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Thoughts for Shabbat: Interpretation is all there is

I love these passages from Bernard Levinson and Gunther Plaut. Both show that interpretation (as opposed to attempting a “literal reading”) is not just at the heart of many scriptures, but actually embedded within them.

With Judaism, we find that the various books of the Hebrew Bible, composed as they were at different times, were already responding to each other, and responding to both past and present circumstances. As Rabbi David Wolpe put it, only when the heart of a sacred text remains fluid and changing—all while not changing a word of the text itself—can there be “a book which an interpretive community for thousands of years [can] find nourishment and meaning in.”


The modernity of Deuteronomy is that it does not permit itself to be read literally or passively. It challenges its readers actively to confront the problem of the relation between divine revelation and human interpretation. It makes paradox central to its structure…. Interpretation is directly and indirectly a theme of Deuteronomy. At many points, the authors of Deuteronomy reinterpret earlier laws and narratives (6:1-3n). Moreover, the process of the book’s editing intentionally preserves conflicting perspectives on a full range of key issues central to Israelite religion…. There is no facile “air-brushing” away of this interplay of perspectives, which in effect reflects an ongoing ancient debate about fundamental religious assumptions. There is finally, for Deuteronomy, no access to God in the covenant without joining this debate. The reader of Deuteronomy must become, like the authors of Deuteronomy, an interpreter. 

– Bernard M. Levison, introduction to Deuteronomy, The Jewish Study Bible 361-362


In its earliest days, Torah represented essentially an oral tradition. Even after it was committed to writing, the majority of the people were not literate and therefore received the tradition primarily through the spoken word. To them, words indicated the beginning of God’s creative process—“God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light”—and the Ten Words [Ten Commandments] proclaimed at Sinai were understood as a direct continuation of this process: even as words were instrumental in the world’s creation, so were they in the creation and perfection of the Creator’s people. And since the words that Moses spoken (or was believed to have spoken) were taken to be a resonance of the divine will, those who transmitted them made certain that they would be preserved as accurately as possible. Even when new and revolutionary ideas were introduced in these traditions, the old words were carefully guarded. This led frequently to textual contradictions, but in time these were considered as merely apparent, not real; for Deuteronomy and all of the Torah were seen as the single emanation of the divine mind. A proper understanding would therefore explain any perceived inconsistencies…. The history of Judaism, and especially of its beginnings, was bound up in words spoken and heard, expressed and interpreted, and the capacity to hear and understand was the essential counterpart of speech.

– W. Gunther Plaut, commentary on Deuteronomy, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, 1174