Monday, November 4, 2013

Getting back to the basic text

There is nothing more interesting than watching people argue about the meaning of a three-thousand-year-old text.
I started thinking about this when Thing 1 told the parsha over Shabbos.  Of course, she repeated what she had been taught by Morah (whose critical thinking skills are suppressed by dogma), so Esav became EEEEEVVIIIIILLLL.  This of course, was Mommy's little introduction to the difference between commentary and text.  Unfortunately, we often confuse one for the other.
Was Esav really evil?  Rashi says so, but there is nothing in the actual story that would lend itself to that interpretation.  After all, Yaakov, the "embodiment of truth," screwed his brother out of his birthright AND his blessing.  Yeah, Esav was mad enough to kill, but when they were reunited years later, all he wanted to do was literally kiss and make up.
It seems that we know more about Rashi's interpretation of the text than we do about the text itself.  I had once mentioned to Chavie (she dropped me like a hot rock after I left Builder, which is why you don't hear from her anymore) that Yaakov kissed Rachel.  Her response?  "No, he didn't!"  I made her pull out a Chumash and look it up.  Oops.  Guess they never covered that verse in Bais Yaakov.  ("And Jacob kissed Rachel and lifted up his voice and wept." Bereshis 29.11  It's in this week's parsha if you want to look it up.)
Of course, arguing over Bereshis is just family history.  The real fun is Vayikra, or Leviticus, a book that spurs heated debates even among non-Jews.  Or at least one particular verse does.  "And with man, you shall not lie as with woman; it is an abomination." (Vayikra 18.22)  This verse comes from the parsha Acharei Mos.  This parsha also contains a DETAILED description of the Yom Kippur service that G-d demands.  Now, I have not been to every shul in the world, the US or even Brooklyn, but I have never seen the kohanim of a shul push a goat off a cliff.  What?  You didn't know about that?  Yeah, see, we're kind of supposed to do that on Yom Kippur.  In Yerushalayim.  In other parts of Leviticus, tattoos, pork, and shellfish are banned.  When those who protest gay marriage expend even a tenth of the energy they spend on gay marriage attempting to shut down Red Lobster, I might, (might) take them a little more seriously. Until then, I'd like to remind you that the Torah is not up for cherry-picking. 
In fact the Tanach is not up for cherry-picking.  Instead of worrying about the meaning of the exact punctuation of the third verse in the second chapter of Masechtas Shabbos, I think it would be beneficial to study the Nevi'im.  I mean REALLY study them.  They have some pretty harsh words for those who think that having four hecchsherim on your potato chips exempts you from not being judgmental and cruel to others.  That you can be as racist as you want as long as you only use the right kind of pre-torn toilet paper on Shabbos.  That the right yeshiva matters more than the ethics being taught therein.  Let's get our heads out of the commentaries and back to the actual text.


  1. You gotta dig, but there are some kinder comments about Esau among the rabbis. Check out Bereshit Rabbah 65:16. It comments on Gen 27:15 - "And Rebecca took Esau's fine garments [to give to Jacob when he goes to his father]." It questions why Esau, the hunter, had fine clothes. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel tells us it was to wait on his father, Isaac. "All my life I waited on my father, but I haven't reached even one hundredth of the level of Esau in honouring his father. When I waited on my father I would wear tatty garments and go out in smart garments. But Esau waited on his father in the garments of royalty." Esau did his best to honor his father.

  2. actually all of your insights have been brought up before - the people who felt as you do were known as Sadducees - who recognized (as you suggest to do) only the Written Torah (I think that is what you meant by 3000 year old text)
    signed - seeker of truth

    1. There has been a move to go back to the text for ages. It started with the Sadducees, and continues with the modern-day Karaites.

    2. before you learn commentaries, you have to know the text. I try my best to point out what is midrash, and what is p'shat. I also tend not to skip in p'shat, hence I just taught my 9 yo about Yakov kissing Rachel. He rolled his eyes and said: They are in love! I'm a bit disturbed to think that people do not even know that it's in the Torah.

    3. Is that who you identify with?

    4. AQ can correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't see her saying that we need to do nothing but a fundamentalist, literal reading of the Written Torah and ignore the entire Talmud.

      Commentary has its place, but a solid knowledge of the actual text is important. The wonderful thing, IMHO, about traditional Jewish commentary is that it demonstrates a tremendous intellectual tradition, an ability to analyze texts on multiple levels and debate and try to reconcile different viewpoints. Simply memorizing a commentary, not fully reading the text and taking that commentary at face value instead of learning how it was derived is profoundly anti-intellectual.

      I'm always a little leary of the "no cherry picking" line. I understand the argument that you don't get to be a fanatic and tell others that they are Doing It Wrong when you are actually breaking rules yourself. At the same time - are you arguing that there is no room for individual judgment at all? Am I guilty of "cherry picking" when I keep kosher but have no issues supporting same-sex marriage or arguing that a lesbian client should have custody of kids since her sexuality is irrelevant?

    5. When you keep kosher, you are making a personal choice. When you agitate against the legality of same-sex religions in a democracy while ignoring every other commandment in the same book, you're cherry-picking.

    6. Isn't the real issue, though, the idea of agitating against the civil rights of others on the basis of your religion? If someone's trying to shove their religion down other people's throats, does it really matter whether they are hypocrites or total fanatics?

      I hear the "no cherry picking" argument a lot, and I've probably made it a few times, but I find that there are times when it falls short on this issue. What do I say to my rabbi if he really is sincere and does follow the other laws? Does that give him a license to give a sermon saying "we love all Jews - but the Torah clearly describes this act as an abomination and not something to celebrate"? Would he be cherry-picking if he stopped making sermons like that because he was offending important people in the congregation, even if he had a literal belief in the entire Torah? (Suffice it to say that this has been a real issue in my shul, esp. as some of the most religious congregants also have close gay relatives.)

  3. When you start trying to understand the text without the Oral Law, these questions/problems arise, and don't go away. In any event, the "back to the basics" approach doesn't work with Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is, at any given moment, what it has morphed into, not what it once was or what it "should" be. If Orthodox Judaism says Esav was evil, he was evil. (I don't have a big problem with that, since odds are he and the Patriarchs et al never existed, anyway).

  4. Also, upon rereading the comments, I see confusion about "commentaries" vs. "oral law". Believing in the truth of the commentaries is not binding, but believing in the truth of the oral law is.


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