'Interpreting Scripture as a Spiritual Exercise'

Thursday, 13 September, 2012 - 5:04 pm

P1040631.JPGThrough studying several texts, we are introduced to three (of the many) historical stages in which Jews have read meaning into scripture. Scripture itself is written in a laconic, understated style; and it contains many textual ambiguities and anomalies. These features should provoke the reader to think, and to actively participate in textual interpretation.


We begin with a reading from Genesis 3:8, looking for the verse's formal and theological ambiguities. We then see how these ambiguities fuel a particular type of interpretation, 'midrash aggada' (= 'searching narrative'), in which the text is read in a searching way, often framed in a narrative, in order to explicate pertinent theological issues. Midrash is almost as laconic as scripture, so we make an effort to uncover the underlying issues, taking note of the role of the editor in structuring the passage. In the high middle ages, there was a quest to recover the basic meaning of scripture, 'peshat' (= straightforward meaning). Rabbi Solomon son of Isaac (N. France, 1040 - 1105), known by his acronym Rashi, is a founding father in this effort.


We examine his take on Genesis 3:8, noting his dual agenda: he wants both to find the basic meaning, and to account for textual anomalies. In his comments to Genesis 1:1 he shows that, with its anomalies, the text points beyond its basic meaning, requiring a synthesis of 'peshat' with a minimal amount of 'midrash aggada'. 


By means of his selective use of midrash aggada, Rashi maps out a meta-narrative framing the entire Bible. Finally, we turn to the fourfold commentary of Bahya son of Asher (Spain, mid 13th c. - 1340), in which he leads our ascent from 'peshat' to 'midrash', philosophy, and finally Kabbalah, synthesizing these levels into a ladder of ascent to the divine.


From his lecture at the Seminar in Jewish Studies - Yom Limmud - Summer 2012 - at the Oxford University Chabad Society 

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