Open Letter to My Students 3 : A Symphonic Meditation on Meaning, Complete in Four Movements

     Movement 1: That’s Not the Point, But How Would We Know?

     Movement 2: How Do We Decide? Turtles All the Way down?

     Movement 3: A Tale of Two Horizons

     Movement 4: Artists Never Copy Wholesale


Movement 1: That’s Not the Point, But How Would We Know?

“That’s hardly the point of Passover” says Michael Isaacson, objecting to my Facebook poem, beginning, “The point of Passover is the Spring.” Spring, he continues, is “just a side perk. The point of Passover is to turn slaves into aspiring Jews!”

Michael’s thoughtful objection made me wonder, “Do I really believe what I said? Or am I just being ‘poetic?’” I think I do believe it, but then how do I answer Michael?

“Turn slaves into aspiring Jews,” I presume, is Michael’s updating of the biblical account that portrays God freeing Israel so that they might serve God instead of Pharaoh. But doesn’t that mean that if Egyptian slavery hadn’t prevented our serving God, it would have been alright?

How would we know? How does one even answer questions like this? How do we decide what the point of Passover “really” is?

Movement 2: How Do We Decide? Turtles All the Way down?

In the premodern world, the preferred way to interpret a biblical narrative was midrash, similar to what we might call a sermon today. But midrash is to sermons as poetry is to essays, in that the point of essays and sermons is the content or message being conveyed; whereas in poetry and midrash, the message is largely secondary to the art form that conveys it– which is why we study midrash just for the fun of it: discovering how the midrash arrived at an interpretation even if we find that interpretation useless, banal, or even offensive. Even the Rabbis who wrote it never intended it all to be used equally to guide human life. When we want to cite, sing, or teach a midrash, we sometimes read through pages of examples before finding one we can use — at which time we choose it judiciously; and then outfit it with our own interpretation so as to make our point.

Early Reform rabbis replaced midrash with scientific biblical criticism. If midrash on the Bible didn’t tell us what the Bible really said, maybe scientific study could, they hoped; and in fact, it often did. But in fact, as well, it couldn’t tell us what the point of the Bible was, because the Bible’s point wasn’t necessarily our point – that’s the nature of canonized writ: even fundamentalists read and interpret it selectively. We do not live by what we preach so much as we preach what we know we want to live by.

We now know, for example (from scientific criticism), that Passover was originally two festivals, chag hamatsot followed by chag hapesach. Also that the root does not mean “pass over” so much as it means “protect” (as in Isaiah 31:5). In Exodus, the blood of the pesach daubed on the Israelite homes “protected” them from the angel of death. But we do not, on that account, decide from now on to eat matzah for just one day and then offer up something for a holiday renamed “Protection.” Don’t get me wrong. I enormously value biblical scholarship; I love knowing what this or that ancient text originally meant, and sometimes, I do use that knowledge for my own interpretive ends. But I know that in the end, it is the interpretation that matters.

As to the point of Passover, it is indeed, by my reading, setting the slaves free (I’ll get to “Spring” later); and, in Michael’s favor, they are indeed set free so as to serve God, not Pharaoh. But all by itself, doesn’t that imply an ideal social structure of mastery and servitude, the only difference being who the master is – making Passover the reclamation of the servant-people Israel from Pharoah back to God? None of this is likely to make it into our explanation of freedom because we abhor the idea of servitude as an ideal human condition, even if the one being served is God. We use the word “serve” in both cases (Pharaoh and God), but we hardly mean the same thing by it. We should reject the servitude metaphor altogether, and in fact, we do! We pick and choose among contending theories, ignoring the banal, bypassing the problematic, and highlighting the useful. There is no way out of this dilemma. Before we adopt an interpretation, we already have some idea of what counts as a good versus a bad one.

The art of interpretation is called hermeneutics; the problem of more or less knowing in advance what will count as a good interpretation and then finding one that looks good by those standards is an example of what is called the hermeneutical circle. There is no way out of the circle.

A biblical story is itself an interpretation of whatever the Exodus was; both midrash and biblical scholarship are interpretations of that interpretation. Our own reading is an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation. Remember the cosmology of the earth resting on the back of a turtle, and that turtle sitting on the back of another turtle, and so on – so that reality is turtles all the way down? Replace “turtles” with “interpretations”: the meaning of things is interpretation all the way down.

Movement 3: A Tale of Two Horizons

Alternatively, think of texts as if they are points in space, geographical locations. From no point in space can we see the whole universe: we never get to see it all. What we do see, we call the horizon of our sight line. But another horizon matters just as much, the horizon of what we bring to the task of seeing in the first place: the product of our own imagination, upbringing, class, gender, education, and so on. Meaning comes from the point where the two horizons meet. So too with texts. What seeing is to geographical locations, interpretation is to texts. Interpretations vary with the text’s horizon and with our own.

So what is the real point of Passover? That depends on two things: the text’s horizon and our own. Can the point of Passover be “spring”? Legitimately, it can, as long as “Spring” is within the horizons of both text and interpreter. Now, as it happens, Passover is inextricably linked to Spring: we gerrymander the lunar/solar calendar to make sure it never falls in winter. So much for the text’s horizon. As for our own, we need simply ask what Spring symbolizes to us, if not hope, new life, regrowth, and a way out of death and despair. Can it also be an end to slavery? Yes, if spring can be interpreted also as a successful metaphor for freedom.

Ah, but Nicole Roberts, writes from Sydney Australia, to say that the “Spring as freedom” metaphor does not work for her, and that does give me pause. Her interpreter’s horizon differs from my own. If we had a few hours together, we might come up with an interpretation of my interpretation of the biblical/rabbinic interpretations of the biblical interpretation and find some common ground. Alternatively, she would choose her own, but in any event, what Passover means is not simply a matter of reading our texts more carefully. It is always about our interpretive artistry.

And so, to my larger point: interpretive artistry!

Movement 4: Artists Never Copy Wholesale

I am in awe of the way we teachers of Torah practice the art of interpretation. The one thing I know is that artists never just copy wholesale: composers write “variations” on other composers; poets, says the late great literary critic Harold Bloom, write in anxious response to prior poets; Alfred North Whitehead says all philosophy is a footnote to Plato. We inevitably beg, borrow and steal from our predecessors, but we never just copy them.

Dutch artist, Han von Meegeren (1889-1947) so successfully copied the style of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) that for years, no one knew the difference. But if a Von Meegeren actually looks like a Vermeer, why isn’t it as valuable as a Vermeer? Because it was just a copy, a good one, mind you, almost a perfect one, but even a brilliant copy is just a copy.

What originals have (that copies lack), said philosopher, writer, and critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), is a surrounding aura, the sense that by encountering it, we are encountering, as well, a unique cosmic moment, so to speak, a unique insight into life that a singularly qualified artist gives us. We return to the museum again and again not just to see the painting, but to be gathered into the aura of the artist doing the seeing. And we leave, with our own “take” on what we just saw. That is our “value added,” our original artistry, that we can gift to others. The aura of the art work constitutes its authenticity; the aura of our interpretation is our authenticity.

We teachers of Torah strive for that authenticity – coming up with an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation (it’s interpretation all the way down, after all) and presenting it so artistically that it links our own horizon of meaning to the horizon that our listeners bring with them – they see something in what we saw because their horizons overlap with ours.

To be an interpreter of Torah is to love our people enough to invite them into our art salons – in the hope that they will become artists in their own right.

Humanity, at its best, is an expanding community of artists, where everyone gets a paintbrush; or a musical score; a thesaurus or two if they work in words; some space to occupy, if they like dancing or building or interior design. And a life: yes, they all get one life, itself a work of art that the other works of art are meant to nurture, and from which their own artistic masterpieces get their own aura of authenticity.

I like to think that all the arts come most beautifully together in the liturgical arena we call prayer. But that’s another story.




One response to “Open Letter to My Students 3 : A Symphonic Meditation on Meaning, Complete in Four Movements

  1. Gary Bretton-Granatoor

    Absolutely beautiful. חג שמח

    Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor 917-941-3256 Skype: gary.bretton-granatoor Check out my website:


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