Thursday, April 23, 2009

New Understandings of Old Books

In the comments to the last post about James Kugel, SS raises an interesting question: how does a contemporary reader understand older commentators who had a very different understanding of the origins of the Torah. Suppose a person believes that the Torah was written after Moses by multiple authors, later compiled and edited, and then interpreted in new ways by later interpreters, including the rabbis of the Talmud. And suppose the person believes the Torah is in some way divine. (There are lots of possible approaches here, all of which I am skipping over.) How should that person read and understand traditional commentators and halachic works (Talmud, midrashim, Rashi, Shulchan Aruch, etc.), all of which were written with a different understanding of the origins of the Torah, namely that God literally gave the Torah to Moses and the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai?

SS argues in his comment that these modern ideas undercut these traditional works and thus Orthodoxy. That is probably correct. But I am sure that people like James Kugel and Louis Jacobs believed in both the modern approach and the continuing relevance of these classical works. I think there are at least four ways in which we can read these classical texts, and some of these may even be relevant to Orthodox Jews with a modern scholarly appraoch to the Torah. Let's take counting the omer as an example.

In the most literal and narrow sense, the texts implicitly assume that one should do a mitzvah because God told the Jews on Mt. Sinai to do the mitzvah. At that narrow level, that claim would be rendered false by modern scholarship.

At a slightly broader level, the texts explain how to do a mitzvah. For example, the Talmud in Menachot 65b and 66a contains a detailed discussion of when to start counting the omer. More specifically, it discusses whether the "day after shabbat" (when counting the omer beings) refers to the day after Passover or the day after Saturday. The Talmud concludes it is the former. Even if one did not literally believe in the traditional understanding of TMS, one could still find this discussion and this conclusion useful. That is when the Jewish community starts counting the omer.

At an even broader level, one could find the discussion of a mitzvah valuable on its own, regardless of the theologically assumptions behind the discussion. For example, the kabbalists derived the idea of using the 49 different combinations of the seven lower sefirot to correspond to the 49 days of omer counting. As a literal description of the metaphysical universe --- emanations of God and all that --- this is pretty kooky. But on a much more grounded and practical level, it is quite appealing to think about these combinations, and doing so certainly has the ability to enrich ones life and one's Judaism. (It certainly is sparking some interesting discussions at my house, as my 7-year-old and 5-year-old kids (and my wife and I) discuss the netzach of chesed (the endurance or persistence of kindness), the yesod of gevurah (the bonding of strength), all the other combinations, what they mean, and how they apply to our lives.) These discussions are interesting and informative, regardless of the fact that the 13th or 16th century Kabbalists and I have very different understandings of things.

And at a structural level, one could think about the relationship between the broader ideas behind the works and particular texts. The Talmudic rabbis were quite legalistic. The Talmud contains no discussion about why one should count the omer or what one would get out of the experience. The issue solely concerns a heated discussion with Boethusians over what day it starts. Rashi and Ramban both lock on to this technical legal argument.

The Zohar, however, is a much freer work. It has a complex allegory involving spiritual purity and sex. It notes that a woman counts seven days after her menstrual cycles, becomes spiritually pure, and then is sexually and spiritually reunited with her husband. During the exodus, the Hebrews were freed from slavery, became spiritually pure for seven weeks, and then were united in covenant with God. So (concludes the Zohar), during the counting of the omer, Jews reach higher spiritual levels, become spritually pure, and ultimately become reunited with God on Shavuot. The Zohar contains no technical legal discussions; only a metaphyical discussion answering the implicit question of why we count the omer.

Much later, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch was trying to explain to his 19th Century German-Jewish readers why they should continue to observe the mitzvot. He provides a rationalistic framework for the holidays, and uses omer-counting to link Passover and Shavout.

All of these texts were addressing the issues that were relevant at the time, and were relying on the weltanschaung of their times. The issue for us today (regardless of denomination) is whether we can understand particular mitzvot in light of our own understanding of Judaism, and seeing how previous generations dealt with these issues gives us some insight into a Jewish approaches to these issues, even if we would ask very different questions and come up with very different answers.

The bottom line is that there are lots of ways of approaching traditional texts, and many of these approaches are quite fruitful, even if we have different understandings of the origin of the Torah than the authors of those texts.

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