Friday, December 05, 2008

picking and choosing among meforshim

Well, since I commented on it last week, I want to follow up. After noting the harsh responses his article drew last week, Rabbi Avi Billet, writing in The Jewish Star, continues on much the same theme this week ("I've been inspired to find more valid interpretations that go against the grain..."), selecting a pshat from Da'as Zekeinim which explains the phrase "einei Le'ah rakos" in a way that is different and in Rabbi Billet's opinion more palatable than the explanation offered by Rashi.

I am not sure what point of these articles is. Anyone who has ever opened a Mikra'os Gedolos is aware that there are multiple interpretations to pesukim. Some of these interpretations appeal to our rational nature, other interpretations sacrifice the rationalist viewpoint in favor of other considerations, whether it be closer fidelity to the text or a willingness to consider the text in an allegorical, an ethical, a mystical, or some other light.

A person is certainly free to decide that he/she is a rationalist and pick and choose among meforshim to find those interpretations that will allow for a reading of chumash conistant with his/her worldview.

However, I would argue that a person who reads chumash (or any Torah text) this way is missing something of the breadth and depth of Torah learning. Torah study, as all disciplines, demands that we open our minds to consider problems from many different angles and viewpoints. More important than choosing the view which appeals to us is trying to understand the reasoning behind the views which don't, because it is these other views which will force our mind open to considering Torah in a new light that we perhaps were never attuned to. Ideally, our reading should not consist of finding or choosing one correct or appealing view among many, but of appreciating what is correct and appealing in each of many interpretations. At the end of the day one interpretation among many may resonate with us, but that does not mean we should be blind to the beauty of all others.

Noting that the reading of Tosfos makes more sense than others makes for half and article or half a shiur. The missing half is arriving at an understanding of the other views, which undoubtedly (especially given that they have survived centuries of study by minds greater than ours) have something of value to teach us.

And if we fail to arrive at that appreciation, certainly the fault does not rest on those meforshim for not living up to our expectations, but rests with us for failing in our quest for understanding. At the very least, study in this way is a lesson in humility.


  1. Anonymous12:19 AM

    Ibn Ezra quotes Ben Efrayim, who suggests the word “Rakot” is missing an Alef, and should have said “Arukot” –– meaning she had long eyes. Leaving aside the problem with the suggestion that the Torah is missing a letter, Ibn Ezra thinks the suggestion is so foolish he delivers one of the greatest insults in all of commentary when he says Ben Efrayim himself was missing an Alef. In other words, his name should be Ben Parim –– the son of cows.

    THE IBN EZRA and RABENU BACHYEH say the same thing (including the insult)?

  2. I could not agree with you more in regard to understanding WHY the meforshim explain things in a certain way - we learn Gemara this way - why not Chumash.

    That having been said, in this day and age we are taught Judaism in a very no-nonsense manner with various dogmas. That is likely the point of these articles. It is also why I found Marc Shapiro's book on the Rambam's 13 Ikarim so shocking and why I found the Ralbag's comment a couple parshiyot ago where he limits Hashem's knowledge of the future as non-traditional.

  3. Avi Billet9:53 PM

    This is Avi Billet. Really.
    I read your post with interest. And I think that your comments are misdirected. My column in the "Jewish Star" is meant to present a "vort" on the weekly parsha, and when possible, to provide a homiletical lesson for readers to walk away with.
    That I've chosen to find commentaries that go "against the grain" is precisely because the respondents on vosizneias, the ones who called me all the names to which you alluded in your phrase "harsh responses" have never looked past Rashi in their mikraos gedolos chumash.
    Come on and be a little realistic. Of course one interpretation is only, as you put it, "half an article" or "half a shiur." Who has the time to read, or the space to print, a half hour shiur in a newspaper?
    The people who are finding fault in what I write because they have a difficulty based in their preconceived notions of chumash, instead of choosing to be inspired to check my sources or prove me wrong with different sources, are doing exactly what you accuse me of doing.
    Let us open our eyes, learn for the sake of "l'hagdil torah u'lha'dirah" and stop with these mindless and senseless ad hominem attacks.