How To Read The Hebrew Bible

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to staff a table at the Chicago Jewish Festival. It was a wonderful opportunity to interact with a wide spectrum of people from the Chicagoland Jewish community. During the course of the day, a member of a missionary Christian organization came to my table to proselytize. Putting aside for this blog post the assumptions that motivate a person behind the act of proselytizing, I found fascinating his use of quotes from Tanakh to justify his theological position. It was not the first time I’ve encountered his approach but for whatever reason it struck me that day.

If there was one way to describe his approach I would call it flat. In the traditional Jewish approach to reading the Bible, the text becomes alive with generations and generations of commentary and layers of understanding. If one would map out a Jewish approach to reading Tanakh as a topographical map, it would contain mountains and hills, valleys and plains. In the contrary approach, as exemplified by that missionary, the text is read without context, without commentary and without depth. The words are understood simply through the bias and lens of the contemporary reader. In interacting with this missionary, and with others like him, it is as if we are operating with two different sets of language and do not share a common vocabulary and reference points to have a meaningful conversation.

However, are there times when it is called for to read the Tanakh absent commentary and rabbinic depth? Even as Jews who inhabit a Biblical world of mountains and hills, are there moments when we can gain from seeing the text as flat?

An example of the power of reading the text flattened: The Hebrew Bible mentions multiple times the need to uphold the rights of the immigrant in your midst (Exodus 22:20, Deuteronomy 24:17, Ezekiel 47:21-23 as just a few examples). It is one of the most dominant themes throughout the entire text. Yet, we know that the rabbis understood this oft-repeated injunction to refer to the legally defined, ger toshav—resident alien, a much more limited category with many specifications and requirements than the broad category of immigrant. Does the flat reading of those many verses in the Tanakh still contain an ethic of how we treat the vulnerable in our society?

I believe they do. There is a power to the text even separated from the traditional Jewish exegetical approach to understanding it. When we conceive of the study of the Talmud we classically divide Talmudic literature into two broad categories: halakha (law) and aggada (homiletics or “everything else”). The aggada is no less valuable than the halakha even if one can not derive specific practical steps from it. The aggada frames the way we view the world and how we conduct our moral selves. Similarly, there are times when reading Tanakh flatly, without the richness of commentary, can inform our moral and ethical selves and help us frame the society we live in. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) wrote in his work, The Nineteen Letters:

“… we must first acquaint ourselves with Judaism through the source which it, itself, offers, the only documentation and evidence about itself that it has salvaged from the wreck of all its other fortunes: the Torah. And through the Torah we must attain, also, an understanding of Israel’s destiny. For is not Judaism an historical phenomenon, and is not the Torah the only account of its origin, of its first appearance on the stage of history and of its existence for a considerable length of time thereafter? … Before we open it, however, let us consider how to read it. As a subject for philological or antiquarian research? … As Jews we will read this book, as a book tendered to us by God in order that we learn from it about ourselves, what we are and what we should be during our earthly existence. We will read it as Torah— literally, ‘instruction’ —directing and guiding us within God’s world and among humanity, making our inner self come alive.”

This I believe is the value of approaching the Hebrew Bible and reading it on its own terms. There are limits to that endeavor, as that missionary at the Chicago Jewish Festival demonstrated, but just because there are limits does not mean it is not a worthwhile practice.

Posted on June 20, 2014

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