Missunderstanding rabbinic literature

By
Israel Drazin

 

I think that the greatest difficulty that people have in understanding rabbinic
literature is that it is hard for them to see what prompted the rabbi to say
what he said. I’ll focus on one point.

 

Very soon after the Five Books of Moses was canonized, probably during the time of Ezra, around
the fourth century BCE, Jews began to debate how it should be understood. One
debate occurred in the second century of the Common Era. One approach was advocated
by Rabbi Akiva and his students. The other view was favored by Rabbi Ishmael
and his students. Rabbi Akiva insisted that since the Torah comes from God it
must have been composed in a divine format and with no superfluous word or
letter. Every word and letter was purposely placed in the Torah by God, the
most perfect writer, to teach a lesson. Thus, if the Torah contains what
appeared to be a superfluous message, word, or even letter, God must have put it
into the Torah to teach a lesson, and Jews must find that lesson and follow it.

 

Rabbi Ishmael argued that the Torah was given to humans and must have been written in human
language, in words, phrases, and tone that humans could understand. Thus, it is
sensible for the Torah to repeat itself for the sake of emphasis and express
itself in beautiful poetic language. And no attempt should be made to derive
lessons from repetitions or what someone might think is unnecessary language.

 

While Rabbi Ishmael’s views will appear more reasonable to many Jews and was accepted as
the true way to understand the Torah by such scholars of the middle ages as
Abraham Ibn Ezra and Maimonides, other rabbinic scholars such as Rashi and
Nachmanides preferred Rabbi Akiva’s view and interpreted the Torah accordingly.
Also most of the ancient rabbinic literature that survived until now was
composed by Rabbi Akiva’s students.

 

Many rabbis today also follow the Akivian method in their sermons. They might, for example, mention
the view of the commentator Rashi (1040-1105) when he comments on Genesis 28:10. The Torah states, “Jacob
went out from Beer-Sheba and went to Haran.” Rashi writes: “It was only
necessary (for Scripture) to state ‘Jacob went to Haran.’ Why does (Scripture)
mention his departure? This (superfluous statement) tells us that the departure
of a righteous person from a place makes an impression, for while he is in the
city, he is its glory, he is its splendor, he is its crown.”  This comment is a beautiful sermon. But Rabbi
Ishmael would say it is misleading to claim that it is in the Torah; it is not
the plain meaning of the biblical text.

 

In short, Jews should realize that that what they frequently hear from the pulpit is not what
the Torah actually says, but may be a lesson drawn for sermonic purposes from a
superfluous word.

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