7/22/2005

Historically-conditioned Exegesis and Progressive Revelation

This is a follow-up to yesterday's post (which also relates to an older post on Yeridat Ha-Dorot) and an attempt to deal with the following dilemma that pertains to 'chiddush'. In the interim, Phoebus forwarded an article by Stanley Fish called "Intentional Neglect" from Wednesday's NYT. I liked the way he framed the issues, so even though, in many ways, comparing the interpretation of the US Constitution to the process of Torah She-be'al peh is apples and oranges, most of the issues he raises are applicable to both:

On the one hand, if a chiddush is something new, how can it be accorded the status of Torah?
On the other hand, if it's not, why hasn't it surfaced until now? If the Rashba knew R' Elchanan's chakira in migo, why didn't he say so? If he didn't, then it's not what the Rashba said, and therefore not more than a cute idea which certainly should have no legal or theoretical weight.

One can posit that Torah is different, because it's not a human composition and therefore interpretations of it need not be limited to Authorial intent. That only works for about 5 books from amongst the hundreds of thousands that occupy the Torah library.

Perhaps human authority to determine God's will is an inevitable concession; we can't really ever know what's TRUE, so let certain people decide. As long as they're not self-conscious of the process by which they distort original intent, the process of interpretation can continue to expand. Perhaps 'al pi ha-torah' is more ambitious - it gives the green light for further expansion of the Torah even if not based on authorial intent. I'm wary of saying that, though. I don't like the idea that there would be license to self-consciously distort the original meaning of the Torah. There's another possibility which doesn't go quite that far, though.

Just because meanings of texts are real and intended, doesn't mean that they're arrived at passively. The same work can be construed as a comedy of a tragedy, a memoir or a satire. There may be a number of valid ways to interpret the same text, all of which meet the criteria of attempting to discern the author's intent. Of course, each possibility must be reevaluated whenever new facts come to light. The constant re-evaluation can definitely open the door for later re-interpretation. Moreover, we can posit that with regard to Torah, even the interpretations which can't stand up to what we know today, by virtue of their having been a genuine attempt at discerning God's will, allows for those works themselves to be incorporated into the corpus of Torah. They become instructive not because of their correctness per se, but as living examples of the fruit borne when God's Will strikes man's mind. Collectively, we've had a knack for discerning which of those attempts are more instructive, and which were not. Rashi and Ramban on the Torah are the prime example of those that are. Anyone who has studied Rashi seriously can tell you that his greatness does not lie in the correctness of his exegesis.

There's another phenomenon which informs this discussion: the fact that the world into which the Torah was delivered is very different from the one we occupy, on so many levels. Given that the Torah, as a constitutive document, MUST be relevant for us today, we are FORCED to ask the question: What would God say about X, which couldn't have been creamed of by the Torah's original audience?
This question can be applied to human authors as well. What would the Rambam say if he knew about electricity, or if he had been exposed to the Brisker Derech, or if he had encountered feminism? In many ways, the question is unfair: the Rambam DIDN'T deal with any of those things, and we still need to find a way to apply the Torah to our lives today!

Thus, we engage in a process by which we demand relveance from texts which, objectively, has none to offer. This process is called drasha, from the Hebrew root DRSh - to search, to seek, to solicit. This process is not always conscious; when one learns Torah seriously, but at the same time is perplexed by contemporary issues and phenomena, the Torah's relevance for contemporary dilemmas will arise by themselves. God's Will striking man's mind produces renewed meaning.

I would go as far as to say that there are elements within the Torah that 'wait' for the person with the right sensitivities in the right generation to 'discover' or 'redeem' that which has been there all along.

To use a quick example: Rambam, according to RYBS in 'Ra'ayonot al Ha-tefillah', 'redeemed' prayer by bringing it from the periphery to the center of Jewish consciousness. An academic will tell you that the Rambam's emphasis on prayer was conditioned by his encounter with Sufiism in 12th century Egypt.

I think that they can both be right. Prayer had always been there, always been part of Torah, Written and Oral, but still neglected until someone who had learned a bit of Sufiism came along, read the psukim, read the Gemaras, and articulated a full-blown and important art of prayer in Judaism.

This process - the culturally-specific and historically conditioned exegesis of the individual learner of God's Torah becomes included in the corpus of Torah itself and validates the conditions under which that particular exegesis arose. This process is what can be termed 'Progressive Revelation', an ongoing communication between God and man, where God's initial input, the Torah, is reframed and reunderstood in the minds of those who study it, who, by applying it to their particular situation, contribute to its actualization. This contribution in turn becomes part of the corpus of Torah itself, to be studied by later generations.

Of course, this description is insufficient. Not every idea or insight becomes part of Torah; a shverrer Rambam is still part of Torah. A shverrer ADDeRabbi is not. Perhaps that's for another time (an apology for Daas Torah, which I will eventually get to). Nevertheless, the process described stands at the very center of the mission of the Jewish people. It's no accident that the theology contained in the 4th Gate of Nefesh Ha-Chayim has become so influential; when you peel back the layers, I really haven't said much here that he didn't say. Other articulations are R' Kook's intro to 'Eyn Ayah', and Levinas' chapter entitled 'Revelation and the Jewish Tradition'.
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