Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Tanach
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated to the full recovery of

Alegra bat Rachel

Bible Interpretation Today

Our generation again faces many of the same questions that our distant ancestors faced. This is a very significant fact, and the meaning of many Torah passages are being revealed to ours, the generation of the "first flowering of redemption."


Rabbi Shimon Klein

Iyar 5762
1. Introduction
2. First, Some Fundamentals
3. Are we worthy?
4. "Meanings which reveal themselves each day"
5. Conclusion

The question of Bible study has recently become the subject of a great many articles. In these articles, various opinions have been expressed concerning the centrality and character of such study.
This is an important and weighty subject, and it is not the purpose of this short article to serve as a substitute for more comprehensive study on this question. In addition, it is not my intention to clash with towering authorities; I merely wish to address one of the questions which has become subject to clarification.

First, Some Fundamentals
To begin with, a number of fundamental points:
1. The Tanakh (Bible) is a book that was written via prophecy.
2. The fathers of the Jewish nation, together with a great many other personalities which appear in the Tanakh, were on the level of prophecy.
3. While it is true that the appearance of prophecy depends upon the character of the individual prophet, the prophet's character is, in essence, not an exclusive one. It is, in fact, an expression of the character of the Jewish people as a whole in a particular generation, and it is this collective aspect which allows the opening of the prophetic channel in the individual prophet. Another way of expressing this concept is by asserting that prophecy, by its very nature, serves as an expression of God's willingness to allow His Divine Presence to dwell among His people; the actualization of this dwelling among the Jewish people takes the form of the opening of the prophetic channel. This channel is opened via the unique individuals of the generation - prophets.

Moreover, the Tanakh constitutes an account of the appearance of the Divine Presence in the world from creation until its ultimate departure. The stories of the Jewish people, of the spiritual concepts which take shape in their lives, of the envisioning of ideals, of struggles and wars, values and commandments - all of these are expressions of the appearance of the Divine Presence which emerged at that particular time in history.
Through examining the events recorded in the Bible and their lessons, through the personalities and their life stories, we attempt to lay bare the eternal messages that serve as living testimony of the appearance of the Divine Presence in Israel in its differing and varied forms.

Are we worthy?
The question I wish to address is as follows: Did the privilege of Biblical interpretation belong to certain epochs, and to them alone? Is there room for Biblical interpretation in our own generation?

Answer: The departure point of such a question is that perhaps we do not possess the ability to study the passages of the Tanakh and to understand them, for we lack the spiritual capacity, the prophetic level necessary in order to understand them correctly. In a sense, this is true. Yet, we must keep in mind that this deficiency made itself felt in the world at the moment that the Divine Presence disappeared; prophesy was then superseded by the intellect. And while it is true that there are aspects of understanding the Scriptures concerning which the rule of thumb is that "the scholar is preferable to the prophet," clearly there are a great many insights which can only be grasped by one who is on the level of a prophet.

All the same, we find that acclaimed Jewish authorities throughout the generations sat and interpreted the Torah, and each generation continued to discover new aspects of the Book of Books. All the same, one might contend: The Sages have already provided explanations for a great deal of the passages of the Tanakh. Who are we to come and add things that were not said by them? In response to this claim, I wish to cite the words of a number of earlier and later authorities. (There are, in fact, many similar statements by Bible commentators in all generations.)

"Meanings which reveal themselves each day"
Rabbi Shemuel ben Meir ("Rashbam") writes that, "Those who pursue wisdom will ponder and understand that which our Sages have taught: that, 'Scripture is never deprived of its literal meaning.' Still, the essence of the Torah's message - its lessons, laws, and precepts - is elicited… [by the various hermeneutic rules] from allusions in the text. The early ones, because of their piety, learned toward the primary goal of Talmudic interpretation, which is the most laudable pursuit. Therefore, they did not accustom themselves to pursue the depth of the literal interpretation of Scripture. They therefore did not accustom themselves so much to the literal interpretations of Scriptural verses... Yet, Rabbenu Shelomo (the illustrious "Rashi"), my grandfather on my mothers side, illuminator of the eyes of the Diaspora, who interpreted the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, [understood the great importance of literal interpretation, and] endeavored to explain the Scriptures according to their literal meaning. And I, Shemuel ben Rabbi Meir his son in law, argued with him, and he conceded to me that if he had the time he would have to produce additional Torah commentaries according to the new literal meanings which reveal themselves [to him] each day."
From the words of Rashi to Rashbam we understand that there are Scriptural "meanings which reveal themselves each day" even in the mind of an individual commentator, and that there exists no "final word" in Biblical exegesis after which there is no longer any need for clarifications and novel ideas.

Rabbi Moses ben Nachman ("Ramban") writes, in the course of his Torah commentary, "And I say, reservedly, after requesting forgiveness, that this [my interpretation] is according to the plain meaning of the Scriptures... and do not "muzzle our mouths," just because our Sages interpreted this text differently... for, after all, 'Scripture is never deprived of its literal meaning.'

In a similar manner, Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar ("Or HaChaim") in his commentary on the Torah explains in one place that, "This interpretation is not to be regarded as a denial of the words of our Sages concerning the practical law... for they have given us permission to explain the Scripture as seems fit, so long as we do not dispute the actual law." The Or HaChaim writes in his introduction to his Torah commentary concerning the approach he takes in his commentary: "And I set up a boundary for myself, for I did not allow my hand to open books. This was not out of disregard for them, Heaven forbid, for they are like a 'crown upon my head,' but only so that I not make the mistake of 'covering myself in their garment.' And in opening God's Torah I resisted enlightening myself by referring to the earlier authorities in order to note their insights and explanations...rather, God's written word [alone] lay before me, and it roused me, and it spoke to me, and it lit up my soul... and I felt as if my soul was unveiling hidden treasures."
Or HaChaim, then, set about writing his commentary without opening a single book, outside of the Scriptures themselves. With God's Torah before him, he accomplished what he did, and drew up his commentary. He, of course, had at his disposal the enormous treasure of holiness that resided in his own spiritual world.

What does all of the above mean to us?
Without addressing the question of just how central an aspect of one's spiritual composition Bible study ought to be, all agree that it must constitute an essential and meaningful ingredient. One should strive towards the sort of spiritual composition in which the Oral and Written Traditions compliment one another.
In my humble opinion, it all depends upon the character of the individual.
Building a comprehensive spiritual character means embracing the study of the Written Tradition, the Bible. A person who, in building his character, takes an broad approach to the realm of the holy, who, while displaying a capacity for understanding the various aspects of the Oral Tradition, approaches humbly the Scriptural text, will experience a great blessing in his study.

We mentioned Rashbam's position regarding literal Scriptural explanations which "renew themselves each day." In my humble opinion, this observation holds true all

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