Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book Torah min hashamayim (translated into English by Gordon Tucker as “Heavenly Torah: As refracted Through the Generations”) reveals a truth that most rabbis do not know or, if they know, refuse to reveal. The methodologies of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael differed on how to interpret the Torah, and only Rabbi Ishmael’s method is rational.
Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael disagreed around 130 CE and Rabbi Akiva won out. As a result, Rashi, Nachmanides, and most ancient Bible commentators as well as most Midrashim, and pulpit rabbis today follow his view. Others, such as Rashi’s grandson Rashbam, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Maimonides interpret the Torah as Rabbi Ishmael.
Rabbi Akiva felt that the Bible is a word for word revelation from God, and since God is perfect, is able to say concisely exactly what is meant to be said, God would never place any superfluous and non-relevant materiel in the divine book. Thus, whenever an idea is repeated in the Bible or there is an unusual word or spelling, God must have purposely placed it to teach a lesson. People, Rabbi Akiva insisted, need to spot these additions and changes, and figure out what God meant to teach by placing them in the Bible.
Rabbi Ishmael did not disagree about the authorship of the Torah, but disagreed on how it should be interpreted. He felt that “the Torah [which is intended for humans] speaks in human language,” so that humans can understand it. For example, just as people repeat themselves for emphasis, to gain attention, for the sake of clarity, or to make their statement more flowery or poetic, so too does the Torah. Nothing should be read into repetitions, of which there are many. If God meant to teach an additional lesson, God wouldn’t have hidden it in a repetition that doesn’t mean or even imply what people read into it; God would have made an explicit statement.
Rabbi Akiva’s students compiled the Midrashim and influenced most of the Talmudic rabbis, and later Bible and Talmud commentators such as Rashi, who based their teachings on Rabbi Akiva’s method, and many current rabbinical sermons that are drawn from these sources. Readers and listeners need to know that these interpretations are based on what the commentator or rabbi thought (erroneously according to Rabbi Ishmael) are an unnecessary repetition or an unusual spelling. The following are a few examples from Genesis.
1. Genesis 9:10 repeats that God will establish his covenant in Noah’s post-flood generation with humans and animals “all that goes out of the ark, every living thing of the earth.” Rashi, following Rabbi Akiva’s methodology, wonders why the Torah says “every living thing of the earth,” it already said that God made his covenant with “all that goes out of the ark” in the same verse. He answers: the latter refers to demons, which were also included in the covenant. (Rashi was not alone in believing in the existence of demons. There are over three dozen discussions of demons in the Talmud. But there is no explicit mention of demons in the Pentateuch.)
2. In Genesis 23:1, the Torah unnecessarily, according to Rashi, repeats years three times, “The life of Sarah [Abraham’s wife] was a hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years.” Rashi states that the repetition reveals that at 100 she was like 20 in regard to sin, and at 20 she was as beautiful as a girl of seven. (Unmentioned by Rashi, the repetition of years, as in this verse, is characteristic biblical phraseology, and has no hidden meaning. It is in Genesis 5:5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 23, 26: Exodus 12:40, 41, 25:10, and many other passages. None of them have the connotation Rashi sees here.)
3. When Abraham negotiates with Ephron to purchase burial ground for his deceased wife Sarah, the Bible states in 23:10 that Ephron was sitting among the children of Heth, Rashi notes that the Hebrew word for “sitting” has an unusual spelling; it is missing the letter vav. He writes that the letter was omitted to inform readers that “on that day he was appointed ruler over them [the children of Heth]. He was elevated [apparently Rashi means by God] because Abraham needed Ephron to have the elevated rank [to be able to negotiate with one man, the leader of the children of Heth].”
4. Rashi ignores the fact that there are hundreds of different spellings in the Torah. For example, there are differences in spellings in the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Even Ephron’s name omits a vav in 23:16. There Rashi says the Torah omits the vav to inform readers that Ephron diminished himself during his negotiations with Abraham. (Thus in example 3 the missing vav is said to elevate and in example 4 to diminish.)