Biblical Exegesis: My Assumptions

While the Torah cycle does not restart for a couple more weeks, with Rosh Hashanah upon us I can’t think of a more appropriate time to consider some of my foundational assumptions that I approach the study of Torah with.  On a practical level, this will help to clarify and ground my short weekly divrei Torah and accompanying haikus.  More importantly, however, I think it allows me to grapple with my own assumptions as I begin a second year of close reading of the text.  So without further ado, here are some of the thoughts that operate behind the scenes when I analyze, interpret, and critique the Torah:

1. Most importantly, I consider the Torah to be of human authorship.  How many authors, specific time and place of authorship, and later editorship are less important.  The basic understanding that what I am reading was composed by ancient humans influences and informs my reading of the Torah at every turn.
2. There is an important exception, though, to how I look up to the Torah as opposed to any other human text, and it derives from the fact that the Torah has been successively interpreted by almost every (if not every single) generation of humans to come after it.  In academic terms, the secondary literature written about the Torah is unparalleled in two ways.  First, in pure volume.  But secondly, and more importantly in my opinion, because of the divine importance placed on the text by many traditions and cultures, the nature of the commentary is what i called ‘successive’ by which I mean that it is layered — a commentary on the Torah is intricately involved with responding to many preceding generations’ interpretations of the text, as opposed to each generation going back to the text and reading it on its own.  That is not to say that other ancient texts are not treated in this way, just that they are to a much lesser degree.
3. Further, I believe that this layered interpretative process, coupled with the institution of reading a parsha each week (in the Jewish tradition) has led to there literally being novel interpretations of the text being produced all around the world weekly.  Not all of these are recorded in any concrete way, and hardly any will make it into what anyone would call ‘canonical’ interpretations, but I do not think that fact cheapens the reality in the least.
4. Of course, in reading previous layers of commentary, one must be aware of the nature of the enterprise, and consider as many relevant factors that might have been influencing the author of a given commentary as possible.  And so, to give a concrete, generalized example, I have almost completed reading through the text with all of Rashi’s commentary.  And there is no doubt that breadth shows a totally different picture than reading a passage of interest with any commentaries that are available there, as when one reads the entire interpretative work of a exegete, a fuller picture emerges of the world they were thinking and writing from.  Rashi tries harder than any other commentator that I am aware of to paint the Jewish (or the progenitors of what will become the Jewish people) protagonists of the text in a perfectly favourable light.  Taken piecemeal, this approach grinds many modern readers the wrong way.  However, reading all his commentary — and understanding a smidgen of the world where he was living — I have come to appreciate the perspective more, as I imagine that the Jewish world at the time needed to mount a really strong defence of their tradition and its past leaders from other persecuting religious forces.

[I will try to add to this list as more assumptions become apparent or are added.]

And for those interested:,7340,L-4108569,00.html


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