These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Questioning the Objectivity of Text Interpretation by Ben Barer

Posted on November 2, 2010 by Eryn

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I would like to frame this d’var torah as one in which I am exploring Judaism on my own terms. Much of the new ‘positive’ thinking that I have engaged in since beginning my semester at Pardes – that, on the heels of fairly wide-ranging cynicism that reached new heights this past summer – can be seen as an effort to explore Judaism on my own terms.

Towards that end, after four years away from full-time Jewish study in high school, I have rediscovered my love of Jewish textual study. As a result, I have been motivated to begin studying the Torah, in line with the weekly parsha, including the major commentary on that text: Rashi. This was convenient because Simchat Torah more or less coincided with the ‘real’ start of Pardes after all the holidays, and so I can easily follow the weekly parsha by beginning with Bereishit.

What I would like to focus on is an issue that I spent some time thinking about during the first week of this project, as I began to read parshat Bereishit for the first time as a text that I did not believe was written by a divine being. In Genesis 1:28, the famous biblical law “to be fruitful and multiply” is given. However, while this is often cited as the reason why Jews should have as many kids as they can support or are comfortable with, it is actually a quite clear (in my opinion) example of taking a quote out of context. If you look at the whole verse, you will see that it actually reads: “God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it…’” (Emphasis is mine). This is extremely important in today’s world, as according to almost any expert on the matter we have reached (if not far surpassed) a point of saturation regarding the human population on the planet.

I will state openly that part of the drive to begin this project was to find instances just like this, where I think that the traditional interpretation of a verse does not necessarily represent the only acceptable interpretation, especially when there is an alternative that accounts for certain modern sensibilities that I have come to believe strongly in since my days in an orthodox yeshiva environment. As such, I am looking at the text in an extremely biased manner; my point, however, is that so too were (are) the rabbis whose commentaries are generally taken to be the dominant or preferred views.

So, in our example, mainstream Jewish tradition is rooted in a past where, not only was it acceptable for all people to continue to expand the population of the planet, but specifically Jews were encouraged to do this for fear of extinction due to all sorts of horrors that befell Jews as a people. Both of those considerations, for the most part, are no longer applicable (or at least not as applicable as they once were). However, another strong component of mainstream Jewish textual analysis is to respect the interpretations given by those who came before us. In contrast, when I read the same verse – carrying my own agenda, often antagonistic to the mainstream Jewish one referred to here – I come away with the interpretation that the verse is telling anyone who wishes to listen both that it was commanded to “be fruitful and multiply” then and that it is equally commanded to refrain from doing so now.

My theory is that this reading of the text will never – or at least not until our understanding of the reality of the planet’s continued existence changes significantly – enter into the mainstream education of young Jews. Leaving aside the definition of ‘mainstream’ that could easily fill a book, I would like to put forward the following question: can a text that has such a ‘heritage’ of textual study be read dispassionately? I think that, based on the few weeks in which I have tried to actively approach the Torah in a way opposed to the way I have been brought up with, the answer is more or less ‘no.’ This is because (and let me restrict this claim only to texts of a similarly high level of importance to the reader) when one reads such a text, one is – whether consciously or not – approaching the text with one’s own biases, trying to read in its words what one wants to see there.