of Rabbi Ishmael transmitted: “[Is not My word like fire, said the Lord] and like a hammer that shatters the rock?” ’ (Jer 23:29). Just as each blow of a hammer strikes forth many sparks, so a single verse unfolds into many senses (Sanhedrin 34a). Naturally when it comes to the need for a decision in a legal matter which has practical consequences, within the Talmud or the subsequent legal codes, one opinion will be chosen as binding, but the other opinions are preserved for possible future re-evaluation. When no conclusion could be reached in a celebrated debate between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, a heavenly voice intervened and declared: ‘Both these and these are the words of the living God, but the law follows the school of Hillel’ (Erubin 13b). Why was Hillel's judgement preferred? Because he would quote the opinions of his opponent as well as his own. Apart from the legitimacy given to both sides of such a debate, the passage suggests that if there is no debate conducted with integrity and honesty between scholars, then God is no longer ‘living’!