HOW TO READ JEWISH TEXTS


1. All textual interpretation reflects the cultural use of texts, hence relative to culture - no universal rules of interpretation, but within a culture can be objective.

2. Many levels of Jewish interpretation. Peshat is the literal, logical meaning of the text. The easiest to introduce, not the most important.

3. Peshat achieved via critical questioning - any logical critique must be raised and addressed. Examples:

a. language - grammar, semantics, sentence structure etc. - comparative analysis using whole Bible - justified by (sec.) self-conscious addition of each book to existing corpus, and (rel.) all authored (five books of Moses, Prophets) or inspired (Writings) by G-d. Can be overridden in extreme cases.

            b. consistency, within one context and throughout Bible - justified as (a)

            c. redundancy - justified by (sec.) extreme brevity of Bible, and (rel.) G-d's purposefulness 

            d. psychology of narrative

            e. accuracy of rationale for laws (if text provides one)

            f. etc. etc.

4. Two types of questions: request for information (she-ela), some sort of contradiction (kushia). Kushia is enforced by suggesting an "improved" rewriting of the text.

5. Two types of interpretations: deduced from the text leaving no alternative; explaining the text which answers all the questions, but leaves open the possibility of other answers.

6. Beware misplaced piety: critical questioning expresses the trust that the text can make sense!

7. Example - second Rashi on Gen. 1:1.

a. Problem: בראשית ברא is literally "In the beginning of [G-d] created" – grammatically inconsistent!

b. The Rabbis comment: read ב as "For the sake of" and ראשית as a code word for "The Torah" or "The Jewish People" - "For the sake of the Torah/Jewish People [G-d] created...." - but this is not peshat (code words)

c. Rashi's peshat: read "created" as "creating"; compare Hoshea 1:2

d. critic: better to read as elliptical by adding "everything" - "In the beginning of everything [G-d] created...." There are textual parallels, and this saves creation ex nihilo

e. Rashi: the next verse mentions water which has no origin according to the critic; creation ex nihilo must be derived elsewhere

f. conclusions: grammar, comparative text, context and logic determine peshat; authority of the Rabbis is irrelevant - their comments are true, essential, fundamental, but not always peshat; no theological axes to grind


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