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Questioning the Objectivity of Text Interpretation

Torah

I would like to position my post as following in the footsteps of the theme outlined by another post here on New Voices, by Max Moncaster on October 5th: exploring Judaism on my own terms. Much of the new positive thinking that I have engaged in since beginning my semester at Pardes -– that, on the heels of fairly wide-ranging cynicism that reached new heights this past summer — can be seen as an effort to explore Judaism on my own terms.

Towards that end, after four years away from full-time Jewish study in high school, I have rediscovered my love of Jewish textual study. As a result, I have been motivated to begin studying the Torah, in line with the weekly parsha, including the major commentary on that text: Rashi. This was convenient because Simchat Torah just passed, and so I can easily follow the weekly parsha by beginning with Bereishit. What I didn’t anticipate, however, is how woefully insufficient the two hours a week that my schedule naturally allows for this type of project would be — however, that’s another topic.

What I would like to focus on is an issue that I was able to spend some time thinking about during this past week as I began to read parshat Bereishit for the first time as a text that I did not believe was written by a divine being. I am just going to use the example that came up for me, though there are many equally appropriate examples of what I am trying to illustrate. In Genesis 1:28, the famous biblical law “to be fruitful and multiply” is given. However, while this is often cited as the reason why Jews should have as many kids as they can support or are comfortable with, it is actually a quite clear (in my opinion) example of taking a quote out of context. If you look at the whole verse, you will see that it actually reads: “God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it…’” This is extremely important in today’s world, as according to almost any expert on the matter we have reached (if not far surpassed) a point of saturation when it comes to the human population on the planet.

My theory is that this consideration will never — or at least not until our understanding of the reality of the planet’s continued existence changes significantly — enter into the mainstream education of young Jews. Leaving aside the definition of ‘mainstream’ which could easily fill many other posts, I want to argue that this is the case because how one interprets a text has a lot to do with pushing an agenda that the interpreter is independently committed to before entering into analysis of the given text. So, in our example, mainstream Jewish tradition is rooted in a past where, not only was it acceptable for all people to continue to expand the population of the planet, but specifically Jews were encouraged to do this for fear of extinction due to all sorts of horrors that befell Jews as a people. Both of those considerations, for the most part, are no longer applicable (or at least as applicable as they once were). However, another strong component of mainstream Jewish textual analysis is to respect the interpretations given by those who came before us. In contrast, when I read the same verse — carrying my own agenda, often antagonistic to the mainstream Jewish one referred to here — I come away with the interpretation that the verse is telling anyone who wishes to listen both that it was commanded to “be fruitful and multiply” then and that it is equally commanded to refrain from doing so now.

MASA_logo_loresBenjamin Barer is studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, one of Masa Israel‘s 180 programs.

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3 Older Responses to “Questioning the Objectivity of Text Interpretation”

  1. Aaron Laye
    October 7, 2010 at 1:50 pm #

    hi Ben,
    I’d like to respond to a couple points you brought up. Firstly, you point out that the Torah states, “… fill the earth and subdue it…’” which, you imply, was applicable to humanity, and Jews in particular, many many years ago, but have “far surpassed” that “commandment”. However, I think, that it is very difficult for us to really know what “fill the earth” really means – there are over 6 billion people in this world, but maybe the commandment really meant 7 billion? Or to fill to capacity until it’s unhealthy? To me, either the law is left unto personal interpretation OR it is simply “missing” the “until (when)”.
    Furthermore, you state that “Jews were encouraged to do this [procreate] for fear of extinction due to all sorts of horrors that befell Jews as a people. Both of those considerations, for the most part, are no longer applicable (or at least as applicable as they once were).” However, for some ethnic groups, Jews in particular ARE in a sort of “danger”. NOT danger of persecution but danger in terms of identity (dwindling). It is not clear now, but with the same trend, in my assimilationist (Vs. transformationist) perspective eventually Jews DO face a possible extinction or at least a more “melting pot” future.
    Therefore, it seems to me, humanity, nor Jews should refrain from having more children, rather it should be left unto perosnal choice and moral judgement (should I have children – am I capable of taking proper care?, etc.).

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