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Interpretive Tradition IV: We Only Ever Interpret Ourselves – Rabbi Herzl Hefter

 

I once heard someone say in the name of Rabbi Soloveitchik, that one who assigns psychological or historical explanations to the opinions of our Sages would be considered a kofer baTorah (a heretical denier of the Torah) according to the following passage from the Mishne Torah of Maimonides:

“He who denies the Oral Law and contradicts its teachers [is a denier of the Torah]” (Hil. Teshuva 3: 8)

This approach which was attributed to the Rav, seems to assume that the Torah is pristine and that its interpretation takes place in a sterile and ahistorical environment, akin to the study of mathematics. This is called “Objectivism.”

Intuitively, I always thought that this was a very naïve attitude toward the nature of the Torah and how it becomes known to us. (I believe that the Rav meant something else here, which I will suggest at the end of this piece.)

An approach which rings more true is that of the Ba’al HaTanya:

“…for man visualizes in his mind all the concepts which he wishes to conceive and understand – all as they are within himself. For instance, if he wishes to envisage the essence of will or the essence of wisdom or of understanding… and the like, he visualizes them all as they are within himself. But in truth, the Holy One blessed be He is ‘high and exalted’ and ‘holy is His name.’ That is to say, He is holy and separated many myriads and degrees of separations ad infinitum above the quality, type or kind of praises which creatures could grasp and conceive in their intellect” (Sha’ar Hayihud Veha’emuna ch. 8).

The Tanya has a very sober view of what and how we know anything. All humans see and interpret from the perspective of who they are. When we interpret a situation or a text (which is also a “situation”) we cannot but bring our total selves into the encounter; the civilization in which we grew up, our historical and personal circumstances.
This means that our horizons are finite. The goal of spiritual growth is to expand our horizons so that we can grasp more of God.

This approach lies at the foundation by the following episode recorded in the Mishna:

“[R. Gamliel] bathed the first night after his wife died. Is disciples said to him, ‘You taught us that a mourner is forbidden to bath.’ He said to them, ‘I am unlike other people, I am weak’ (istenis).” (Berakhot 16b)

The Talmud gives no source for this halakha other than the behavior of R. Gamliel. How did R. Gamliel himself know this halakha to be true?

R. Mordechai Yosef of Ishbitz explains that because R. Gamliel was spiritually refined, his behavior becomes the Torah itself. His subjective state and the understandings to which that state gave rise become the Torah. R. Gamliel is interpreting himself and that interpretation becomes the Torah.

The Tanya is saying that we only can interpret through ourselves. R. Mordechai Yosef teaches that what we are actually interpreting is ourselves.

Therefore I understand R. Soloveitchik in the following way: If one attributes psychological or societal circumstances as coloring the opinions of the Sages in order to undermine the Torah he is a denier of the Torah and its teachers.

However, when we understand that the Sages, by interpreting themselves, bear testimony to the presence of God in themselves as the source of the Torah – we render the Torah our own and make it eternally relevant.

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