A Jewish Reading of Text and Culture

The following was (mostly) written a while ago after reflecting on a particular incident, the specifics of which are not irrelevant in general, but is now not germane to the reflections.

Allow me to briefly reflect on a Jewish hermeneutics: The way some Jews have interpreted texts and culture. I do not claim to present the authoritative view of all Jews and Judaism, but a view of Judaism from the perspective as a congregational rabbi and researcher.

For more than two millennia the Jewish people has been immersed in culture that mixed oral traditions and literature. The interpretative communities have been sensitive to what is said, what is written and the blank spaces in between.

When the rabbinic sages, some 1500-2000 years ago, read and talked about texts, they regarded the juxtaposition of ideas as just as important as the discrete elements. This was the beauty of the Hebrew Bible. The wonderful exponent of theory, Auerbach, in his comparison of Greek literature and the Bible points to the majesty of the biblical text itself and the reason it has been the subject of interpretation for countless generations. The Bible does not tell you everything, only that which is necessary for the narrative at that moment. Extraneous details are left for the imagination and where details are provided, if they seem redundant they beg the question – why are they provided in the first place?

We interrogated our cultural landscape with such intensity that we had become masters of hermeneutics.

There is a famous set of logical rules, somewhat disputed as to their provenance and the extent of their application, known as the ‘Thirteen Hermeneutical Rules of Rabbi Ishmael’. I know that teaching these rules to rabbinic students the great detail of the rules is often baffling. Yet the rules do what comes naturally to a sensitive reader – they layer meaning and interpretative qualities on to texts.

This is a gift and a challenge. For when we think of the layers of meaning beneath every statement we are at risk of what I used to be driven mad by when a young student of English at school. We may create meaning where there is none. How do we know what was intended by the speaker, the author (let us suppose by which we mean, God), is the meaning which we have discovered?

The answer is, we don’t (always a problem, even today). A text with its ancient mythical origins in the distant world of revelation on Sinai, a deus absconditus – a God whose direct communication is absent from our lives – and a community in search of meaning, make for an interpretative world view that is autonomous but for its search for meaning.

The author, even the Ultimate author, does not have the power to dictate terms of meaning and interpretation. We, who are mortal and who search for meaning, are at the mercy of our own efforts, be they individual or communal. There is no power for the author, even the author who never dies, to lay claim to the correct or incorrect interpretative outcome.

This idea becomes most clear in the event of one of the most famous texts in all of the Talmud – our discursive layered text from some 1500 years ago. In this incredible narrative, the sages of their time argue over the correct determination of law. As they discuss there is one dissenting voice. Yet the dissenting voice, in spite of being correct in stark terms regarding the ‘opinion’ of God, is deemed to be wrong. For the text is no longer in possession of the Divine, it is now in our hands. To the extent that plain meanings can be reversed.

As I wrote some two years ago:

“In this Talmudic text (bBava Metzia 59b) we have a reading of the text so radical that it takes on the opposite meaning to the ‘plain’ sense, ‘It is not in heaven’ that is the Torah is not in heaven. Which is to say, once God has given the words of the Torah, it is for us to interpret – the ultimate death of the author – and we can interpret the text so radically that in spite of God telling the majority of the rabbis they were incorrect in their interpretation the sages quote, “After the majority one should incline”. Which is the complete opposite of the meaning of the verse. They quote it to mean Rabbi Eliezer should follow the majority of his colleagues, but the verse says, “do not…follow after the majority to pervert justice.” (Exodus 23:2). Talk about ‘chutzpah’ – instead of a warning about being swayed by the majority the Talmud turns the phrase into a command to follow the majority.”

But if you wanted to take things further, one could take the view, as mentioned by many interpreters but possibly nearly 2000 years old that “there is no earlier and no later in the Torah”. Which is to say, we cannot even read the narrative text as a chronological layering of events. The Golden Calf (famously interpreted using this ‘method’) is a pre-event to the instruction of the Tabernacle – something that does not fit with our linear reading of the text.

And this really brings us to the, nearly, most radical reading method that the Jewish sage brings to bear on her or his sacred literature and the interpretation of culture. When we ‘read’ culture, we are not only reading a linear, albeit corrupted chronological, flow of text. The possibility exists for the oral and written materials to intersect in ways that separate themselves from any possible association in ‘at-first-sight-logical’ approaches and result in what appears to be the intersection of mere words, phrases and ideas from disassociated moments in time (either through the passing of time or geography). In this sense, the whole of culture is juxtaposed against itself to provide meaning for its present and future. The past, the disparate and the seemingly isolated, pockets of cultural layers, of literary tapestries, are read alongside one another, such that the mere mention of an idea in one place lends meaning to the same idea in another.

Finally, we are moved to the most radical of hermeneutical approaches. Herein we find the dismantling of syllables, words and ‘plain’ sense in order to reveal a deeper deconstructed voice. Behind even this most far-fetched of reading methodologies, it is possible to identify an attempt to discern the will of God. God’s imprimatur is recognisable on the most obscure text as read by a devoted interpreter.

My intention is not necessarily to articulate a hierarchy of interpretative approaches, or to be misinterpreted as demonstrating a close similarity to other hermeneutic approaches of modernity and post-modernity. The rabbinic interpretative exercise, even in its most radical, was intended to discern the Divine will behind the text. But I write this rather to explain why, it could be argued, there are many Jews who are brought up on this fine tuning of reading a cultural landscape. It is not an essentially Jewish trait, but it is an intrinsic part of the history of Jewish reading of our sacred texts. In a wider cultural realm this outlook is utterly transferable. We read our cultural landscape in complex ways, sometimes with dramatic and creative associations, occasionally suspicious, and often enriching.