Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Unlocking the Torah Text: Vayikra -- A Review

A few weeks back I received a review copy of Unlocking the Torah Text: Vayikra, by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin. (Available for purchase here.) And I have held off a review until I finished the book, which was a few weeks ago. You can read all about the author here. An excerpt of his bio:
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin has served as spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, New Jersey, since 1984. With a membership of over 700 families, Ahavath Torah is the largest orthodox synagogue in Northern New Jersey.

He is an instructor of Bible and Philosophy at the Isaac Breuer College and the James Striar School of Yeshiva University; the founding director of and lecturer at The Eve Flechner Torah Institute-an institute of Torah study located in the Bergen County community; and has served on the faculty of numerous other institutes. Rabbi Goldin is past President of Rabbinic Alumni of Yeshiva University, past President of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County and former Chairman of its Kashruth Committee. He is a member of other various prominent Jewish organizations and is the founder and chairman of Shvil Hazahav...

Here is a photo of him, to the left. On to my review...

It is difficult to write an engaging book on sefer Vayikra, and the author discusses this in the introduction. To put it in my own words and thoughts, and to expand on the idea quite a bit, Vayikra is very detail-oriented. And these details repeat over and over, with slight variations. And while kohanim in the Beit Hamikdash may have readily understood and applied these laws, such that practical experience would open up the sefer and render it both useful and easily understood, we do not have a Beit Hamikdash or Mishkan before us to make this entirely comprehensible. This repetition of now-arcane detail makes the text of Vayikra simultaneously dense and boring.

And that which we can partly understand, and have the will to consider, we have difficulty relating to. Living in the Western World, in the 21st century, can we really relate to korbanot? It is something we might grapple with. Why should Hashem want us to kill and tear up a poor defenseless animal, and burn its parts and fats on the mizbayach? Why should a non-corporeal, all-powerful God demand this of us? What are we to make of the strange rituals for the leper? There are answers, good ones, but many a modern reader still has difficulty relating to this, and understanding the deep meaning.

And even without all these difficulties, to put it plainly, narrative is usually much more interesting than law. And while one is relatively unconstrained in offering interpretation of narrative (though whether one may argue with midrashim is perhaps a good, modern debate), one is (usually) extremely constrained in interpreting the Torah's legal codes. The end result is that if an Orthodox author offers interpretation, it is a rehash of the midrash halacha and the gemara on these matters. And this material is already out there, and does not truly engage a typical modern reader. The types of derashot -- kelal ufrat, gezeira shava, miut achar miut, etc., might excite lawyers, but not the Jewish reader at large.

Different authors take different approaches to Vayikra. For example, midrash halacha will simply analyze the text. Rashi will present a consistent traditional interpretation, based on midrash halacha, but will also include a bit of homiletic material. Certain midrashim, which are usually narrative midrashim, may find the deep homiletic meanings inherent in the laws, or else tie in other Biblical incidents into the laws. Some meforshim may try to explain how the halacha is peshat, despite other possibilities, when fighting with Karaites. Some (e.g. Rashbam) may provide alternate interpretations of law codes, under the label of peshat, though of course one should not act on it. Some (e.g. Ibn Caspi) may simply side-step many of the tough and boring areas entirely, pointing out that for a good traditional interpretation, one may simply consult with Rashi. Some, such as myself, may focus on a tangential matter, such as matters of trup and masorah, and thus find material that is interesting to some. Yes, Vayikra is different, and an author must grapple with this.

Rabbi Goldin's goal appears to be to create an engaging text on Vayikra by sidestepping the discussions of arcane and intricate details, for the most part, and focusing instead on the deep questions raised by the text. These deep questions are precisely what would otherwise make the text difficult to relate to. How can a transcendent God demand physical korbanot? What, then, is the meaning of korbanot? Is it not unfair to exclude a disfigured person from serving as a kohen? How come there are different castes of Israelites -- regular Yisraelim, Leviim, and Kohanim? "Is there any rhyme or reason to the laws of kashrut"? What is the import of shogeg?

In all of these, he does not initially try to innovate. Rather, his goal is to present to the reader the classic opinions on these matters, in a clear and orderly fashion. Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni take this approach. Rambam and Abarbanel take this other approach. His presentation often involves some elaboration, developing the ideas further than they might exist explicitly in the text. And at the close of each chapter, he includes a section called "Points to Ponder", which is a further developed idea, and a take-away message / thought, often with an illustrative story.

All in all, very nice. And I think he accomplished his goal, which was to present an array of opinions within traditional Jewish thought on a number of "difficult" topics, and to tie these in to the parashat hashavua such that it provides an engaging and entertaining commentary on each week's Torah portion.

That was the "good". Now, for the slight critique.

I usually learn parashat hashavua with Junior, my five-year-old. And when I sat down one Shabbos morning to read this book, Junior requested that I learn it with him, and read it aloud to him. I wasn't sure it was age-appropriate, but I agreed. We began with the portion of Vayikra, and the question of why Hashem demands korbanot. Junior raised a number of objections, among them wondering just what the difficulty was. I explained, if Hashem is non-physical, and All-Powerful, then why does He need korbanot? Junior explained patiently that there is a difference between "want" and "need". Hashem does not require korbanot. He just desires korbanot! But why, I asked? Well, answered Junior, because he likes the sweet smell. It is a pasuk, that it is a reach nichoach isheh laHashem.

Now, I will not deny that the question is a deep one: What is the purpose of korbanot? After all, many a Rishon grapples with this question. Rambam suggests it was a requirement because of a society which had yet to be weaned off idolatry. If this were not a difficult question, it would not have sparked such discussion throughout the ages.

But perhaps, where we are uncomfortable with Biblical theology, it is are own fault. The Torah will often come into conflict with modern culture, mores, ethics, and attitudes. In case of such a conflict, there are at least, and approximately, four possibilities.

(A) The Torah's morality and approach is the correct one, and we live in a krum, corrupt society. (Feminism? Feh!)
(B) Our modern approach is the correct one, and that the Torah differs betrays a fault in the Torah. (How can a Divine Torah not be feminist? The Torah must be not of Divine origin! How can a Divine Torah not be Marxist, which is obviously the correct approach? It must not be from the Divine! How can a Divine Torah not be Democratic? Socialist? Fascist?)
(C) The Torah was one expression, and was appropriate given the existing ancient society. Dibra Torah kileshon benei Adam. And it is misguided to judge the Torah unfavorably by modern standards. (Given that the alternative was starvation for the poor, and given the protections afforded her and the possibility of emerging from pauper-status, the laws of amah ivriya are actually quite positive and progressive.)
(D) We must interpret the Torah in light of our modern knowledge and morals. Since we believe in Communism, we will show how the Torah really promotes Communist ideals. Or it is really a feminist tract. And so on and so forth.

All these difficult things Rabbi Goldin grapples with, and which several Rishonim and Acharonim preceded him in grappling with -- perhaps one should not grapple. And in adopting approach (D), one may really be perverting the Torah's ideals. (In one chapter, "A Decades-Old Bar Mitzvah Challenge", Rabbi Goldin admits that his discomfort with the disqualification of a blemished kohen is not shared by Rashi and other Rishonim, and considers why that might be.)  But the values of the next generation will not equal that of the present generation, just as the values of the present generation was not equal to that of the previous generation. We consider this progress, but perhaps it is simply difference. Perhaps Junior's approach is the better one.

Despite this difference of opinion, I should note that Junior enjoyed what I read him of the book. I week after reading the initial chapter, I posted a link to a Hirhurim mention of it a while back, which included a cover image, and Junior saw the thumbnail and excitedly said, "Hey, it is Unlocking the Torah Text! That must be the one one Sefer Bamidbar, or on Sefer Devarim!" (He likes the idea of complete sets.)

My second critique is a bit harsher, but I should stress up front that it is not directed at the author, but at his whole system of Biblical exegesis. My beef is not with Rabbi Goldin, but with Nechama Leibovitch. And asking me to review this book is then a bit like asking Bet Shammai to review Bet Hillel.

The problem goes to a deep issue, which is the very definition of pshat and drash. Rabbi Goldin indeed agrees that there is a distinction between them, and that making this distinction is critical. Thus, in his introduction, Rabbi Goldin writes:

Thus, he does make the distinction, and decries those who conflate these two approaches to text. As he writes, "when we ignore the pshat and instead offer drash as the literal interpretation of the text -- we end up understanding neither of these interpretive realms. In our studies, therefore, we will make every attempt to distinguish between pshat and drash and to present each approach appropriately."

However, I emphatically disagree with his definitions of pshat and drash. As described in the excerpt above, pshat is the concrete, ("true") meaning of the text, together with deep analysis which reveals deep, unexpected meaning. Whereas, (following "many authorities") drash is never "meant to be taken literally, nor is it meant to be seen as an attempt to explain the factual meaning of a specific Torah passage.

My own approach to peshat and drash is somewhat different. There are not only two distinct approaches, but three or more. (I write his pshat and drash without using e for the shva na, while my own I write peshat and derash with an e

Derash -- is result of the application of a set of particular midrashic analytical methodologies to discover hidden meaning which is not apparent on simple, the surface level of the text. Thus, e.g., a gezeira shava, or a reinterpretation of a distant text, or understanding gam to be inclusive of something else. Also, it involves playing extreme attention to details and nuance, past where one usually pays attention. And it involves a sort of hyper-literalism, in which the literal meaning of a word is taken to its extreme, often ignoring context or usual patterns of speech in natural language.  The result of such derash might be something entirely believable to the modern reader, or perhaps not. But derash is discovered meaning, by applying midrashic methods.

Peshat, on the other hand, is the simple, consistent meaning of the text without application of these midrashic methods. I am extremely hesitant to use the word "literal", because while it is indeed the literal meaning, midrash is often more literal than peshat. For example, in terms of the "nefesh" that they (=Avraham and Sarah) "made" (asu) in Charan, on a peshat level it means something along the lines of acquiring many servants. But hyper-literally, one might assume that they "made" (rather than acquired) "souls". And this could involve creating golems via Sefer Yetzira; or it could involve converting people to monotheism, Avraham the men and Sarah the women. Which is peshat and which is derash? The peshat is often NOT the most literal interpretation, but a realization that dibra Torah kilshon bnei Adam and trying to find the interpretation that makes the least waves and the most sense in context.

Derush -- is interpreting the Biblical text in order to arrive at some homiletic lesson. Often, in this type of midrash, the texts are not prooftexts to the thesis, but rather pre-texts.

That is my set of definitions. Rabbi Goldin, or rather the general school to which he appears to subscribe, does not make these distinctions. If so, I believe that certain types of interpretations are assigned to the wrong categories. Namely, since pshat had been defined as things that are true and the result of close reading, then midrash aggadah we believe to be true, and derived from close reading is pshat! (I would label it derash.) Further, any aggadah which we do not believe to be true, we assume was meant allegorically (instead of sometimes saying that we differ with Chazal as to the plausibility of the matter), and so it is drash (=my derush). There is no middle ground of midrash which we would consider fantastic but was meant as historically true. It is either pshat or drash, where the latter = derush.

I often decry both approaches. The latter, about assuming every midrash we disagree with must be allegorical, I complained about, for example, in this post. But the former is also extremely problematic, because the end result is that one often conflates derash, or worse, derush, with peshat. An example of this, from Unlocking the Torah Text: Vayikra. This, from parashat Vayikra. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin writes:

Alas, his "question" is based on a close reading, and presents a deep meaning of the text -- perhaps something that is now "unlocked' -- and so he appears to believe that this is peshat. The pasuk states asher nasi yecheta, rather than ki nasi yecheta. That implies a certainty that he will sin. It is when a leader will sin, rather than if a leader will sin.

This need not be the peshat. Nor must it be intended as peshat rather than as derush. The first one to make this connection, that I know of, is Rabbi Moshe de Leon, in late 13th century. In Zohar (III, 23a) adds, vadai yecheta. He is followed in this idea by Rabbenu Bachya (d. 1340). And also, by Seforno (1475-1550). (However, perhaps it appears earlier, if Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni take steps to counter it.)

Now, this might well be derush, not even derash. Certainly, the point of the Torah text, on a peshat level, is to detail the korbanot a nasi must bring in the event of sinning. The idea that he will sin is meant to be commentary on human nature, and is entirely orthogonal to the main peshat point of the text. It strikes me as homiletic, and as pre-text rather than prooftext. So I would label it derash. (The difference between ki and asher is of no consequence; natural language varies, and a speaker can sometimes use one term and sometimes use a synonym.)

Yet this derasha is "famous", and it seems to be a deep insight that the Torah is trying to convey to us. Furthermore, pshat is literal, and there is surely a difference between the common word  If so, goes the school of thought, it must be peshat. And if famous pashtanim do not advance it, then we must explain why they do not do so.

Rashi writes as follows:
כב) אשר נשיא יחטא - לשון אשרי, אשרי הדור שהנשיא שלו נותן לב להביא כפרה על שגגתו, קל וחומר שמתחרט על זדונותיו:
Happy is the generation whose prince sets his heart to bring atonement upon his accidental sin, and (/for) all the more so, that he regrets his intentional sin. This is a citation of Horayot, daf 10, where it is the words of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai.

Why does Rashi not cite this derasha found in Zohar? Well, first demonstrate to me that Rashi knew the Zohar. Even if it was around in his time, there seems to be little evidence that Rashi was one of the yechidei sugulah who knew of it.

Furthermore, it is Rashi's general approach to cite midrashim to explain pesukim; this, although everyone considers him the pashtan, who only comes to give the peshuto shel mikra. And what Rashi cites here is most certainly derush, not derash.

So, the question amounts to why Rashi preferred a derush he knew to a derush he did not know, and might not have even existed in his time. Yet see how Rabbi Goldin summarized this:
"A number of commentators are unwilling to take this phrase at face value... The Ibn Ezra and the Chizkuni... 
There are scholars, however, who are willing to embrace the pshat {emphasis mine} of this phrase and the troubling philosophical message it conveys. This straightforward approach is mirrored in the comments of the Sforno"
But this is absolutely NOT peshat, and Rashi's non-citation of this should not be read as reluctance.

So too Ibn Ezra. Ibn Ezra writes:
[ד, כב]
אשר נשיא יחטא -
וכן הוא אשר יחטא הנשיא והוא דבק באשר למעלה: ואם כל עדת ישראל כאילו אמר: ואם אשר יחטא הוא נשיא שבט או נשיא בית אב:
That is, asher means im. This may be motivated by the existence of the derasha, which Ibn Ezra is trying to oppose. Or, there may be more grammatical concerns at play. See Mechokekei Yehuda. Since nasi is a noun, it does not seem to make grammatical sense to say asher nasi. And so, it is hafuch, the equivalent of the reverse, and going on the verb, that which sins the nasi. And to show that this is the meaning, he takes a verse with parallel meaning, such that above was one situation, and this is another situation. Or some explanation of this sort. Ibn Ezra might not even be responding to the derasha as it appears in the Zohar, that asher conveys "when" as opposed to "if".

But even if Ibn Ezra is countering the derasha, this is not because he regards it as peshat, yet he is unwilling to embrace the peshat because of the uncomfortable philosophical message! Who says this is good peshat?! Over and over on parshablog, I have demonstrated how Ibn Ezra argues on midrashim, even rather famous midrashim, such as Arami Oved Avi, because he is interested in peshat and not derash. This heightened focus upon asher rather than ki strikes me as hyper-literal. And Ibn Ezra, when discussing the differences between the language of the first and second luchos (in his "short" commentary), writes at length that the meanings of words are comparable to the spirit, while the overt lexical form of the words are comparable to the spirit. Who cares whether one says Shamor and one says Zachor? The meaning is the same, and the enlightened scholars of language will focus on the neshama and not the guf. And so, he opposes many a derasha based on a slight divergence in word form. (Though this parasha, parashat Emor, is an exception, as I discuss in another post about karet vs. ibud.) If so, Ibn Ezra would not consider ki vs. asher to be a peshat-based concern, and so the question is no question. So too the hyper-literalism on the word asher. That is a midrashic concern. In context, of course the word means "if", and that is its spirit. For Ibn Ezra, then, the better peshat is what he presents. And it is not due to discomfort with the philosophical message that he rejects the peshat.

One would only think so if one has already wrongfully conflated the realms of peshat and derash and derush. Then one is bothered why an uber-pashtan like Ibn Ezra would not present the derush as the peshat.

What about Chizkuni? He writes:

It seems to me that his concern is grammatical, in terms of the order of the words, just like Ibn Ezra, and he follows in Ibn Ezra's recommendation of swapping about the words. He points us to Megillat Esther, and the verse 6:8:

ח  יָבִיאוּ לְבוּשׁ מַלְכוּת, אֲשֶׁר לָבַשׁ-בּוֹ הַמֶּלֶךְ; וְסוּס, אֲשֶׁר רָכַב עָלָיו הַמֶּלֶךְ, וַאֲשֶׁר נִתַּן כֶּתֶר מַלְכוּת, בְּרֹאשׁוֹ.8 let royal apparel be brought which the king useth to wear, and the horse that the king rideth upon, and on whose head a crown royal is set;

where the meaning is not "that the royal crown is set on his head," but rather the reverse, "the crown that is set upon his head. This too, is the laws about the nasi who sins, the nasi asher yecheta.

Perhaps Chizkuni is motivated by "if" vs. "when", but it is harder to see this here. Rather, the focus may well be on dikduk, as well as setting up different parallel cases -- when all the congregation sins, where the kohen gadol sins, where the nasi sins.

But even if he is motivated by the "if" vs. "when" question, that does not mean that he disregards that interpretation because of discomfort with the philosophical repercussions. Nothing in his words indicates that. Rather, it could well be because he is functioning as a pashtan, and not a darshan, and the Zohar's explanation of the pasuk is solidly in the realm of derush.

Indeed, both Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni surely know the explanation of Rashi, who cited Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai! One could more readily ask why Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni did not give Rashi's explanation. And the answer is that Rashi's explanation is solidly derush. Well, the same goes for the explanation in the Zohar.

I will close this critique with a note that while I focused on just this short excerpt from the book, I could have similarly focused on many other sections, to similar effect. And this is because of this disagreement as to the definitions of peshat and derash. Too much in the book strikes me as derash and derush, but seems presented as if it is peshat.

This is enough for a critique. I hope I have not been too harsh. As Hirhurim posted recently, this is how not to write a review:

Despite this strong methodological disagreement with the author about peshat and derash, overall, it is a worthy book. Clearly a lot of time, effort, and thought went into its construction, and as I wrote earlier, it has its many merits, and it is a welcome addition to my bookshelf.

You can purchase the sefer via the link below:

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