Introductionary remarks by Nathan Lopes Cardozo at the conference on Interpreting the Torah Today – New Directions in Parshanuth, Kislev 28, 5765, December 12, 2004
Parashanuth, the art of biblical interpretation, is far more than the ability to know how to give expression to the deeper meaning of the biblical text. It is after all impossible to treat the biblical text as any other classical work. This is due to the fact that the people of Israel, according to Jewish Tradition, are not the author of this text but that the text is the author of the people. The text consisting of a covenant between God and man brought the people into being and despite the fact that the people often violated the commanding voice of this text, it created a specific and unique identity of the Jewish nation.
Reading and studying the text therefore is not like reading a conventional literary work. It requires a reading-art, which unfolds the essence and the nature of a living people struggling with life and Gods commandments.
This calls for a totally different kind of comprehension which must reflect a particular way of thought and attitude on the part of the student.
George Steiner expressed this well when he wrote: The Script is a contract with the inevitable. God has in the dual sense of utterance and binding affirmation given His word, His logos and His bond to Israel. It cannot be broken or refuted. (1)
As such the text must be approached in such a way that it reflects a human commitment to make sure that it indeed cannot be broken or refuted. This however has become a great challenge to modern Parshanuth. Many scholars and thinkers have been asking whether the unparalleled event of the Holocaust did not create a most serious existential crisis in which the text by definition was invalidated. Can we still seriously speak about a working covenant in which God promised to protect His people, now that 6 millions Jews, including nearly 2 million children, lost their lives within 5 years under the cruelest circumstances?
The reason for bringing up this question is not just the issue of the covenant being broken but also because history and specifically Jewish history was always seen as a living commentary on the biblical text. The text simultaneously gave significance to history and so received its religious meaning.
Can the text still be used in that sense, or has it lost its significance because history violated the criteria for proper and covenantal elucidation of the text?
Not for nothing have modern scholars suggested that, post-Holocaust, there is a need to liberate ourselves from this covenantal text in favor of shaping our destiny and history in totally secular terms. The Holocaust proved, they believe, that we only have ourselves to rely on and even the return to Israel is to be understood as a secular liberation of the Galuth experience.
It is in this context that Parashanuth needs to take on a new challenge: To show how the covenantal text is not only not broken or refuted but in fact fully capable of dealing with the new post Holocaust conditions of secularity. Without falling victim to apologetics, Parshanuth will have to give a totally novel way of understanding the Holocaust experience in a full religious setting based on the text and taking it beyond.
This issue is however related to some other crucial issues. Surveying Jewish history we see drastic changes in how the biblical text was encountered. In the beginning it was heard and not written. At first Moshe received the Torah through the spoken Word. The Word is very near to you for you to carry out through your mouth and your heart. (Devarim 30:14) God may be unimaginably far away but His voice is heard nearby and the only way to encounter Him.
At a later stage the Word receives a written form. And once this happens there is a process in which the spoken Word gets slowly but surely silenced and more and more substituted by the written form. With the eclipse of prophecy, Gods word is altogether silenced and now can only be read. As such the Word became frozen and ran the risk to becoming stagnant. At this stage there is the need to unfreeze the Word and this becomes the great task of the Sages and Parashanim throughout the next thousands of years.
At this point a third element starts to become dominant. The Text needs to be relevant to the generation, which studies it and at the same time stay eternal. Commentators throughout all the ages have struggled with this problem. How does one preserve the eternity of the Word and simultaneously make it relevant to a specific moment in time? Many of the commentators were children of their time and clearly read the text in the light of the time in which they lived. This being so the question of eternity became critical. It was often pushed to the background so as to emphasize the great message it held for the present. Consequently much of its eternity was compromised which caused a few to wonder how eternal this text really is.
Others wrote as if nothing had happened in Jewish history. In that way, it reflected the remarkable situation of the Jewish people in Galuth: Its a-historicity. Since the destruction of the Temple Jewish history came to a standstill. While much happened around the Jews (with the necessary consequences), essentially Jews lived their lives outside the historical framework of natural progress. It became a period of existential waiting, anticipating the moment that it once more could enter history which eventually started with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
As such some commentators wrote their commentaries in a historical vacuum. Little did they emphasize the relevance of the biblical texts for a particular generation. Therefore the student is often confronted with a dual sentiment. While dazed by a brilliant insight of the commentator, he is forced to ask: So what? What is the implication of the interpretation for me at this moment in time? Here we encounter a situation in which relevance is sacrificed for the sake of eternity.
With the return of the Jewish people to its ancestral homeland, Jews are confronted with an unprecedented situation, which, we believe, has serious consequences for Parshanuth. Due to a very strong trend of secularism caused by the Holocaust and other factors, the issue of relevance and eternity have become magnified many times over.
Today there exists a greater and more pressing need to show the relevance of the text than there was before. The radical changes in Jewish history call for a bold and novel way of understanding the text as a living covenant. At the same time the drastic form of secularization of world Jewry and Israeli thinking require a complete new approach as to how to convince the reader of the eternity of the Torah. With minor exceptions the religious world has not come forward with an adequate response.(2)
Most worrisome is the fact that most books of Parshanuth published today comprise compilations and anthologies of earlier authorities without opening any new venues. It is as if new interpretations are no longer possible. It clearly reflects a fear for anything new or an inability to come up with fresh and far-reaching ideas. This phenomenon has overtaken a good part of the orthodox scholarly world. As such Judaism is more and more turning into a religion in which one writes glosses on glosses instead of creating new ways of understanding the living covenant with God.
No doubt, not every person is equipped with the knowledge and creativity needed to do so. Years of learning are an absolute requirement before one can make a sincere contribution in this field. Still one must be aware of the danger of over-knowledge. When the student gets overwhelmed by the interpretations of others, he may quite well get incarcerated by them and so lose the art of thinking independently. As such his knowledge, instead of becoming a vehicle to look for new ways, becomes detrimental.
What is required is innovation in receptivity in which fresh ideas are the result of ground-breaking thinking about the classical sources without the hampering of preconceived notions. Only then we will see new ways to our biblical tradition which will stand up to the challenges of our times.
1.. George Steiner: Our Homeland, the Text, Salmagundi 66, Winter/Spring, 1985, 12.
2. A clear exception in our opinion are the brilliant (but difficult) works of Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg on the first two books of the Torah: The Beginning of Desire on Bereshith (JPS, 1995) and The particulars of Rapture on Shemoth.( Image / Double Day, 2002).