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SIDIC Periodical XXI - 1988/3
Problems of Tipology: Reading the Jewish and the Christian Scriptures (Pages 18 - 21)

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How a rabbi reads the Bible
Jonathan Magonet


No one reads the Hebrew Bible, the "Old Testament", "straight". Most of us come to it in some form of translation; nearly all of us read it through the eyes of a particular religious tradition or with the equally fixed preconceptions of modern scientific or cultural values. Its richness is proved by the remarkable way it has survived as an inspiring document, capable of re-interpretation in every generation in almost every society in the world. Its tragedy is the dogmatism that has too often surrounded the interpretations put upon it by any single religious sect or movement at a particular time. It is therefore helpful to look at the Bible today through the eyes of various different traditions, to see how many things remain part of a common heritage, and yet how much of it has helped define and characterise a particular religious group or even faith or people.

Turn it and turn it again
The Rabbis and their immediate predecessors were engaged in the editing, interpreting and reinterpreting of the Hebrew Bible virtually from the time of the completion of the last books. When the exiles returned from Babylon they were assembled by Ezra to hear the Torah — a term meaning 'teaching" or "direction" (sometimes mistranslated as "law"), which applies in a limited sense to the Five Books of Moses, but later came to mean the whole Hebrew Bible, and subsequently all Jewish teaching derived from it. The Levites read the Torah "distinctly and they gave the sense. and caused them to understand the reading" (Nehemiah 8:8). This tradition of careful reading of the original hebrew text, followed by a translation into the vernacular and some sort of commentary was continued in the Synagogue as part of the regular Sabbath morning service throughout the year. But far beyond that, the process of studying the Torah became one of the great highways to God in Jewish tradition.
The importance of scripture in the Jewish world at the time of the split with Christianity can be gauged immediately by the number of times proof texts are brought in the New Testament to anchor a statement or event in "authentic tradition", but this process which is to some extent peripheral to the subsequent development of Christianity, was to be the "bread and butter" of the growth of Judaism. For the Rabbis, prophecy died with the end of the return from exile — from now on the prophetic spirit, the direct word of God to man. could only be found by reading and re-reading the revelation already given by God, for within it was a continuous source of renewal and refreshment — "turn it and turn it again", they said, "for everything is in it".

They called this work of interpretation Midrash from a Hebrew word meaning to "search", hence to "seek out" the word of God. Indeed one of the names of the Synagogue was Bet Hamidrash (House of Study) from its function as a place for education of young and old alike. They divided Midrash into two types. The first is called Halachah, "law" —though the real meaning is much wider as it comes from a word meaning "walk", the way a person should walk and conduct himself/herself before God in the world. In Halachic midrash they expounded and developed the commandments contained in the Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses), interpreting them to fit every aspect of the life of the indivdual and community — for they saw as their task the building of a model society, an example of the kingdom of God on earth in which every individual had his/her particular role to play. But since "law" only covers one dimension of life, there was a second type of midrash — Aggadah, "narrating", which incorporated moral and ethical teachings, legends and stories of the Bible characters, folklore and custom, cautionary tales and jokes, all the multiple dimensions of mystery and wonder, drama, adventure, tragedy and humour, awe and love that make up the richness of a religious life.

Getting behind the words
But better than explain these terms, one should see them in action to !earn the way the Rabbis read and understood the Bible. Let us begin with a familiar statement that clearly belongs within the field of Halachah. "Honour your father and mother". Firstly the Rabbis had the advantage of going behind this rather imprecise word "honour" to the Hebrew Kabed which derives from a word whose original sense is "heaviness, weight". It moves on to the meaning "glory", as the words of Isaiah: "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory!" (Isaiah 6:3). Here the threefold "holy" emphasises the "otherness" of God, his "transcendance". "Glory", however is that which gives "substance. weight" to a person in the eyes of others and in some passages in the Bible may refer to wealth or power or wisdom. Hence "glory" for Isaiah is that aspect of God which man can encounter and know in the world, the "immanence" of God, His power, His "presence". All of which helps explain the "weight" to be given to parents who shared with God in the creation of the child. But how is this "honour" to be expressed? The answer of the Rabbis is surprising: "What is honour? Give them food and drink, give them clothing and shelter. bring them in and take them out!" They concentrate on the responsibilities of a child to support the parents in their old age. spelling out the minimal duties that must be performed. But what of the other aspects of "honouring"? Here one must recognise a Rabbinic principle that no words of scripture are redundant, and even apparent repetitions must be studied to derive new ideas. For they are aware that another verse in the Torah speaks of this relationship. Leviticus 19:2 reads: "Let each man 'fear his mother and his father, and keep My Sabbaths, I am the Lord your God". Again the word "fear" must be understood in its hebrew sense, ranging from fear in the presence of danger to "reverence" and "awe" in the presence of the holy. But what is the "fear" meant in this verse? The Rabbis spell it out: "Do not stand in their place. nor sit in their place; do not contradict their words (in public and thus embarrass them) and do not humble them in any way". Thus here they find the myriad aspects of behaviour and attitude that mean respect for parents. These are not the only teachings of the Rabbis on this subject, but they show how from this sort of starting point, both practices and principles can be derived.

However our passage can yield a further piece of Halachah. For the Rabbis were always quick to notice the juxtaposition of two paragraphs, or sentences or even phrases, as a potential source for learning something. Why is the command to fear mother and father placed next to the one about keeping God's Sabbaths? Their answer: So as to resolve the difficult problem of the limits of the responsibility to honour parents and obey them. "It is taught: could it be that because of respect for parents one is permitted to desecrate the Sabbath on their orders? No! That is why Scripture says explicitly: Let each one fear his mother and his father and keep My Sabbaths. I am the Lord — that is to say, they too are obligated to honour Me; so one's duty to God is greater than one's duty to one's parents in this matter". Once the principle is established the Rabbis go on further: "Whence do we know that if a father tells his son to make something ritually impure, or not to return lost property to its rightful owner, that the son should not obey? From this same verse, and keep My Sabbaths, for all are obligated to honour Me". Wherever the honour due to God may be damaged by obedience to parents, whether in ritual matters or in any ethical behaviour, then one has the responsibility to make the honour due to God a first priority.

Getting behind the stories
If we turn now to Aggadah perhaps the richest strain is found in the Rabbinic way of reading the Bible stories. Any curious statement, unusual spelling of a word, gap in a narrative, become the excuse to fill in the story, point a moral or indulge in some whimsical interpretation. What happened to Balsam's famous talking donkey after the episode was over? It died! Why? Two reasons are given. So that people would not see it and recall Salaam's humiliation, for to shame a man in public is tantamount to killing him. Or, alternatively, because the princes of Moab were present, and if the talking donkey had gone on living, they were bound to start worshipping it! What was the real crime of the builders of the Tower of Babel? One suggestion that the Rabbis brought nearly two millenia ago is as apt a comment as any on the values of today's technological society. When a worker fell off the Tower during its construction, nobody noticed or worried, but when a brick fell off, all went into mourning! Why does it say that "Noah walked with God" (Genesis 6:9) but to Abraham God says "Walk before Me!" (Genesis 17:1)? It is like a king who has two sons. To the child he says: "Take my hand and walk with me", but to the one who has grown up he says: "Walk before me". In that simple distinction the Rabbis speak volumes about the moral uprightness of Abraham, and the necessary self-respect, dignity and independence they see granted to the truly God-fearing man.

The seventy faces of Torah
The examples are endless, and the body of interpretation that has grown around the midrashim themselves is also vast. The classical midrashim flourished over a period of about a thousand years. But the creativity of Jewish Bible exegesis did not cease with it. In the Middle Ages figures like Rashi and Radak commented on the Bible seeking the simplest meaning and the midrashic ones as they educated new generations not only of Jews, but also indirectly, of Christians — for the great European translations of the Bible leaned on their commentaries to explain the hebrew text. Philosophers and grammarians like Abraham Ibn Ezra helped found the basis for a proper scientific liguistic analysis of the text. Others found in the Bible the source of mystical doctrines, of philosophical speculations — in short, every generation brought the best of its contemporary knowledge and wisdom to the task of interpreting the Bible for their time.
When the Rabbis said "There are seventy faces to Torah", they had in mind this infinite variety of interpretation and teaching stored up within it; every verse, word, even letter being a potential source for enlightenment. Every letter? Why not? What is the first letter of the Torah? "Bet' (‘b’) the beginning of the word 'bereshit"in the beginning'. And the last letter of the Torah? 'Lamed' ('I') at the end of the word 'Yisrael' at the end of the book of Deuteronomy. Put these two letters together and they spell 'bat' meaning 'nothing'. Turn them around and they spell 'few' which means 'heart'. So if you serve God in the consciousness that you are 'nothing' yet try to serve Him with all your 'heart' — then it is accounted to you as if you had kept all the Torah between that first and final letter".

Rabbi Jonathan Magonet MB., B.S., Ph.D. is Principal of the Leo Baeck( College, London,. where he teaches Bible. His publications include Returning: Exercises in Repentance, (R.S.G.B., London): Form and Meaning, Studies in Literary Techniques in the Book of Jonah, (The Almond Press, Sheffield). He is co-editor of Forms of Prayer Vol, I Daily and Sabbath Prayerbook and Vol. Days of Awe Prayerbook, (R S.G.B., London).

This article has appeared in the Catholic Gazette. Vol. 68, No 0, April, 1977, London, and is reprinted here with permission.


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