Did I go too far in my recent post entitled “Clearing God’s Bad Name”? I was discussing the way we read Torah portions in which God threatens dire punishment for human disobedience. It was time, I said, to “dispense with the childish belief in a God of simplistic reward and punishment.” The God in whom we ought to believe can hardly be vengeful, I argued. It is time we cleared God’s name.
I published the piece separately in a couple of newspapers to which I submit regular articles on Torah, and received a thoughtful critique from a reader who took me to task for going too far. We may not, he cautioned, “excise portions of the Torah because our timid intelligence has deduced that we are so much more ‘enlightened’ than previous generations.” The letter arrived privately, so I will not divulge the author’s name – suffice it to say that his objection is that I was “preaching against the text,” the “sin” of sermonizing contrary to what the sacred text actually says.
Preachers do it all the time, of course, but use midrash, Talmud, or commentaries from somewhere else in the tradition as their justification — as if to say, “The Torah looks like it says such and such, but it really doesn’t; it really means something else (even the opposite of what its surface meaning appears to be).”
To some extent, I did that. But I went farther and did indeed leave the bounds of normal interpretation by denying a basic understanding of God that we find in most of rabbinic literature.
My critic finds that too much to take, and as I say, I take him seriously enough to want to think the matter through here as an instance of a machloket l’shem shamayim, what the Rabbis call “an argument for the sale of heaven.” Why don’t I think I went too far?
For starters, let us ask how Jews read Torah.
We read it so closely that every word and letter counts – but we do not read it literally. And we read it interpretively, the whole point being to come up with a chiddush, a novel insight that speaks to the situation of the reader seeking meaning in the text.
It is generally presupposed that whatever meaning we find is drawn out from the text, not read into it. The idea is to be properly objective in interpreting a passage so as to arrive at what the text really means. Now, it is not 100% clear that we can ever be absolutely objective about any text; sophisticated theorists know there is always some degree of subjectivity in the way we read. But in any event, sermonic interpretation, for sure, doesn’t work that way. “Meaning” here is always subjective, dependent on both the text and the reader, a sort of pincer movement back and forth between the two. It is not so much “what the text means” as “how the text becomes meaningful to the person reading it.”
There are some limits of course – as there are for interpreting every piece of literature. If I say that Hamlet, for example, is about indecision, or moral outrage, or the oedipal complex, you will at least entertain the possibility that I am right. But suppose I say it is a Marxist spoof on capitalism. For lots of reasons that is utter nonsense. In making that claim, I lose all credibility. If no one even thinks my claim is sensible, I get read out of the reading community as a crackpot.
What, then, counts as the limits to sermonic interpretation? We would like to imagine that the interpreter always interprets Torah by citing other pieces of Torah – quoting the Talmud to elucidate the Bible, a medieval authority to interpret the Talmud, and so on. But it is never that clean. The twelfth-century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra doubted that Moses had written the entire Torah. Afraid to come right out and question his received chain of tradition, he used allusion: hamevin yavin, he said, “The discerning reader will understand what I am getting at.” He got away with it. Spinoza came right out and said roughly the same thing and was excommunicated. Spinoza had no readers willing to go as far as he did.
Ibn Ezra was more careful; but even he risked going over the line. He knew most readers would not follow his half-heretical suggestion. But he knew also that he was not the only reader who lost sleep over a traditional claim that no longer made sense to his growing historical consciousness. Rather than risk positioning the Bible so that no one would respect it altogether, he went out on a limb and argued against the text.
I am no Ibn Ezra, and certainly no Spinoza, but in our time too, we dare not shy from confronting the real questions that people have – especially about God. Otherwise, we risk speaking to a shrinking audience of people who are already insiders in the Torah game we play – but alienating everyone else. Especially when it comes to hurtful images of God we too must sometimes preach against the text.