Exegesis and Eisegesis: Response to a Reader


You wrote: “People read in their own thoughts to what they want a text to say – only skipping the nicety of reading their findings into a Maamar Chazal. The result is the same. People see Torah discourse about all matters outside of halacha is nothing more than a debating club, using bits of Hebrew and Aramaic phraseology to sound authentic. They therefore come to believe that there is no such thing as an authentic Torah view, or set of views – to the exclusion of those that are inauthentic.”

Can you please give one or more concrete examples of this (the ideas, not the persons who expressed them)? It would go a long way toward helping me (and probably others) understand the parameters of the discussion. Thank you.

Forgive me if I only meet you half way. I am reluctant to point a finger at ideas that can be associated with specific authors who are fine people. As I mentioned previously, Rav Yisrael Salanter bemoaned the fact that rabbonim in his generation cheapened Chazal in his estimation, by turning it into nothing more than a springboard for their rabbinic imaginations. Those he criticized were surely fine talmidei chachamim. His criticism of them was not meant to turn them into objects of scorn. I would like to remain free of that taint myself.

Instead, I will offer extreme examples of what I mean, and hope that readers can sense that the same phenomenon occurs in tamer areas:

1) A colleague of mine, visiting one of the first gay synagogues decades ago on Shabbos Kedoshim, heard the rabbi hold forth on the pasuk dealing with male homosexuality. “If Bill and Steve are in a relationship, and they accept each other for who they are with love and commitment to each other, their relationship is certainly blessed and approved of by the Torah. If, however, Bill insists on relating to Steve as if he were a woman, this is the intent of the Torah of mishkevai ishah, and is indeed an abomination!”
2) A heterodox rabbi circulated a letter decrying the proliferation of baalei teshuvah in the community. These people now turn against their own families, by refusing to eat in their homes just because they are not kosher, etc. They are fanatics. This can be demonstrated by the Akeidah, where Abraham clearly failed his test, because he was ready to be a fanatic in the service of G-d. Fortunately, G-d stayed his hand at the last moment, thereby instructing him that Judaism has no place for fanatics.
3) Orthodox rabbis in the US before the Civil War used Chumash to prove their positions. Northern rabbis for the most part proved that the Torah was anti-slavery; their colleagues in the South proved the opposite.
4) The devil quoth Scripture. So do Neturei Karta and, at times, the New Israel Fund.

I hope you get my drift. Virtually anything can be read into a pasuk. I personally do not doubt that our holy Torah is an inexhaustible spring of new insights. Each generation can find new depth and beauty in it that has not been articulated previously. On the other hand, each new generation can also find an endless supply of boring platitudes, not to mention absurdities and heresies, by claiming to find support in the text.

How do we tell the difference? There are several ways. One of them is to understand that not all contributors to Torah literature are created equal. We can assume that Chazal offered us neither platitude nor heresy. We can’t necessarily assume the same for later – and certainly contemporary – authors.

People (including the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l in an early work) argued that Rashi was not deaf to the claim that much of what he presents in Chumash hardly seems like simple pshat, despite his promising to deliver just that. Rather, Rashi deliberately limited his options to a large extent to approaches found within the literature of Chazal. His goal was to open Chumash up to the reader specifically through the world view and hashkafah of Chazal, because the Torah Jew never “reads” Torah in a vacuum. Torah she-b’al peh is not a tool we pick up from a rack when we need it. It is the lens through which we view all parts of the Torah, whether halachic or otherwise. It is the safest way to go in ensuring that we are listening to Hashem’s kolah delo pasik, rather than our own musings.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not believe that Rashi is the only Rishon who should be read. I do believe that there have been brilliant contributions to Torah literature in all generations, and that more will be forthcoming. I also believe, however, that as a consumer of Torah, the best certificate of authenticity I can look for is the consistency of the author’s conclusions with the worldview of Chazal. More importantly, I believe that it is sound educational policy to keep teaching Chumash to children the way we have for centuries. Rashi ought to be the foundational Rishon, the one which takes pride of place. Everything else can be built upon that foundation, including those who disagree with Rashi, or who insist that Rashi need not necessarily always be taken literally. (The age at which this process should begin would be a good topic for later discussion, but does not belong here.)

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