Jewish Bible Commentary

An introduction to the different ways in which Jews have read the Bible throughout history.

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"Why are [people making up] all of this? It is as if they haven't read the prophets, who repeat themselves for emphasis, and this is the approach of clarity. We also see this in the [liturgical poetry of] the ancients in the prayers for Rosh Hashanah."

Modern philological methods might differ from Ibn Ezra's reading, but the literary analysis of parallelism accords exactly with how any modern scholar might read this text. Other great medieval practitioners of the p'shat method, like the Rashbam (a grandson of Rashi) explicitly assert their fidelity to the midrashic method for the sake of deriving law and for ethical instruction, but when it comes to interpreting scripture, they argue that one needs to use rational and scientific tools like the linguistic tools and knowledge of history. According to this approach, interestingly, the p'shat can disagree with the halakhah (Jewish law).

Two other models of interpretation, although less widely applied, include remez (hint), which reads the biblical text as an allegory or extended metaphor, and sod (secret), which reads the Bible through the lens of Judaism's mystical lore.

These four methods--p'shat, remez, d'rash, and sod--have traditionally been referred to by an acronym combining their first letters PaRDeS (cognate with the English word paradise), which means orchard or garden. Each of these approaches has much to offer the modern reader of the Bible. Reading the Bible with the Mikra'ot Gedolot (Big Scriptures), which has a little biblical text on each page surrounded by lots of different traditional, mostly medieval, commentaries (including Rashi, Nahmanides, and Ibn Ezra) is like walking into an ancient conversation, a thoughtful debate conducted over the course of many centuries, locations, and cultures.

This thoughtful debate continues well beyond the Middle Ages, as Jews in the modern world create commentaries reflecting their own experiences and concerns. Some modern Jewish Bible scholars contend with the challenges raised by scientific study of Judaism, and biblical criticism. Others read the Bible with an eye towards advocating a particular kind of Jewish ideology. Whatever your perspective, the biblical text is open and your interpretation valued--join the conversation.

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