No Fear Biblical Criticism: A Postmodern Critique

Any study of a text should take into account the ever-expanding field of literary theory. While not all literary theory is relevant to all texts, and certainly not to the study of Tanakh, there is certainly what to talk about. One significant idea is what is called the “Hermeneutic Circle,” particularly in the thought of Hans-Georg Gadamer1. The hermeneutic circle, somewhat broadly, is the idea that understanding the meaning of a text involves a circular process going back and forth between the reader and the text. Gadamer argued that a person can never be free of all of their “prejudices,” their preexisting judgments, and that they automatically bring these things into the process of understanding a text. Understanding thus involves the interplay of the words on the page and the ideas and values that the reader brings to the reading.

An example may help clarify things somewhat. In a poem called “The Pleasures of the Imagination,” poet Mark Akenside wrote the line, “The great creator raised his plastic arm.2” The contemporary reader will immediately be struck by the bizarre image depicting God with a prosthetic limb. But the more precocious reader will know (or, more likely, will Google and discover) that Akenside wrote that line in the 18th century, when the word “plastic” meant something more along the lines of “powerful” and “flexible,” a meaning that survives today in the word “plasticity.” So on one level, the two different readers bring very different understandings of the word “plastic” to their readings of the text and thus emerge with two very different understandings of the text. But, on another level, both readers also come with different assumptions about what to do when confronted with a strange image. The first reader trusts that his or her understanding of the word is correct, and thus remains with the strange depiction of God. The second reader is ready to question his or her own understanding of the word, and is therefore able to reach what is more likely the original meaning of the poem. The trust of the first reader and the readiness to question of the second are things they bring to this poem, not things inherent in the text3.


Postmodern literary theory has gone beyond this, however. There is so much that we bring to a text when we read it. When we open a novel, where do we start to understand the story? The title page? The table of contents? We know that we start the story with the first paragraph of chapter one, and it seems to us rather intuitive, but it’s not essential that we do so. When we start understanding a story with that first paragraph, that is something we brought to the text, not an inherent part of it. Similarly, when do we know that we have read a word whose meaning we must comprehend? If we stop after the first letter, then “and” will only be read as “a,” followed by the words “n” and “d.” We understand that we have read a word when we get to a space, which separates it from the next word. This is as opposed to a hyphen, which connects two words that we are accustomed to understanding separately. But is it obvious that a hyphen should connect words like this? Ancient Hebrew, and related languages, separated words not with spaces but with dots, which rather resemble hyphens. A modern day reader would see these dots as hyphens, connecting the words, rather than as intended to separate between them. The meaning of the shapes between the symbols is something that the reader brings to the text themselves.

For the postmodernist, there is no meaning in a text4. A text is just symbols, ink on a page, until the reader interprets those symbols through her preexisting assumptions about how those symbols should be read. These assumptions are acquired from the cultures and societies that we live in, and thus each culture will read the same text somewhat differently. There are as many meanings as there are communities of readers. To some, this idea is rather depressing. If we can’t get to the real meaning of the text, then what is even the point of reading? Isn’t it just a waste of time? To this the postmodernist might simply respond that this is only the case if the point of reading is to get to some sort of objectively true meaning of the text. Rather, reading is about understanding the text within the context of our life and our culture, within the framework assumptions we bring to the text, and this is something we can do very well.

To summarize, there is no single objective meaning to a text, but rather all meanings of a text are specific to each community of readers, and is only true in context of the assumptions they use for reading. The upshot of this postmodern literary theory is that no meaning of a text can claim to be the meaning of the text, and therefore no claims can be made based on that meaning about the nature of the text.

The Assumptions Of Bible Critics

Turning to the larger topic of our series, I’m not sure source criticism has really integrated this critique when formulating its bolder claims. Stating that the meaning of a text is contradictory, such that the text needs to be divided into different source texts in order to be comprehensible, only makes sense within a certain framework of assumptions5. They can’t make any larger claim than that. If a reader were to approach the text with a different framework of assumptions6, they would be led to entirely different conclusions as to the meaning of the text, which would, of course, only be correct within the context of those assumptions.

As an example, a famous contradiction that Biblical critics have latched onto is how long a Jewish man can be enslaved for7. Shemot 20 and Devarim 15 indicate that a Jewish man is enslaved for 7 years only, but that if the slave desires to stay with his master, he is then enslaved for life, “לעולם.” Vayikra 25, on the other hand, says that a Jewish man is released in the fiftieth year, and does not even mention the possibility that the slave might decide to stay with his master. The Biblical critics assume that when one encounters two passages that seem to say different things, this means that the two passages must originally be from different texts with different authors. Thus, according to this assumption, Vayikra 25 must be from a different text with a different author than Shemot 20 or Devarim 15.

However, the Midrash famously assumes that the Torah intends for its readers to resolve such contradictions. Various midrashim attest to a methodology that assumes the Torah text will appear to contradict itself, that there will be passages displaying at least two conflicting meanings, and that one passage is meant to be interpreted in light of the other8. In our example, one need look no farther than Rashi, and other rabbinic commentators9, on those passages, to see that Hazal interpreted the word “לעולם,” here translated as “for life” instead of the more confusing but also more literal “for eternity,” to mean “for fifty years.” Thus, Vayikra 25 is not telling the reader when a Jewish slave is normally released. Rather, it is telling you when a Jewish slave is released if they decided to stay with their master after seven years, by way of clarifying what the confusing phrase “for eternity” means in a context where it likely could not mean more than seventy years or so. This set of assumptions not only leads to an entirely different conclusion which, according to these assumptions, is entirely correct, but also would view the source-critical approach as being entirely wrong.

What About The Torah?

What does this postmodern critique mean for the traditional study of Torah? It would certainly be dishonest to apply this postmodern critique to academic criticism, but pretend that it somehow does not apply to talmud Torah. While some may initially sense the same discomfort we discussed above, I think that this postmodern approach actually flows rather well with some of the ways that Hazal and the tradition have discussed studying Torah.

Probably the best example of this is the famous idea of PaRDeS10, a Hebrew word meaning “orchard” that has served as an acronym for four different ways of reading the Torah: plainly (Peshat), allusively (Remez), homiletically (Derash), and mystically/symbolically (Sod). Each of these four approaches is a set (or perhaps, a set of sets) of assumptions with which a reader can approach the text of the Torah, and each set will yield vastly different conclusions as to the meaning of the text.

Similarly, most Orthodox Jews are familiar with Rabbi Yishmael’s list of thirteen hermeneutical principles, each of which represents a specific assumption about how the Biblical text is supposed to be approached. Fewer people are familiar with Rabbi Akiva’s hermeneutics of ribui and miut, and fewer still Rabbi Yosef the Galilean’s list of thirty-two hermeneutical principles. Each of these represents a specific framework of assumptions about the way the Biblical text is meant to be read. In the cases of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael, these assumptions are about how to read the Torah for the purposes of halakhic midrash, while in the case of Rabbi Yosef the Galilean, the assumptions are about how to read the Torah for the purposes of aggadic midrash. Each of these frameworks has its own place within the realm of traditional torah study.

On another level, there are midrashim that seem to hang the meaning of the Torah directly on the interpretation of the community of readers11. Midrash Tehillim (Mizmor 12) depicts a fascinating picture of God giving Moshe the Torah. Each commandment that God transmitted to Moshe, the midrash says, was accompanied by an explication of 98 facets of the commandment. 49 of those facets indicated that the object of the commandment was forbidden; the other 49 indicated that it was permitted. Moshe was confounded. A law has to be able to dictate the status of an object. With this ambiguity, how could the community be expected to follow the law? To this God responded, quite strikingly, that the legal status of each object is up to the community of legal scholars; their vote tips the scales. If the majority of them think it is permitted, then it really is permitted, and vice versa. Similarly, Bava Metsia (59b) famously says that it is human interpretation, not Divine fact, that determines the correct interpretation of the Torah. Specifically, the majority of the community decides what is the correct interpretation of a given law.

Hazal & Our Readings

None of this is to say that Hazal were postmodernists. There is a huge difference between the approach of the postmodernists and that of Hazal. The postmodern approach makes its claim on all texts. No text has meaning unto itself; all meaning comes from the encounter of the reader with the text. Hazal, on the other hand, seem to have made their claim based on the unique nature of the Torah. The last few midrashim we looked at based themselves on the Biblical command to interpret according to the majority. Another midrash is based on the very nature of the Divine Word more generally. “The school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: ‘[Behold my word is like fire, says the Lord,] like a hammer that splits a rock’ (Jeremiah 23:29), just as a hammer creates many sparks, so too a single scriptural verse means many things.” For Hazal, it is not that every text is meaningless, but rather that certain texts (the Torah and, presumably, the rest of Tanakh) have an incredible abundance of meanings. This is powerfully formulated in a mishnah from Pirkei Avot. “Ben Bag Bag would say: Delve and delve into it, for all is in it” (5:22). According to this mishnah, at least as it is commonly understood, the Torah doesn’t just have multiple meanings, but all possible meanings. Which individual meaning a reader arrives at when reading such a text can only be a matter of the preexisting judgements that the reader brings to the text. No matter how we see other texts, Hazal are telling us that what we bring to the Torah determines what the text means.

Does this mean that any and all readings of the Torah are valid? I think it does not. First and foremost, within any set of axioms and assumptions, not all readings will be compelling. A valid reading must make sense within the context of its community of readers and their traditions. But more importantly, Hazal seem to have gone out of their way to designate certain ways of reading the Torah as invalid. They did this, not based on whether or not they present compelling interpretations of the text, but based on their religious and moral value.

Avot 3:11 indicates that a person who “reveals faces in Torah not in accordance with halakhah12does not have a portion in the World to Come — the key phrase being taken throughout the tradition to refer to either learning arrogantly or specifically interpreting the Torah to say something against halakhah13. However you understand the phrase, the midrash is putting incredible responsibility on a person for how they approach learning Torah, and it is not alone in doing so. “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: What does the verse mean, “And this is the Torah that Moses put (sam)”? If he is worthy, it will become for him a potion (sam) of life; if he is not worthy, it will become for him a potion (sam) of death” (TB Yoma 72b). This midrash indicates that how we read the Torah determines whether it is a force for life or death. What we bring to the Torah determines the very quality of the Torah itself. Even more bold is the interpretation one midrash gives to Yehezkal 20:25, a rather controversial verse. “It is according to Rav Mashreshaya, who said: Two scholars who live the same town and are unkind to one another in [studying] halakhah — about them the verse says, “Moreover, I gave them laws that are not good and rules by which they cannot live” (TB Megillah 32a). Where the Biblical text indicates that God gave the people “laws that are not good and rules by which they cannot live,” the midrash indicates that this really means that the interpreters of the law have turned the Torah into bad laws, by turning the study and promulgation of Torah into an antisocial and unkind process. The meaning that is bad is not inherent in the Torah, but in those who have interpreted it.

These midrashim makes a clear moral statement about the importance of the assumptions from which we approach the Torah. The very nature of the Torah itself is in our hands. We are responsible for how we interpret the Torah, for the meaning we read it in. We bear a responsibility for choosing which axioms we bring with us14. How we read the Torah is not a question of objective standards of reading, such that we could be bound by the importance of objectivity. Each reading stands unto itself, and which ones we involve ourselves in is our choice.

1. This concept has been used somewhat differently by other thinkers, but their understandings are less relevant to the discussion.

2. I have seen this line, with this attribution, quoted many places. I have also seen the line quoted as “Which filled himself, he raised his plastic arm.” I have yet to find either within the text itself. Regardless, it remains an excellent example for explaining this point.

3. Moreover, the strangeness of the image of God’s prosthetic arm is something that has become a lot less strange in the last 40 years or so, as prosthetic limbs have become more common, and science fiction in popular culture has familiarized us with the idea of people who are more polymer than flesh. At some point soon, readers of that poem may not find it so strange that they must question their understanding of the word.

4. On a personal note, I am partial to the view that the meaning of a text should be understood as “what the author intended when they wrote it,” or perhaps “how the original audience would have understood it,” but I am aware that these conceptions rest on what are essentially axiomatic assumptions.

5. These assumptions are often questionable from more than just a religious perspective. See Robert Alter’s argument in The Art of the Biblical Narrative, discussed in the second part of this series here.

6. For example, the midrashic assumption that contradictions in meaning are meant to be resolved by appealing to a third part of the text that will decide between the first two, either siding with one of the original texts or by proposing a framework wherein the original texts do not contradict.

7. For an extensive discussion from a source-critical perspective, see this essay by R. Dr. Zev Farber.

8. Most commonly, the passage with the meaning that appears less often in the Torah is to be interpreted in line with the dominant meaning. See Sifra Vayikra:Introduction (Beraita of Rabbi Yishmael); Mekhilta deRabbi Yishmael, Yitro, Masekhta DeBaHodesh 9; Sifrei Zuta 7:89. Notably, not all of these sources necessarily understand this assumption in exactly the same way, but that is beyond the scope of this series.

9. See, however, the comments of Rashbam.

10. While currently popular, the PaRDeS acronym has not been the only way of conceptualizing a four-fold approach to reading the Torah, nor has four been the only number used for categorizing biblical hermeneutics. For more on this, see Gershom Scholem's phenomenal essay "The Meaning of the Torah in Jewish Mysticism," in On The Kabbalah and its Symbolism.

11. I am indebted for the idea and sources in this paragraph to this shiur from Prof. Yoshi Farjon.

12. This somewhat awkward literal translation has been chosen to convey the multiple understandings of the phrase.

13. See the Meiri, the Tosefot Yom Tov, and other rabbinic commentators on Avot 3:11, and the sources cited therein.

14. Following Gadamer’s approach mentioned near the beginning of this piece, I’m not sure we have complete control over this, and thus cannot bear full responsibility for it. However, (A) I’m not sure Hazal would agree with Gadamer’s approach, and (B) I think we still do have some control over it and we bear responsibility for that.

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