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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14 comments to Exegesis and Eisegesis: Response to a Reader

  • joel rich

    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.
    =================================================
    Am I correct that when you say “the worldview of Chazal” you mean “the worldview of the way later generations of rabbinic authorities understand the mainstream views of Chazal”? IMHO many seem to understand there being a single authoratative worldview, if one studies talmudic sources one finds many “outliers” which could support theories which most current rabbis would find unacceptable.
    KT

    [YA – I’m not much of a fan of a monochromatic view of Torah. I definitely mean the former – incorporating all the differences. Even accounting for those differences, you can still draw boundaries within which dwell rov minyan and rov binyan of the baalei mesorah through the generations. Beyond those boundaries, you continue at your own peril.]

  • Daniel Weltman

    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.

    There are a number of examples of Chazal presenting views which today would be considered heresy by the general public (perhaps informed by the Rambam’s 13 Principles). One ready example is אין משיח לישראל of Rabbi Hillel (Sanhedrin 69a). This does not reduce Rabbi Hillel’s standing, just as the Ralbag’s (by today’s general standards, heretical) views on God’s omniscience do not reduce his standing.

    [YA – 1) The Chasam Sofer, in fact, did argue that anyone who today accepts Hillel II’s position should be deemed an apikorus 2) The Ralbag’s standing is not diminished, but his position can be firmly stated to be outside the “spirit that pervades the corpus of Torah,” to use your felicitous phrase.]

    What I mean to say is that often, heresy or validity depends on who is doing the reading. A decision on the validity of a hermeneutical point made by an author really does ultimately rest in the eye of the reader. The reader takes the totality of his Torah knowledge and tests the view in question against it. (Of course, the greater knowledge the reader has, the greater weight (generally) his judgement will carry with others.) However, we cannot simply say, it matches a ma’amar chazal, so it is valid (or does not, and so is invalid).

    There is no doubt that the extreme examples you brought above are not only at odds with the totality of prior exegesis, but also against the spirit that pervades the corpus of the Torah. Furthermore, they explain a verse in a specific way because it suits their fancy at the moment for a political or ethical point they wish to make; they do none of the research to bring their explanation into harmony or even to point out the tensions between their explanations and the rest of Torah literature. This cynical use of Torah is not so much exegesis as sophistry. These are the reasons that they are invalid, not the fact that they do not agree with Chazal.

    [YA – Again, besides those reasons, there is an additional one to reject them. They disagree not only with Chazal, but with that entire corpus of Torah thought you spoke about.]

    The reverse, incidentally, is also true. Often verses and talmudic concepts are brought as support for lofty ideas (this is especially common in sermons), but upon closer examination, these verses and talmudic concepts are victims of a lazy orator, and do not support the use being made of them. I believe this is in line with what R’ Yisrael Salanter bemoaned, a lack of rigor in the delivery of Torah.

    [YA – What I heard in the beis medrash was not that he bemoaned lack of rigor, but that if you can make maamarei Chazal say anything, then they say nothing. He bemoaned the fact that Chazal were trying to communicate something, and when we make them entirely pliable and plastic, we lose what they were trying to convey. Similarly, I think, those who simply disregard Chazal and spend most of their time (or the even more precious time of a classroom of talmidim) on original approaches – which may have a good deal of truth and beauty in them – are doing a great disservice.] +

    It is the safest way to go in ensuring that we are listening to Hashem’s kolah delo pasik, rather than our own musings.

    It is true that there is danger in creative exegesis. The very narrow line between some kabbalistic thought and heresy is certainly warning to those who venture to the limits. However, addition to the body of Oral Torah of our own חידושים, insights and explanations can never be accomplished without some bravery and willingness to make mistakes. We can always re-examine and review in order to make sure that to the best of our ability we are furthering God’s voice in this world and not muting it. But when we never engage in this, and stay “safe”, stagnation occurs.

    [YA – No argument with this]

  • YEA

    Where can the original article be found, and what does “kolah delo pasik” mean?

    [YA – I don’t remember! It was a comment to one of the articles in the thread about the way we ought to look at Rashi.

    “Kolah delo pasik” is in Onkelos about Maamad Har Sinai. While some render a pasuk as setting forth that the sound was no longer heard, Onkelos renders it as the sound that never ceased. This is consistent with the notion that human beings cannot natively understand any part of Torah because of its loftiness. It is only the power of an ongoing revelation that miraculously allows the Dvar Hashem to penetrate the human soul.]

  • Yeedle

    the best certificate of authenticity I can look for is the consistency of the author’s conclusions with the worldview of Chazal

    Just as everything can be darshened into a passuk, can’t everything (well, almost everything) be darshened into Chazal? How can we know what is “Chazal’s worldview”?

    [YA – I am not sure if there is any short cut, other than ascertaining – either through one’s own years of broad study, or through a trusted rebbi who has done that study – which ideas are in synch with those of many other important luminaries, and which appear completely foreign to all others. Sometimes, the latter may still be valid, but they have to be eyed with more suspicion.]

  • dr. bill

    There is relevant insight into how to interpret scriptures based on Prof. Halbertal book, “The People of the Book,” that is largely supportive of your view. First, there is no unique / correct interpretation. OTOH there are certainly incorrect ones. There is a faith community that treats the bible as holy and the source of normative behavior. Interpretation must conform to such normative / halakhic behavior; like Talmudic theory, biblical interpretation must adhere to similar rules to be considered a part of our canon / Holy Scriptures. We correct a sefer torah based on our current halakhic view, not because we believe it is the only one that matches the original text. So too interpretation. That said, we do not derive definitive support for halakhic issues from such interpretations; rabbis who do, left and right, often have a not too well disguised agenda.

    Second, our concern is with the Bible as it is, not as it was. What biblical stories may have also implied to their original readers is of academic but not religious interest.

  • lacosta

    this probably gets very complicated. the satmar rebbe proved that Zionism is akin to a Cardinal Sin; to zionist rabbis , the exact opposite…

    the LRebbe holds a sheitel is the epitome of tznius . to rav ovadia, it’s like going naked…

    current charedi thought seems to indicate that if the world is believed older than 5772 years old, you are a heretic. to others , if you believe that you are politely an ignoramus…

    no doubt if one is taught that there is no eilu v’eilu , than all other thought action and policy is heterodox , even if that means 99% of jews would then fall into that box…..

    [YA – ‘Fraid that this is all largely extraneous to our topic, which is NOT diversity and eilu va-elu. The topic at hand is parshanut. What tools, and whose authority (if any) do we utilize is approaching a pasuk in Tanach.]

  • Daniel Weltman

    Second, our concern is with the Bible as it is, not as it was. What biblical stories may have also implied to their original readers is of academic but not religious interest.

    This is incorrect. Of course we care from a religious perspective what the Biblical stories implied to their original readers. If we do not, we have lost any claim to a masorah. Is the irony here lost on you? It is only through a careful and exacting attempt to understand what the Torah meant to our forefathers who received it, that we can appreciate the chain of transmission and how later generations applied the life giving standards and foundations to the realia of life. You cannot decide to imagine a chain of transmission beginning in the age in which you feel most comfortable.

    Note that your statement truly stands in stark contrast with Rabbi Adlerstein’s point about people using the verses of the Torah merely as a springboard for their imaginations. That is a necessary result of the attitude you have articulated, since, if we do not care how things were interpreted in the past, what is to stop us from presenting our own isolated interpretations now (or in the times of the Talmud, or ever)?

    The Talmud itself recognizes changes in the text of our Torah throughout history (אין אנו בקיאים ביתירות וחסירות). Rabbi Yehuda Hachasid, Rambam, Ibn Ezra, are only a few examples of commentators who were concerned deeply with the form of the Torah throughout the ages, and also the changes that occur in its interpretation. Their interest was not (only) academic, but religious, of course.

  • SZiskind

    Just a little comment about something that is somewhat trivial but a nitpick of mine: You mention the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l. If you’re speaking about the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, who is also known as the Rebbe Raya”tz, that name is appopriate and is how he is referred to in Lubavitch, but if you’re talking about the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Harav Menachem Mendel, zy”a, it doesn’t work, because saying previous indicates there is a current Rebbe, and if you know about a current Rebbe, please tell me where he is.

    Since the last rebbe explained Rashi in his sichos on many occasions I’m assuming you’re talking about him?

    [YA – Yes, but I was referring to a specific early chibur he wrote on Rashi, not to any sichos]

  • L. Oberstein

    “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”
    I have just returned from a very well stocked Pesach Program, not only endless food, but non stop rabbinical sermonizinf, shiurim, story telling ,etc. You are, of course, right that even the Devil can quote scripture,but I heard Chassidic “Torah’ that bears no relationship to pshat, Sephardi “Torah” that only makes sense if you are attuned to another channel, the Kabbalah Channel, and the wisdom of my good griend, David Fohrman, who finds meaning in verses that no previous scholar ever uncovered.Each speaker made a lot of sense, but how much of what any of them said is actual pshat is a matter of opinion. This is not to criticize, only to wonder what in the world Rav Salanter found new in his day,when this kind of taking liberties with the words has been going on since time immemorial.

  • Dan Daoust

    You ended off with this: “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.)”

    I would just make the observation that in my personal experience and from what I’ve gathered from friends, the current age at which this process begins in the Yeshiva world is never. It never begins. Children are taught the midrashim that Rashi cites as if they are descriptions of the pashut p’shat (just look at the pictures they bring home on Fridays), and they are never told otherwise later (never mind how much later). By strong implication they are led to believe that there really is no difference between the p’shatim that Rashi himself distinguishes as pashut vs. drash, let alone when Rashi is silent on the matter. Both p’shat and drash are treated as a record of what literally happened in the physical universe that we inhabit. This inculcation is never undone later on. I have never borne witness to and have never heard of any single Rebbe in a “mainstream” Yeshiva ever deciding to be brave enough to mention that we are explicitly permitted to not take those midrashim literally. (One exception: the Bible professors at YU, whose glee they do not attempt to contain as they trample all over their students’ cherished beliefs.)

    If this process were to actually be introduced to talmidim, even as late as 12th grade, and not in a flamboyant way, of course, I think it would be a huge help. I think blog topics such as the topic of this very post would eventually become unnecessary, or at least not as pressing. At least people would have a skill set with which to tackle the questions that inevitably crop up later in life, instead of relying on a hybrid of not thinking about it and assuming that someone else will answer people’s questions.

  • Netanel Livni

    >What I heard in the beis medrash was not that he bemoaned lack of rigor, but that if you can make maamarei Chazal say anything, then they say nothing. He bemoaned the fact that Chazal were trying to communicate something, and when we make them entirely pliable and plastic, we lose what they were trying to convey.

    I strongly agreed with this. But I don’t think that the Rav would agree with my instincts to apply it to modern lomdishe methods, particularly, but not limited to brisk lomdus. One of the things that attracted me to the academic study of Torah was precisely the fact that I felt that its methods get one closer to the intensions of the texts and their authors than those of the beis midrash. This was also the concern of two of the great gedolim of the previous century.

    One of R’ YY Weinberg zt”l who wrote (quoted from and translated by Marc Shapiro in his biography of RYYW, p. 194):

    “While the ideas of R’ Hayim Soloveitchik are true from the standpoint of profound analysis, they are not always so from a historical standpoint, that is, with regard to the true meaning of Maimonides, whose way of study was different from that of Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik. This does not detract from the value of this intellectual genius who is worthy of being called a ‘new Maimonides”, though not always as an interpreter of Maimonides.”

    The other is HaRav HaNazir, R’ David Cohen zt”l who writes in his recently published personal journal (translation by me, Mishnat HaNazir p.). The Rav HaNazir traveled through Lita attending all the major yeshivot (Radin, Slobodka, Lida …) until he ended up in the academy of Baron Ginsberg and eventually in the university of Basel during which time he met R’ Kook and became one of his foremost students:

    “A few years later, I visited the Gaon HaRav Reiness zt”l at his home in Lida, and asked him, if the novella (chidushim) which we discover in the aggadic words of chazal are the true, [that is to say, are they what] the authors intended. He answered me: ‘if the ideas are true, that is the main thing [הוא העיקר]. Similarly, I asked HaRav HaGaon R’ Moshe Mordechai Epstein zt”l, in the yeshiva of slobodka, when I ascended to him, if the beautiful ideas [סברות] that we discover in halacha are true, [that is to say, what] chazal intended. and he answered me: ‘if the ideas are true, that is the main thing’. But was intuition told me, that according the true methods of studying, the ideas and reasonings [הסברות והרעיונות] need to be such that they agree with the original intentions of the authors of the aggada and halacha.”

    This is the messorah of those of us who refuse to either reinterpret texts (lets say rashi) allegorically if we feel that the results are not his true meaning. And at the same time, refuse to accept the interpretations of others (lets say rashi) when they disagree with our understanding of peshat in the texts in question. The truth is the stamp of Hashem, and is also the stamp of the value of our learning methods.

    [YA – You are correct that I do not agree fully. I don’t understand how citing two stellar figures of a previous generation somehow undoes the opposition to their view, in whole or in part, by others. Is the opposing view somehow invalid? Isn’t this one of the many areas where we must concede that there is diversity of opinion among true Torah luminaries, and that we therefore must conclude that Torah does not stand or fall (c”v) on the veracity of any one POV?]

  • Netanel Livni

    >What I heard in the beis medrash was not that he bemoaned lack of rigor, but that if you can make maamarei Chazal say anything, then they say nothing. He bemoaned the fact that Chazal were trying to communicate something, and when we make them entirely pliable and plastic, we lose what they were trying to convey.

    I strongly agree with this. But I don’t think that the Rav would agree with my instincts to apply it to modern lomdishe methods, particularly, but not limited to brisk lomdus. One of the things that attracted me to the academic study of Torah was precisely the fact that I felt that its methods get one closer to the intensions of the texts and their authors than those of the beis midrash. This was also the concern of two of the great gedolim of the previous century.

    One of R’ YY Weinberg zt”l who wrote (quoted from and translated by Marc Shapiro in his biography of RYYW, p. 194):

    “While the ideas of R’ Hayim Soloveitchik are true from the standpoint of profound analysis, they are not always so from a historical standpoint, that is, with regard to the true meaning of Maimonides, whose way of study was different from that of Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik. This does not detract from the value of this intellectual genius who is worthy of being called a ‘new Maimonides”, though not always as an interpreter of Maimonides.”

    The other is HaRav HaNazir, R’ David Cohen zt”l who writes in his recently published personal journal (translation by me, Mishnat HaNazir p.). The Rav HaNazir traveled through Lita attending all the major yeshivot (Radin, Slobodka, Lida …) until he ended up in the academy of Baron Ginsberg and eventually in the university of Basel during which time he met R’ Kook and became one of his foremost students:

    “A few years later, I visited the Gaon HaRav Reiness zt”l at his home in Lida, and asked him, if the novella (chidushim) which we discover in the aggadic words of chazal are the true, [that is to say, are they what] the authors intended. He answered me: ‘if the ideas are true, that is the main thing [הוא העיקר]. Similarly, I asked HaRav HaGaon R’ Moshe Mordechai Epstein zt”l, in the yeshiva of slobodka, when I ascended to him, if the beautiful ideas [סברות] that we discover in halacha are true, [that is to say, what] chazal intended. and he answered me: ‘if the ideas are true, that is the main thing’. But was intuition told me, that according the true methods of studying, the ideas and reasonings [הסברות והרעיונות] need to be such that they agree with the original intentions of the authors of the aggada and halacha.”

    This is the messorah of those of us who refuse to either reinterpret texts (lets say rashi) allegorically if we feel that the results are not his true meaning. And at the same time, refuse to accept the interpretations of others (lets say rashi) when they disagree with our understanding of peshat in the primary texts in question. The truth is the stamp of Hashem, and is also the stamp of the value of our learning methods.

    [YA – Ironically, someone I know both of us are fond of seems to disagree with your rejection of accepting interpretations that may not have been part of the original intention of the author. Rav Kook (Introduction to Ein Ayah, pg. 14) speaks of a quality that inheres in true Torah, whether that be psukim or ma’marei Chazal. Whatever words of Torah originally “meant,” they have within them the capacity to yield new gifts that flow from them like fresh water from a spring. His words follow:
    אמנם יש עוד יחש ידוע כמה יש בכח כל אותם הרעיונות הכלולים במאמר לפעול על רעיונות שיש להם יחש עמהם עפ”י הקישור ההגיוני…לא מצד עצם תכונת המאמר הפרטי, כ”א מצד הגבורה האלקית שהכינה את העולם השכלי ערוך בכל צרכיו ומוכן להרכבה לאין קץ…כמעין המתגבר שאינו פוסק…זהו הצד העליון שבדרכי הדרישה…מלשון באר, באר מיים חיים חדשים.]

  • Netanel Livni

    >You are correct that I do not agree fully. I don’t understand how citing two stellar figures of a previous generation somehow undoes the opposition to their view, in whole or in part, by others

    I don’t know if it undoes it. But speaking for myself (and I know other people who are serious about Torah learning feel the same way), the lomdishe methods often reach conclusions we find untenable at best and at worst, completely at odds with what the texts in question meant to say. Brisk is just an illustration of this. One just needs to look on how the Rambam and his son resolved difficulties in the Rambam’s texts vs. how R’ Chaim resolved such difficulties to get a sense of the exacerbation we feel when we read Brisk Torah. I was just pointing out that there were gedolim of the past that felt the same way and largely resolved the issue through modern academic methods.

    We are a generation that is highly historically aware and for many of us, the learning methods we emply must reflect this awareness. haRav haNazir and RYYW, both of whom were born into a this historicist world, refused to accept methods that rang false in their ears, and those of us who are searching for the truth of our texts should follow suit. Of course, if someone feels comfortable ignoring historical context, textual scholarship, philology in their studies, then this is all a non-issue. I was just pointing out that R’ Salanter’s criticism has a very different application in the modern era.

    [YA – So we can agree about the last point. Regarding the main point, it seems that what we have is the realization that Brisker Torah works terrifically for some people, fails miserably for others, and is someplace in between for a much greater number. In other words, while not every Brisk conclusion may be mi-Sinai, the Gaussian distribution (AKA the Bell Curve) most certainly is! :-) ]

  • Netanel Livni

    >Ironically, someone I know both of us are fond of seems to disagree with your rejection of accepting interpretations that may not have been part of the original intention of the author.

    Of course, and no student was as loyal to R’ Kook as Rav HaNazir whom I quote above. My guess is that he would answer that both are critical but one must understand the type of learning they are engaged in. I can appreciate midrash without confusing it for the peshat of the biblical text. I can appreciate R’ Chaim without confusing it for what the Rambam actually meant. I think that this is what RYYW meant by “This does not detract from the value of this intellectual genius who is worthy of being called a ‘new Maimonides’, though not always as an interpreter of Maimonides.”

    I think the problem is that the Brisker method is often praised as a method of parshanut, where it is really a method of chiddushim that uses texts as a jumping off point. In other words, I can appreciate Brisk when I am studying the Torah of Brisk, not so much when I am studying the Torah of the Rambam.

    [YA – OK, Nati, let’s summarize what we’ve come up with so far. We both agree that we can find much value in later treatments of earlier texts. We find that value in both halachic texts, as well as aggadic ones. We may (or may not!) disagree as to whether the later treatments represent a departure from the “true” intent of the original authors. Even where there might be a departure, we both have models through which to process them, and still find their insights useful and sometimes compelling. We both agree that there is value in some of the newer or more “scientific” methods of looking at old text. We may or may not disagree on how much value, and how to balance the more traditional methodologies with the newer ones.

    Sounds like we agree on much. That might make this a good time to bring this discussion – at least on this thread in Cross-Currents – to an end.]