Thursday, July 31, 2003

Parshat Devarim - Perverting the Mikra? An Open vs. Closed Canon Approach

The first pasuk of Devarim lists a whole slew of place names. Rashi cites R Yochanan, who said (Rashi dibur hamatchil "Bein Paran UVein Tofel VeLavan") "We reviewed all of Scriptures and we found not a place whose name was Tofel and Lavan; rather, he (Moshe) rebuked them on the fact that they complained (tiflu) about the Manna that was white (lavan), as they said..." and then brings the source pasuk where complained about the Manna.

In fact, Rashi explains all the place names in this way - Chatzeiros, Di Zahav, etc.

The Sifrei has the same explanations of place names, without (at least as far as I read) R Yochanan's justification that these place names never occur elsewhere in Scriptures. However, it does record an objection:

"R Yosi ben Dormaskit said to him, 'Yehuda BeRabbi, why do you pervert to us the Scriptures? I call Heaven and Earth upon me as my witnesses that I reviewed all the places (original girsa: in the Torah and there is no place that is called - but this is placed in parentheses, and instead we have in brackets what makes more sense in context) and all of them are (actual) places, but rather they are called that because of actual happenstance (they recieved their place names because of some occurance there). Similarly, (Bereishit 26) 'He called the place Esek because 'hitasku imo' - they contended with him. And it says (Bereishit 26:33) 'And he called it Shivah (after the oath)'"
{Josh: This is an example of places named after an occurence which happened there.}

"Similarly, R Yehuda darshened (Zechariah 9:1) "The burden of the word of the LORD. In the land of Hadrach, and in Damascus shall be His resting-place; (for the LORD'S is the eye of man and all the tribes of Israel)" {Regarding the place ChadRach} This is Mashiach who is Sharp (Chad) to the Canaanites and soft (Rach) to Israel."

"R Yosi ben Dormaskit said to him, 'Yehuda BeRabbi, why do you pervert to us the Scriptures? I call Heaven and Earth upon me as my witnesses that I am from Damesek {the pasuk said "in the land of Chadrach and in Damascus...", and he is ben Dormaskit, implying he is from Damascus) and there is a place there and its name is Chadrach... {R Yosi ben Dormaskit then explains what "Damascus is his rest place" means assuming the reference is really to Damascus.}"

"Similar to the matter R Yehuda darshened
(Bereishit 41:43) "And he made him to ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried before him: 'Avrech'; and he set him over all the land of Egypt."
- This is Yosef who is a father/master (Av) in wisdom and soft (Rach) in years.

"R Yosi ben Dormaskit said to him, 'Yehuda BeRabbi, why do you pervert to us the Scriptures? I call Heaven and Earth upon me as my witnesses that "Avrech is only the language of ??brachim?? {perhaps knees, since "none shall lift up his hand or his foot in all eretz mitzrayim?}" "and he set him over all the land of Egypt." - that all entered and left under his hand.'"

Closed vs. Open Canon
The dispute between R Yochanan and R Yosi ben Dormaskit seems to be one of closed-canon versus open-canon approach to interpreting TaNaCH. A closed-canon approach means that any person or place which occurs uniquely in one location must get its definition from elsewhere in the body of the canon, those texts which are part of TaNaCh, because we would not get thrown a random person or place out of left field that we have not encountered elsewhere. An example of this is the claim that Ivtzan is identical with Boaz, since otherwise we would have expected Boaz to have been mentioned in Sefer Shoftim as a judge. An open-canon approach assumes that TaNaCH could refer to a person or place (or thing) that otherwise we would not know about, and that we have not seen elsewhere in another context.

R Yochanan states that we reviewed all of Scripture and we see no place by those names in all of TaNaCH. He makes no claim of looking at the actual world to confirm that no such place exists. Since it does not exist elsewhere in TaNaCH, he determines that these places are not real and the intent that the Jews were not really there but rather Moshe rebukes them on all the matters hinted at by these strange made-up place names. Thus, R Yochanan uses a sort of closed-canon approach, but rather than identifying these places with some other known place, he says that they do not really exist.

R Yosi ben Dormaskit makes no reference to the fact that these places occur nowhere else in Tanach. Rather, he points out that geographically, if you look at the world, these are actual locations, and so no midrashic interpretation of these place names is necessary, or in fact wanted. This seems to be an open-canon approach. The Torah can bring in a place that is otherwise unmentioned, but this is a unique location that surely exists. The fact that the names seem to hint at meanings stems from the fact that all place names have meaning, which they obtained by some event occuring there, as we see from Esek and Shiva.

It is unclear what the response of R Yochanan would be. Do we ignore geographical evidence and adopt a closed canon approach? Would we do the same for archeological evidence? Rashi certainly does not seem to be concerned by R Yosi ben Dormaskit's objection, since he prints R Yochanan and NOT R Yosi ben Dormaskit's statement.

What's the Biggee? Why can't we say it is just Drash?
Even so, R Yosi ben Dormaskit's language seems unduly strong. Is R Yehuda BeRabbi really perverting/twisting the meaning of the psukim? Why can't we say that R Yosi ben Dormaskit is operating on the pshat level, and R Yochanan and R Yehuda are operating on the midrashic level? Further, why is R Yochanan compelled to first justify his explanation by saying that these places do not exist? Why not just say they could exist, but the fact that they are written in the pasuk is coming to bring additional (midrashic) information?

I think this might actually help us understand more about Chazal's attitude to pshat and drash. I am not entirely convinced that when Chazal gave an interpretation in the Midrash or in the Gemara, they meant it as Drash and not Pshat. Certainly we find statement about the four levels of interpretation, and statements like Ain HaMikra Yotzei miydei pshuto, but I think is is possible that many of the statements Chazal made are intended as pshat, even though it looks to us like drash. Or perhaps better, it is Emes, Truth, and they do not necessarily make such distinctions between pshat and drash as a regular matter of course. As such, R Yehuda and R Yochanan means their explanation as the true, meaning of the text. As such, we must preclude other meanings, so places with those names must first of all not exist. And R Yosi ben Dormaskit can have such a pointed and heated reaction to this attempt at declaring meaning.

Another possibility (perhaps true at the same time as the above), drash is not "I am making something up, so don't bother me." It is a hyper-literal reading of the text. It operated by rules. The most basic one of which I've encounted in reading various midrashim, is that there has to be something on which to hang your hat. It is usually an irregularity in the text. For example, Az Yashir Moshe means "then Moshe sang," but the form of the verb is the imperfect, so it is interpreted to mean Moshe will sing in the time of Mashiach. There has to be some irregularity, not to discard the pshat but to hint at something more.

If so, if there is nothing irregular about the place names because that is where they were, there is no cause for drash. And perhaps thats the root of this machloket. This could have repercussions in other realms. I have had disputations in the past with people who would take something intended as pshat and when it is disproven, would be happy to relegate it to the level of drash. But drash is not something that is incorrect, and drash is something that needs be based on something "off" in the text. This would be an argument against modern "midrash" where people want to make an ethical/moral point and spin the parsha to make that point, with no true basis for making that spin in the text, but just the fact that one could make a wordplay or the like. That is falsehood, not midrash. There is nothing to "force" you to say the midrash. You might say it is drush, not drash, but I am not sure. I certainly would not say it is on the level of Chazal's interpretations in the midrashim or gemara. Furthermore, if someone attempts to say a pshat and it is intended as pshat and not drash, if it is disproved, it is disproved pshat - one could say a twisting/perversion of the mikra (if you really have proof it is incorrect), and not drash.

Or maybe not. Just some thoughts that struck me as I contemplated this.
Good Shabbos!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Never heard of this R' Yosi ben Dormaskit before, but I like him.


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