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Interpretive Tradition- Rabbi Herzl Hefter

 

Jewish tradition is an interpretive tradition. This means that we continuously re-encounter our ancient texts, simultaneously breathing new meaning into them while drawing guidance from them.

This fact is meaningful for two reasons. First, since Judaism is traditionally understood to be a religion of Law, the license to interpret is critical in order to maintain the relevance of the Law to changing times. The second reason is religious.

God is Infinite, Ein Sof, and all the worlds cannot tolerate His presence. Nonetheless since God desired to create, He concentrated Himself צמצם את עצמו  into the worlds, so to speak, so that the world could suffer Him … The essence of this concentration is the Torah; God concentrated His presence into the letters of the Torah. (R. Nahum of Chernobyl, 1730-1787, Meor Einayim, Hayyei Sarah)

The conviction that God resides in the words and letters of the Torah is what animates the tradition of learning in both Hassidic and Lithuanian yeshivot to this day. Entering into the words of the Torah reveals and  unlocks the holiness within and reveals God to the world.

Extracting meaning from texts, then, is a supreme religious act – an avodah.

When we engage in this activity we need to understand what it is we are actually doing. Are uncovering the hidden meaning embedded in the text or are we creating it by our hermeneutical activity? The answer is a paradoxical, yes.

Let us consider the following homily of R. Mordechai Yosef of Ishbitz (1800-1854):

You (i.e. Yosef) can understand a dream and interpret it. In actuality this entire world is as a dream in need of interpretation.  As it is interpreted so it will come to be for him. … (Mei HaShiloah – Miketz)

As Freud aptly pointed out (in the beginning of The Interpretation of Dreams), in order to justify the project of dream interpretation we must assume that dreams possess meaning.

Illustration by Mark Podwal

Our world, our collective and personal histories, have meaning. This is the assumption we make as religious people. Thus, our lives become a justified object of interpretation. God communicates to us, so to speak, not only through the text of the Torah but through the texts of our lives.

Implicit in this formulation is that through the act of interpretation, we uncover the hidden meaning which God has infused into the narrative of our lives and that we find God through this. Yet in the very next sentence, R. Mordechai Yosef adds, “As it is interpreted so it will come to be for him.” This indicates that it is the interpretation itself which infuses the dream with meaning.

This paradox is true in our lives as well as in the interpretation of the Torah. The notion that we, through our interpretations, create the meaning of the Torah places awesome responsibility in the hands of the interpreters of the Torah. And that we are the ones who create the meaning in our lives, places an awesome burden upon all of us. That all of this is ultimately the Will of God, is the paradox.

We are not free to divest ourselves of the obligation to energetically and judiciously interpret our Torah and our lives as we encounter them.

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