Tuesday, June 08, 2004

We have been learning Torah together in small groups for about ten years now, trying as much as possible to confront the text on its own terms. This means taking the traditional interpretations as a point of departure -- and often departing directly from them as well. This means delving into the fecund arguments between ancient, and more recent, rabbinic commentators. The "King of Commentators" is RASHI.

In rabbinic tradition, rabbis who wrote books of commentary are often commonly referred to, either by the title of their most famous book, or by an acronym. Thus, Maimonides (1135-1204) the great Spanish Jewish scholar, Aristotelian, court physician to the Moslem court in Spain, is known in Jewish tradition as the RAMBAM -- acronym for Rav Moshe Ben Maimon (= Rabbi Moses son of Maimon) His near contemporary, and often intellectual antagonist, Nachmanides, (1194-1270) Rav Moshe Ben Nachman (= Rabbi Moses son of Nachman). Rashi = Rav Shlomo Yitzchak (Rabbi Solomon Isaac). He was born in Troyes, France, and lived from 1040 to 1105, surviving the massacres of the First Crusade through Europe. Rashi's primary teacher was the foremost student of one of the great Rabbis of the middle ages, Rabbenu Gershom (c. 960-1028) of Mainz, Germany.

Rabbenu Gershom is particularly famous for issuing a decree, binding at the time for one thousand years, and only on Ashkenazic Jews, that a man could have only one wife at a time. (Remember Abraham with Hagar, his concubine? Remember Jacob with two wives and two concubines? All legit, as far as the Talmud is concerned.) Nowadays people joke that the G'ZERAH ("decree") of Rabbenu Gershom has run out... but we don't do multiple marriages. If you look at the financial obligations put on a husband in the KETUBAH, the traditional Jewish marriage contract, you'd be crazy to think about getting married even once!

Rabbenu Gershom also decreed that a man could not force his wife to accept a GET, a rabbinic bill of divorcement, but that the woman had to agree to a divorce. He also decreed it is a serious sin to open and read someone else's mail. This actually had very powerful, and positive, economic consequences, as Jews were able to trade from community to community without fear that news of their pending transactions would fall into the wrong hands. In this sense, Rabbenu Gershom was the first market regulator. It's been downhill ever since...

Anyway... studying text with Rashi is the doorway in. Once inside, there are many corridors to explore. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav says: you should interpret and interpret, make the text of Torah twist and turn in every which way and try to tease out of it every last drop of poetry and meaning. Just, he cautions, do not use your new interpretations as a rationale for changing the law.

The RamBaM has pretty much the same view. He says that the highest degree of Torah study is creating one's own Torah -- but only after one has mastered the traditional interpretations and readings.

Is this reactionary nonsense, or is it progressive, legitimate, intellectual discourse?

We think it's the latter. Look: there is no such thing as studying a text strictly on its own terms. The great Buddhist teachers speak about the concept of Seeking Refuge -- one of the fundamental acts of Buddhist practice. Westerners in particular are often put off by this notion. We think it is somehow intellectually weak to seek refuge in the Buddha, as though we could not confront the world on our own. But the reality, say the teachers, is that we all seek refuge every day. Some of us seek refuge in drugs, some in money, some in sex, some in art, in music, in philosophy... and, finally, we all seek refuge within the knotty complexities of our own personalities -- all of which stands between us and a clear perception of reality. Just as the first step to clarity of perception is actively seeking Refuge, so too the first step towards clear understanding of the deep levels of the text is to absorb the traditional teaching.

We're working on it. Watch this space. I've got to go now.

yours for a better world --

-- moshe