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The Religious Significance of the Peshat

by: Uriel Simon

THE RELIGIOUS SIGNIFICANCE OF THE PESHAT*

By: Uriel Simon

Translated by: Edward L. Greenstein

This article originally appeared in Tradition, vol. 23, 2, 1988, pp. 37-38. Appears here with permission.

I

Like poetry and prose, peshat and derash are not opposites that are distinguishable from each other with utter clarity. Rather, they are two poles of a single continuum. In every act of exegesis there is some encounter between the exegete and the text, and every interpretation is the product of their mutual relations. The distinction between peshat and derash lies in the different weight given to the two components of interpretive activity. The interpreter by way of peshat must transform his personality and what he knows from elsewhere into an instrument for eliciting what is actually in the text, while the interpreter by way of derash may enrich the text with what he brings with him, or with what he reveals between the lines.

The pashtan, attentively listening to the text and striving for objectivity, is bewildered at what he sees as the confident subjectivism of the darshan. He is inclined to thrust at him the words of Rabbi Ishmael to his colleague Rabbi Eliezer: “You are saying to Scripture ‘Be silent, while I make a derash!'” The darshan, on the other hand, seeking to give voice to the verses out of an intimate relationship with them, fears that there is nothing in the pashtan‘s objectivism but spiritual indifference and lack of creativity. He would incline to identify with the response uttered by Rabbi Eliezer: “You are a mountain palm!” (whose fruit is so meager that it may not be brought asbikkurim). [1] Yet, woe to the pashtan who completely effaces himself before the text, and woe to the darshan who completely silences it. The former would deplete his peshat interpretations of all living meaning, and the latter would drain his derashot of their status as an interpretation of Scripture.

The peshat‘s claim to lay bare the actual sense of the text lies in the rigorous method it employs. Accordingly, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra did well to characterize peshat as the “straight” (that is, correct) explanation that “by the cords of grammar is bound/ and fit in the eyes of knowledge is found.” [2] He means to say that it is bound by the rules of grammar and rhetoric on the one hand and by critical reasoning and logic on the other. Midrashic striving after the multiple meanings of the text and for solutions to questions of the hour, however, is more or less liberated from these two constraints, as it rests on intuitive certainty and unmediated contact. The method it employs is incomparably free: interpretive strategies are variegated and subject to change and combination; rules of language and rhetoric are flexible; when evidence is wanting, a mere foothold will do; and it is permitted to sail far beyond the limits of everyday reason. Truth to tell, by dint of the fact that philological standards change and the subjective factor fluctuates- which must necessarily occur with all matters of reasoned opinion-it is all too frequent that interpretations once presented as peshat have been rejected later asderash. Nevertheless, the boundary between peshat exegetes and derash exegetes is firm and solid, owing especially to the high methodological consciousness that compels the pashtan to put exegetical inquiry always ahead of expounding a lesson. Peshat exegetes are obliged to maintain a clear distinction between the question, “What precisely does the text say?” and the question,”What does the text come to teach us?” and to preserve a gap between them lest premature application distort exegesis. It is the glory of peshat interpreters that they shun arbitrary interpretation and stand guard against pressing spiritual demands, which are apt to twist the line of truth. But this is also their weak point: they insist on the truth at the price of diminishing their message.

The darshan may never rest content with mere]y interpreting the words of the text; he must dare to make it speak out. When he does it well, he becomes a partner in the creative process: “Even that which a veteran student will one day teach in the presence of his rabbi has already been said to Moses at Sinai” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Pe’ah 2:4). Such a creative partnership cannot properly develop within the narrow domain of a confining method (“One cannot argue rigorously with derash“), for such mighty bridging over the abyss of time cannot often be done unless the grip of the past is loosened. These two aspects of midrashic exegesis were analyzed and illuminated by Isaac Heinemann as “creative philology” and “creative historiography.” [3]

The pashtan‘s freedom is essentially intellectual. By virtue of his understanding and on the strength of his exegetical principles he may sometimes permit himself to assert that a certain part of the tradition is not anchored in the text. The darshan‘s freedom, however, is essentially artistic. By virtue of his own inspiration and organic continuity of the generations he will sometimes dare to rewrite Scripture by the device of al tikrei (“Do not read [x but rather y]”) and to convert the past into the present on the model of “Esau = Rome.” Accordingly, the criteria of peshat exegesis are its methodological credibility, the measure of its correctness and its illuminative power. The criteria of midrashic exegesis, however, are its poetic truth, its wealth of ideas and its spiritual power.

This much is certain: Even if we cannot always reach agreement on whether a particular interpretation of a verse is derash or peshat, there is a firm fundamental distinction between these two modes of exegesis. derash is not peshat that has missed the mark, just as labelling an interpretation peshat does not determine its correctness. We have here two different methods, each one of which demands its own truth-standard. Clearly an interpretation that has not met the criteria of one method has not by this negative fact met the criteria of the other. Yet, unfounded peshat is commonly put down as “only derash” just as convincing derash is often praised as the actual peshat of the text” (omek peshuto shel mikra). Even though there are, of course, some true points of contact between the two methods, this misleading rhetoric had best be avoided, for not only do we by this endow peshat with pride of place, we challenge the very legitimacy of derash as a method of exegesis.

II

The advantages of derash for the life of Torah and mitsvot are many and weighty. The nature of halakhic midrash as “legal interpretation” that is necessary for any legal system has been superbly presented by E. M. Lifschitz in his inspired monograph on Rashi. [4] Whereas “exegetical interpretation”-that is, peshat– strives to understand a specific law in its first usage on the basis of linguistic probability and in the light of historical circumstances, “legal interpretation” strives to explicate the law according to its current binding meaning on the basis of its conformity with other written laws and the interpretations and decisions of the oral tradition. One cannot attain harmonization and actualization without relying on linguistic and stylistic manipulations that extend the communicative power of the text beyond what is reasonably expressed by ‘ordinary language’ (leshon benei adam). [5] This departure from the limits of peshat, however, is balanced, in his view, by the third feature of “legal interpretation”: objectivization, achieved by forgoing considerations of exegetical reasonableness- which are, in the end, subjective enough, as the radical differences of opinion among the peshat interpreters themselves attest- relying instead on the binding results of the current judicial ruling. [6] In the eyes of a sitting judge the words of the law have been freed from their historical meaning and have taken on independent life in the light of which he must render a decision. Hence, the current meaning of the words- present in the text only in potential- is favored and preceding interpretation is overcome through firmly trusting in that which the spirit of the law requires for the present situation. Such exegesis is entirely legitimate on the level of legal interpretation; but it is very problematic for the peshat exegete. [7] We shall return to this question below.

Whoever compares the Torah commentary of Rashi- who combines with his non-rigorous peshat reasonable derash that is compatible with it- to the exclusively peshat commentaries of Rashbam and Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra senses at once the contrast between the abundance of thought and feeling in the former over against the dry mundaneness of the latter. One modest example will suffice. On the words “and they brought it down to us” (Deut. 1:25) which Moses said about the spies, Rashi brings the delightful midrash from the Sifre– “This teaches that the Land of Israel is higher than all the lands,” a midrash whose hold on the consciousness and daily language of the Jewish people is still strong today. >From the silence of the Rashbam on this it would be best not to draw any conclusions. Ibn Ezra offers the topographical-geographical explanation, which is correct but prosaic: “…and the truth is- it is because they were in the Negev.” Similarly, Rashi adduces Midrash Tanhuma concerning Dathan and Abiram’s sharp refusal “We shall not go up” (Num. 16: 12). This is Rashi’s formulation: “Their own mouth defeated them, since for them there is only going down.” Their sin is thus tied to their punishment on the assumption that “they made a prophecy without realizing it.” This connection receives corroboration later on in the text: “They and all that was theirs went down live into Sheol” (v. 32). Yet even here Ibn Ezra offers a topographical solution- “The Tent of Meeting [to which they were summoned by Moses] was probably in a high location in the camp”- and, alternatively, a stylistic one- “or, whoever goes to worship God or to the chosen site is called ‘one who goes up’ (an oleh)” (v. 12). Rashbam opts for the second alternative and buttresses it with convincing arguments: “…’going up’ is regularly employed of going to the judges: ‘And his sister-in-law will go up to the city-gate’ (Deut. 25:7); ‘The Israelites went up to [Deborah] for judgment’ (Judg. 4:5); ‘And Boaz went up to the city-gate’ (Ruth 4:1).” The aggadic midrash, then, endows these words with an additional expressive dimension while the peshat exegetes feel obliged to establish their meaning on the informational plane alone. The fact that Rashi’s commentary has earned him pre-eminence among Torah interpreters attests to the great educational and spiritual significance that generations of Jews have attached to the derashot that became the possession of all thanks to their inclusion in his commentary.

The drawing power of derash is also fed, in a negative way, by the hidden, and sometimes explicit, fears of peshat. First of all, one might be put off by a rigorous method that on principle compels us to reject any interpretation- no matter how dear to our hearts- that cannot stand up to its strict criteria. Whereas the darshan is rewarded well for his interpretative creativeness (derisha), the peshat exegete must all too often rest content with the reward of restraint (perisha). The former is afraid of vacuum and seeks to fill it, [8] while the latter must be on constant guard against over-interpretation, even if his reticence brings bitter disappointment to his readers.

We shall illustrate thjs with two examples. On the text “Jacob was greatly afraid, and it distressed him” (Gen, 32:8), Rashi adduces a midrash from the Tanhuma that articulates, I think, the essence of the Jewish ethics of warfare: ‘He was afraid’- lest he be killed, ‘and it distressed him’-lest he have to kill others.” Rashi does not designate this interpretation as derash, and those who study him correctly deduce that the intention of the double phrasing in the text is, in his opinion, to teach about the two different fears that filled Jacob’s heart. Not one of the peshat exegetes, however, from Rashbam to S. D. Luzzatto, relates to this doubling and accordingly does not need this midrash in order to explain it. The only exception is Radak, who opens his interpretation with a peshat explanation- “Doubling of the meaning with different words, to [indicate] the extent of [Jacob’s] fear”- and joins the midrash to it, as an additional dimension, designating it as derash. There is no doubt that the silence of the commentators stems from their agreement with the stylistic perception to which Radak gave expression: under the circumstances related in the story, doubled language indicates the extent of the fear and nothing more. Thus, stylistic and psychological considerations undermine the textual basis on which an interpretation of such great moral significance stands, depriving it of the status and force of peshuto shel mikra– the peshat. Clearly the weight of such deprivation is greater the stronger our dedication to peshat.

Now the second example. For many years I had thought, in my naivete, that the accepted interpretation of “We shall do and we shall listen” (Exod. 24:7)- according to which our ancestors pledged in the Sinai Covenant to perform the mitsvot even before understanding them- is perfect peshat. (The stem sh-m-‘ in the Bible also has the sense of “understanding,” as in “so that they could not understand [yishme’u] each other’s language” [Gen. 11:7].) And when I first saw a completely different interpretation in the commentary of Rashbam, I felt a certain rancor toward him for having the nerve to rob the peshat of so valuable a part of the Jewish faith. Some years later I found that the accepted interpretation, which appears in many midrashim, is not adduced by a single peshat exegete, including Rashi (evidently influenced by Onkelos, who rendered “We shall do and we shall accept” [9]). In fact, one can sustain it only by wrenching the words “We shall do and we shall listen” out of their narrative context and setting them up as an independent, timeless general assertion that does not relate to a specific historical pledge. Regarded as Oral Torah, of course, the proposition loses none of its force; but it cannot be denied that its foundation in the Written Torah has been weakened by the exegetical determination of the peshat interpreters. By their alternative explanations or their silence they convey something like what Luzzatto wrote concerning the midrashic exegesis of Targum Jonathan and Rashi to Isa. 5:18: “This is a fine and true lesson, but it is not what this verse means.”

You will say: there are seventy faces to the Torah, and when one interpretation cannot be considered to be the peshat, it is still anchored in the text through derash. This answer is valid only in the eyes of exegetes like Rashi and Ramban for whom the power ofderash is as strong as the power of peshat. [10] But that is not the case for such “pursuers of peshat” as Ibn Ezra and Ralbag, who for all intents and purposes neutralized the exegetical force of derashot by viewing them as no more than proof texts for the halakhot transmitted by tradition. [11] Rambam did not go to the extreme they did, but he honored laws based upon peshat as mitsvot mi-de-oraita, relegating what was derived by the thirteen principles of exegesis of Rabbi Yishma’el to mitsvot de-rabbanan, even though “they themselves explicitly stated that this is the Torah itself [guf torah] or that this is de-oraita” (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, shoresh 2). The controversy on this issue is complex and involved, and so it must suffice for us to delineate the following paradox. So rigorous a peshat exegete as ibn Ezra, for whom derash is no more than a non-philological proof text, follows on principle in the legal part of the Torah the traditional halakhic interpretation, feeling obliged to show that it can be harmonized with the peshat of the text; Rashi, who views derash as a reliable, cogent exegetical method, is not too diffident to admit on occasion to the gap between the traditional halakhah and the peshat, since this gap is bridged by means of derash. In any event, it takes great fortitude to go the way of Rashbam, who adheres to the peshat with utter consistency, completely confident that the midrash halakhah will not be undermined by the opposing peshat because pride of place is granted to the midrash from the outset: “the derashot are primary,” “a halakhah uproots [i.e., takes precedence over the peshat of] Scripture.” [12]

Whereas the darshan can uphold the peshat as one of the many faces of the Torah, it is not easy for the peshat exegete to recognize the legitimacy of derash. Derash is generous, and all it denies is the peshat‘s claim to exclusivity; however, the persistent quest for a single, peshat truth can only with difficulty be reconciled with a recognition of the validity of another method. Different derashot on one verse complement each other since “These and those are the words of the living God “; but different peshat interpretations cancel each other. A dispute among darshanim enhances the Torah, while a dispute among peshat exegetes increases confusion because it places the burden of judgment on the reader. [13] The way of peshat strives for certainty, but it is in fact riddled with doubts that are not resolved [14] and with problems to which there is no traditional response. [15] It is precisely the peshat interpreter, who trusts in the power of knowledge, who is driven to utter “l don’t know.” Characteristic in this regard is ibn Ezra’s acerbic rejection of Rav Saadia Gaon’s identifications of nationalities, toponyms, fauna, and minerals in his Tafsir: “He has no tradition [of interpretation] …and he has already erred in some of them, as I shall explain ad locum. We should not, then, rely on his fantasies. Perhaps he did thus for the honor of God’s name since he translated the Torah into Arabic language and script, so that they will not say that there are in the Torah mitsvot that we do not know” (commentary to Gen. 2:11). Indeed, it is not only to Gentiles that it is hard to admit to our limited understanding of the Torah; it is even harder to admit it to ourselves. [16] The Torah of the midrashists is harmonious and uplifting while that of the peshat exegetes is, to a greater or lesser extent, cut with pain.

This and more, in addition to philology, peshat is also bound by realism. Just as the peshat exegete assumes that the Bible’s language is subordinated to the rules of grammar and the manner of discourse of “ordinary language” [leshon benei adam], so does he relate to the personalities of the Bible as to ordinary people, examining that which is related in it in light of his own familiarity with reality and life experience. This realism the Rashbam calls “expertise in how people conduct themselves” [beki’ut derekh erets shel benei adam] (commentary to Lev. 13:2). It is clearly reflected in the exegetical use that Rashbam made use of his knowledge about bowmanship in order to explain “And his bow remained firm” (Gen. 49:24); and in ibn Ezra’s turning to “Arab custom” [minhag ha-yishme’elim] to elucidate the background of the prohibition of seething a kid in its mother’s milk (shorter commentary to Exod. 23: 19), or to his own life-experience with Jewish-Gentile relations to clarify the derision of the Servant of the Lord: “It is well known that there are many nations in the world who think that Jews are made differently from other creatures and ask: Does the Jew have a mouth or an eye? So [is it] in the land of ‘lshmael’ and ‘Edom'” (commentary to Isa. 52:14).

Nowadays the study of Biblical realia has expanded and ramified to far-reaching extents, and the peshat exegete is not limited to drawing analogies to the past from the present and to the laws of the nations against which the Torah speaks from the customs of one’s neighbors. Nevertheless, the ever-increasing possibilities of realistic interpretation also increase its problems. Darshanim did not all interpret the patriarchs typologically (wresting from them their individual personalities) and idealize the heroes of Israel (exempting them from human weakness and sin) [17]; and peshat exegetes did not all adopt a consistently realistic approach to the patriarchs, who should serve as models for the generations of Israel. [18] But in this area the latter are far more disadvantaged than the former. Whereas the midrashists are free to choose texts and to combine, without compunctions, realistic with symbolic argument, peshat commentators must relate to the entire unit and present comprehensive interpretations that stand on a unified plane of relation and rest on a single and unified method. Therefore, when the peshat exegete feels pressed, for theological reasons or pedagogical needs, to cover up the sin of an exemplary character, he has no recourse but to compromise his customary methodological standards or to depart from his usual guidelines of what is realistic. Such contamination of the peshat enterprise occurs for the most part unwittingly, but whoever notices it bitterly recoils from it as an “apologetic excuse” whose damage to the credibility of the commentary is severe. [19]

The shunning of apologetics, which is characteristic of the contemporary peshat exegete, and the intensification of the realistic outlook through numerous scientific discoveries, place us today before the opposite danger: hyper-realism. For as much as realism is able to give life to Biblical personalities and events, it also tends to reduce them to our own dimensions. In his caution against idealization the exegete is liable to be caught in standardization, to blur the one-time greatness of a marvelous person or a sublime situation. By eschewing otherworldly spirituality too much, he is apt to cling to complete banality, forcing on the Bible a level of expectation that is derived from his own secular existence. The golden mean between these two dangers is not always apparent, and discretion is often left to the exegete. Behind this subjective factor, however, there is a wide area of agreement as to what may be taken as concrete reality and as plausible event. Thus, for example, a peshat exegete may not resort to any form of metaphorizing that would detract from the gruesomeness of the wish, ‘”Happy is he who takes hold of your little ones and dashes them against the rock” (Ps. 137:9). [20] Similarly, the repulsive concreteness of David’s delivering two hundred Philistine foreskins to Saul as a bride-price is far more terrible to us than it was to the peshat exegetes who lived in the diaspora. Their realistic, common-sensical approach led them to stress as much as possible the natural and rational elements in the Bible’s description of miracles and to avoid having to acknowledge the historicity of those that were not expressly mentioned. [21] But their approach did not cause them to doubt the reality of a report like the one related in 2 Chron. 13:17, according to which no fewer than half a million northern soldiers died in the war between King Abiah of Judah and King Jeroboam ben Nebat of Israel. The peshat exegete must uphold the actuality of certain passages in spite of the grave valuative difficulties that stem from this actuality, and he must suspect the historical reality of other passages in spite of the challenge to faith that is entailed by this doubt. Such is the peshat‘s power over the exegete!

III

If the peshat that was established by Jewish Bible savants in the Middle Ages is so problematic, the scientific peshat that was developed by non-Jewish scholars is all the more so. Indeed, whereas from Rav Saadia Gaon to Rabbi Isaac Abravanel Biblical exegesis in the peshat mode was carried out by Jewish scholars, in the modern era pre-eminence has distinctly passed to Christian scholars. As a result of this protracted neglect of peshat, we face today a highly refined and ramified Biblical scholarship that is gentile in most of its assumptions and perspectives and that is not infrequently hostile to Judaism and Israel in its approach and conclusions. Even liberal Protestant scholars with an extremely critical approach generally share the basic Christian assumption that the ‘”New Testament” is superior to the Hebrew Bible, which only prefigures it. This fundamental assumption of the moral, spiritual, and religious superiority of the “New Testament” imposes a more or less negative attitude onto the scholar who is caught almost automatically in the simplistic confrontation between the letter of the law and the duty of the heart, justice and love, ethnic particularism and universal message, and the like. Yehezkel Kaufmann succeeded in alerting us to the vagaries and distortions in understanding fundamental issues in the Bible that stemmed from this Christianizing perspective (of which the scholar is not always aware and which in principle contradicts the historical approach, which is supposed to distinguish carefully between early and late and to avoid measuring the earlier by the standards of the later). Peshat exegesis was taken up again among the Jews only with the Emancipation and national revival and could not but take on the character of a reaction to Christian Bible scholarship without any possibility of directly linking up with the classical Jewish exegesis that left itself far behind. In consequence of this break, we shall have to forbear another long era.

The great achievement of the new Bible scholarship is in its tremendous expansion of philological, historical, and literary knowledge, as well as in its methodological refinement. However, the rewards of such a great systematization are liable to turn to losses when the development of method becomes an end in itself. When this happens the text is shunted into a corner, and the passion to innovate engenders guesswork that hangs by a thread and hollow argumentation. The boundary between real and imaginary problems is often quite thin. And at the scholar’s door there lies in wait the temptation to seek pegs on “which to hang his pseudo-scientific derashot. When a true scholar wants to find more than there really is in the Scriptures, in order to span the huge gaps in our historical knowledge or in order to find a basis for an appealing theory, we find an outward similarity to derash. Our curiosity about the Biblical period is great, and our aspiration to achieve a comprehensive theoretical synthesis is strong, but the hard information we can extract from the Bible and from its contextual world is extremely little. In the face of this crying disproportion it should be no wonder that so many results of Biblical criticism cannot be regarded as established, seeing as a great deal of conclusion rests on a little bit of Bible. Yehezkel Kaufmann called such research “scientific poetry”; others label it “scientific derash.” The opposition between “poetry” and “derash” on the one hand and the adjective “scientific” on the other is so striking that their conjunction is perforce ironic. Nevertheless, when poets, storytellers, and philosophers expand what the text conveys in order to bridge the gap of time between them and the text and to find in it vital relevance to a contemporary existential problem, we have here a real case of modern midrash. Its means of expression are not, it is true, generally exegetical, but its purpose and the pathos that motivate it betray some sort of continuity with classical derash.

The benefit of the critical approach is great when it opens the door to free inquiry; but this blessing turns into a curse when it degenerates to being hyper-critical, that is, when rationalistic dogmatism takes over the place that had been cleared by rejecting religious dogmatism. “God is not the object of science,” says Franz Rosenzweig. “The object of science is the world. God, however, is the One who created the world, which, is the object of science.” Because there is only one truth, the choice we face is not between “faith on the one hand and knowledge on the other,” but between “believing knowledge versus disbelieving knowledge.” [22] Indeed, we shall never arrive at a believing Jewish Bible scholarship unless in honesty and integrity we reckon with the new Biblical scholarship. [23]

One of the most difficult problems in this reckoning is the blatantly historical character of Biblical scholarship. Whereas the peshat of the Medieval savants was merely philological (that is, tied to the text), scientific peshat is philological-historical (that is, tied to the text in its historical framework). [24] Not only for Rashi and Rashbam, but for ibn Ezra and Radak, too, history was incomparably more static than it is for us. Where the differences between historical eras seem slight, it is natural for the commentator to superimpose his own world view on the Biblical period and to find in Scripture not only reference to the ideas and beliefs of Hazal, but to Greek-Arabic science. too. To the same extent that this projection facilitated their bridging the Torah and contemporary science and in finding religious significance in the peshat of the text, the historical outlook makes it difficult to fulfill these two functions. Let us illustrate this with an example from cosmography.

For Hazal the world was flat, and this conception accorded both with the peshat of the text and with Babylonian cosmography. [25] Accordingly they were able to make the midrash that “Just as the navel is placed in the middle of a man, so is the Land of Israel the navel of the world, as it is said: ‘Those who dwell on the navel of the earth’ (Ezek. 38:12). The land of Israel dwells in the middle of the world, and Jerusalem-in the middle of the Land of Israel…” (Tanhuma, ed. Buber, Kedoshim, 10). Ibn Ezra, however, held to the theory of the Greeks, that the earth was shaped like a ball, being sure that it was proved for certain, and having complete confidence that this emerges from Scripture [26] and that Hazal knew it, too. Hence, he felt obliged to remove the midrash concerning the centrality of Jerusalem from its precise geographical sense: Since Jerusalem is clearly “distant from the center of the earth” (he means the equator), Hazal must have meant that Jerusalem is situated in “the middle of dwelling-place,” that is, in an ideal climate for spiritual creativity, located in the middle of the inhabited part of the world. [27] lbn Ezra thus superimposes his geographical knowledge about the extent of habitation (which was believed to be restricted to the northern half of the Eastern hemisphere) and Arabic climatology onto the Bible and the Midrash, succeeding not only in establishing peace between historical eras but also in setting the centrality of the Holy City on a scientific base.

We, though, cannot but recognize chronological gradations within the thousand-year-long Biblical period as well as the changes of time from its close until today. The historical approach can, in fact, find support in the distinctly historical character of Biblical religion, which differentiates between eras and attaches religious significance to their passing. But it is in great tension with the strong tendency to see the twenty-four books as being of a single piece theologically. Dogmatism aspires toward absolute, supertemporal authority, but for this it pays the heavy price of blurring the distinctiveness of periods and perspectives. Historicism strives for greater differentiation and of explaining causal connection and circumstantial conditioning; but with its gain comes the loss it incurs with its complete relativization.

The contemporary Biblical exegete is caught between the historical outlook that forces itself upon him with the power of conviction and his steadfast faith in the everlasting message of the Bible. He is duty-bound to struggle tirelessly after a reliable distinction between the permanent and the ephemeral and for a proper assessment of the processes of immanent development. For this purpose he must balance the historical outlook, which investigates how things came to be as they are, with phenomenological observation, which looks into what things are.

The Bible Scholar, who anchors the text in its historical period, tends to leave it there. Israeli Bible scholarship is often afraid to draw a lesson from the text lest it compromise its scientific objectivity. An article on the development of literary forms against the background of the history of religion relegates the following sentence to a marginal note:

If the Book of Jonah still has a message for the religious man today, it is the following: No one is entitled to expect or rejoice in the calamity of another people or religious group in order to justify his own God.

Decrying joy at the misfortune of religious enemies is no doubt an important and timely lesson. But this lesson is very far from encapsulating the entire religious message of the Book of Jonah for us. Scientific conclusions ought to be valid for believers and non-believers alike. But in no way does it follow from this that the task of the interpreter must be performed with total dispassion and that the sophisticated reader must beware lest, heaven forbid. the text arouse a response in his heart. The fact is, there is no estranged reading, for significance is inherent in meaning as is light in a flame. Just as the darshan depletes the significance when he totally dissociates himself from the meaning, so does the peshat interpreter prevent himself from seeing the full meaning when he turns his back on the significance.

IV

We have described at length the spiritual dangers that beset peshat exegetes in order to show that this problematic situation is a direct consequence of the nature of peshat. Our classic commentators were accordingly not free from it, although it is clearly far more serious for us by virtue of the scientific systematization of peshat. There is utility in being aware of the dangers for it would otherwise be difficult to be on guard against them. We have, therefore, delineated all the difficulties and problems not in order to challenge the validity of peshat method, nor to weaken our adherence to it. On the contrary, against the dismaying background of the peshat‘s problematic nature, the inner drive of peshat exegetes to use this difficult method of interpretation is all the more impressive. What, then, is the secret of the peshat‘s steadfast hold over the great Bible commentators from Rav Saadia Gaon to Rabbi Isaac Abravanel, and upon us their distant disciples, today?

It would seem that the answer lies in the main in a basically positive valuation of human intelligence as an instrument for knowing the world and for understanding the Torah. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra gave this intellectual position a distinctively religious expression when he asserted that “the angel between man and his God is his reason” (Introduction to his regular Commentary to the Torah, The Third Way); and Rambam maintained that the obligation for serious consideration of sensory perception and reason is called for by human nature: “Never should a man throw his knowledge behind him, for his eyes are in front and not in the back!” [28]

Intelligence is a divine quality implanted in man from above; it is that which makes the one created in God’s image superior to an animal; and that is why it is forbidden to be afraid of it, to disparage it, or to neglect it. Ibn Ezra adduces what Job says, “Does an ear not test words?” (Job 12: 11) as proof that man is endowed with the power of judgment and as support for our right to take issue even with the great among our predecessors, as they were flesh-and-blood like us: “The spirit of God has made us all, and our predecessors were created out of clay as we were” (Commentary to Kohelet 5:1). The right of independent judgment is bound up with a solemn obligation to acknowledge the truth, to refrain from deviating from it out of weakness of will or social pressure, as ibn Ezra boldly put it: “The Lord alone shall I fear, and I shall not show favor in (interpreting) the Torah” (Introduction to Torah Commentary, The Fifth Way); or as he humbly prayed; “May the Lord, God in truth guide his servant in the way of truth” (closing line of the Introduction).

Seeing the quest for truth as a religious duty was shared, too, by the peshat savants in northern France who did not develop a systematic philosophy as did their colleagues in Spain. Rashbam repeatedly declares that although it is the derashot of Chazal that predominate, one must ground his tireless effort to discover new peshat meanings in his dedication to the Bible’s “true peshat” (Commentary to Lev. 10:3) and in his disgust with “all-too-clever peshat” that is nothing but “”nonsense” (hevel) (Commentary to Gen. 45:28). This very fear of the damage that could be caused by misguided and misleading interpretations finds expression in the caustic admonition of Rabbi Joseph Kara in his commentary to I Sam. 1:17: “Guard yourself lest you stumble after the blind who interpret yitten-donner in French, as making a request [rather than a promise], so that with this interpretation of this word they overturn (lit., uproot) the entire story…” In the continuation he gives pride of place to the way of peshat when he stresses the principle of the autonomy of the text (which must be understood in its own terms), and when he forcefully attacks the lack of methodological discrimination when a midrashic solution is given to a question of peshat:

Know that prophecy was written in complete form, with its solution explicit enough that later generations would not be confounded by it, and nothing is missing from it, so that there is no need to bring evidence from elsewhere, nor a midrash. For the Torah was given perfect and written perfect, and nothing is missing in it, so that the midrash of our sages- it is to enlarge and aggrandize the Torah. [29] But whoever does not know the peshat meaning of the Bible and follows the midrash of a matter is like someone who has been swept away by a river current and is engulfed by the deep water and grasps for anything to be saved. Had he really cared about the word of the Lord, he would have searched for the meaning of the text, its peshat, and found it, thereby fulfilling what is said, “If you would seek it like silver and like buried treasure search for it, you would understand the fear of the Lord, and you would find the knowledge of God” (Prov. 2:4-5).

As against the darshan‘s confidence in his ability to fill the void in the content of the text, expressed here is the peshat exegete’s faith in his ability to illuminate the obscure: in the end we will find the peshat, if only we search for it as for silver and buried treasure!

Considering the long history of peshat exegesis, we cannot fully share this bold exegetical optimism of the early commentators. They taught their tongues occasionally to say, “I don’t know,” while we must teach ourselves to bear the heavy load of the surfeit of problems over solutions. Yet no less than they do we believe in the need to balance the excessive freedom of derash by the strong discipline of peshat and to restore to Scripture its original vitality by learning to see it anew and not only through the curtain of midrashim. The darshan‘s strength is in his loving attention to little details, beginning with differentiating synonyms and ending with interpreting full and defective and anomalous spellings, and he must often pay the price of disintegrating the whole and neglecting the context. In this manner Rashi (following Targum Onkelos) takes “Dan will judge his people” in the Blessing of Jacob to refer to Samson, while Rashbam shudders at the dullness of this much-too-specific interpretation and claims that this would insult the Tribe of Dan, which was deserving of a tribal prophecy and a real blessing. These are his words: “Whoever interprets this to refer to Samson does not know the actual peshat of the Bible at all! Would Jacob have intended to prophesy about an individual, one who fell into the hands of the Philistines who put out his eyes, and who died with the Philistines in a terrible way?! Heaven forbid, heaven forbid…” (Commentary to Gen. 49:16). It is evident from Rashbam’s language that when he speaks of “the actual peshat of the Bible” he fears not for method but for the text itself, lest it be darkened, “Heaven forbid, heaven forbid,” by error.

Striving to truly understand the word of God is the root of the peshat exegete’s religious pathos. By means of new discoveries of peshat he endeavors to renew contact with the original meaning of Scripture. This was expressed very well by E. M. Lifschitz:

Nowhere that the Torah has been kept and enacted by the pure faithful of Israel did the Oral Torah cease. Yet the Torah as the basis for the spiritual life of Israel demanded the peshat. in order that it serve as a fertile source for the nation and so that the living bond between their hearts and the word of the Lord would not be broken…(Rashi. p. 164).

But why are not the peshat interpretations of the early peshat exegetes enough for us? Why must there be new peshat interpretations in every generation? It would seem that only derash is in frequent need of renovation in order to bridge the gap between Scripture and its observant readers while peshat should remain one and the same for all time. The fact is, however, that peshat is no more than an attempt to reach the true meaning, not its embodiment. Peshat cannot ever be complete and final because our knowledge is always limited and partial, because every expansion of knowledge of which we are capable and every refinement of the methods we use require us to correct and adapt. Even more: every change in our existential situation as a result of the cataclysms of history leads to a shift in the way we see ourselves and the Bible and accordingly demands new exegetical effort. The classical commentaries may be compared to masterpieces of art whose beauty does not fade. And just as our generation does not find its self-expression in the creations of the past but only in the distinctive style that has been shaped by the conventions of the present, the study of Torah cannot rest content unless it is reinforced by creative exegetical work that arises out of and responds to the needs of this generation.

I know of no flourishing midrashic exegetical enterprise today, and it seems that so long as those circles whose thinking follows the lines of derash continue to relegate the Bible to a small corner in their learning and religious life, there is little chance that it will ever spring up. On the other hand, it is precisely that community of God-fearing followers of Torah, who seek for the Torah not only love and honor but also direct influence on our beliefs and life-pattern, whose intellectual-realistic approach calls for the way of peshat. Unfortunately it is prevented by its repugnance toward the use of secular (let alone Christian) Bible scholarship for seeking new peshat interpretations. [30] If we aspire, though, to a Biblical exegesis that can take wing, that is unafraid of new data and that has the strength to stand up against the most stringent methodological challenges, then there is no way to circumvent Biblical scholarship. The glory of scientific study of the Bible is in its freedom of inquiry with its many directions and wide horizons; its weakness is in its academic apathy toward the significance of its discoveries for us. Meaningful peshat, then, we will have only when the freedom of inquiry will be joined by the duty to pose relevant questions- if Bible scholars will perceive themselves not only as those who address the Bible but as those who are addressed by it.

V

We have dealt up to now mainly with the religious legitimacy of peshat and with the need to renew it continually, but only a little with the religious significance of new peshat interpretation itself. We shall make up this lack, then, by elucidating the nature of meaningful peshat with a few examples taken from three areas-the ethical, the prophetic, and the halakhic.

We may say generally that the hidden challenge that confronts an interpreter of meaningful peshat is to show that, contrary to what those who interpret through derash and sod [esoteric meaning] assume, the peshat sense of the text is not poor in meaning. And because an interpretation and the method that generated it are interconnected as effect and cause, we may reformulate this challenge as the endeavor to prove that a realistic-rationalistic world view may properly serve as the firm foundation of and fertile ground for authentic religiosity. In the particular area of making a religio-ethical evaluation of the character and conduct of Biblical heroes, this challenge finds expression by posing the following question: In the cold light of peshat will the characters of our father Jacob and King David still look like great religiously inspired and morally exemplary men? I myself have not the slightest doubt that the substantial achievements of literary analysis enable us to give an entirely affirmative answer to this question. Only someone who does not belittle David’s sins with Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite can stand face to face with the greatness of the man who acknowledges his sin, of the king who prizes his reprover. And only someone who appreciates the extent of David’s weakness vis-a-vis the sins of his sons Amnon and Absalom can marvel at the wonderful juxtaposition of David’s submission to the heavenly decree on the one hand and his acute military and political maneuvers against Absalom on the other.

It is the same with the patriarch by whose name we are called, who grasped the heel of his brother in the womb and in his maturity wrestled with God. From a holistic literary perspective it is revealed, as is well known, that there is a close connection between Jacob’s sin in deceiving his father and Jacob’s punishment in being deceived by Laban, between his wresting the birthright and blessing from his brother and his mortification through gifts and prostration to Esau. Yet whoever does not interpret the deception for what it is, holding that Jacob’s chief trait is truth (as it says in Micah 7:20, “You give truth to Jacob”), tends to ascribe the deceitfulness to Esau whose “prey is in his mouth” and finds difficulty with the righteous Jacob’s prostration seven times before the wicked Esau. There are thus midrashim that account to Jacob the sin of the Jew’s submissiveness before the gentile overlord, [31] while the Zohar (Parshat Vayyishlah, 171) acquits him also from this blame on the basis of an implicit analogy with Mordecai: “Jacob did not bow down to that lying devil at all.” They midrashize: “Then what does ‘And he crossed before them,’ (Gen. 33:3) mean?– ‘And he’- this is the exalted shekhinah that went before him….This is the time, he thought, to bow down before the Holy One Blessed Be He….He bent down and bowed seven times ‘until he reached his brother’ (ibid.),” carefully noting, “It is not written: ‘he prostrated himself before Esau.'” Even Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, who completely justifies Jacob’s deception by dint of the daring proposition that “truth is what leads to good and the will of the Creator, and deceit is what grants success to the machinations of the Angel of Deceit, Satan,” [32] must view Jacob’s prostration as an additional trial. He apparently accepts what the Zohar says about the shekhina revealing itself at that moment as factual, but he tries to bring this nearer to the peshat of the text and to the reality of life by way of spiritual sublimation: “Out of and above his material situation he managed to see not his enemy ‘the mighty hero’ but only the Lord, may He be exalted, passing before them, that is, to recognize and to realize that it is a decree of God that he suffer the constraints of exile and prostrate himself to Esau; but he did this only as a form of prostrating himself to the Lord, as the fulfillment of His commandment. Attaining recognition of the Creator’s will on so sublime a plane-this is revelation of the shekhinah.” [33]

This understanding of Jacob’s struggling with his brother over the birthright as paradigmatic of Israel’s wrestling with its God possesses tremendous spiritual power, only it is rather a pity that it was presented not alongside the peshat but instead of it. By means of derash one can cover up an explicit sin or even transform it into a positive act; but when this aim claims exclusivity for itself, the ethical dimension of the Torah is perforce sacrificed. Through peshat we learn a great ethical story, beginning with Jacob being induced to fulfill the prophecy “and the eider will serve the younger” prematurely, using illegitimate means, and ending with him becoming fit for divine election, in part by virtue of his having performed public repentance.

One of the most basic and important achievements of modern Biblical scholarship is its stress on the literary unit – delimiting its boundaries and defining its specific theme and purpose. In traditional Medieval exegesis we see only modest initial steps in this direction, with the synthetic approach, relating to a prophetic book or even the prophetic literature as a complete entity, still generally dominant. When modern scholarship shifted its concern from the pursuit of unity and ideational accord to a literary historical perspective, the door was opened wide to distinguish further between the message and teaching of one prophet and those of another. We have thus gained not only precision and richness that our predecessors had not, but a historical outlook on prophecy in Israel that is fundamentally alien to their spirit. Whoever has realized the daring and power that the prophecies of consolation in the second half of the Book of Isaiah attain once they are placed in specific historical situations in the Babylonian Exile, distinctly knows and feels how great the religious significance of the new peshat is. The prophet’s words are redeemed from the paleness of generality and from their timeless truthfulness, and their nature as a unique message with a specific demand is revealed. Whoever compares the struggles and forced interpretations that our commentators gave to the temporary conditioning in “Seek the Lord while he can be found, call to him when he is near” (Isa. 55:6), with the stupendous message that these words carry when they are understood to refer to the period of grace of shivat Tsiyyon (the Restoration to Zion), stands categorically under the powerful sway of the historical peshat.

This double advantage- both on the level of explanation and on the level of significance – must, I would think, outweigh any reluctance to grant it legitimacy. In midrash, the fact that the word of God has been progressively revealed in the course of history is buttressed by the attribution of all prophecies to the one revelation at Mount Sinai, explaining that they were withheld until it was time to deliver them. “Rabbi Isaac said: Whatever the prophets will prophesy in each generation they received from Mount Sinai…And thus Isaiah said: ‘From the time it was, I was there’ (Isa. 48:16)- Isaiah meant: From the time the Torah was given at Sinai, I was there and I received this prophecy, only- ‘and now the Lord God has sent me and his spirit’ (ibid.)- until now I did not receive permission to prophesy” (Exodus Rabbah, Yitro, 28). In other words, historical contextualization does not damage the force of the prophecy as the word of God, but it must contribute a substantial amount to understanding it.

Even on the halakhic plane, where first position belongs to derash, peshat meanings have force and significance, as many commentators, like Rashbam and the Vilna Gaon- who were not afraid of pointing out the gap between halakhic rulings and the peshat– emphasized. We thus find that the mitsvah to study Torah is based on a minimalist exegesis of the verse “This Book of the Teaching [torah] shall not pass from your mouth, and you shall recite from it day and night” (Josh. 1:8). According to Rabbi Yosi, one may suffice with studying one verse in the morning and one in the evening. According to Rabbi Yohanan, it is enough merely to recite the Shema in the morning and the evening in order to fulfill the obligation of study, though he adds: “This, however, may not be mentioned in the presence of commoners (am ha ‘arets)” (TB Menahot 99b). This addition is meant to teach us that alongside the more restrictive halakhic explanation the text’s peshat meaning stands valid as a normative guideline that is wider than the letter of the law.

It would seem that this applies, too, to the mitsvah to love the stranger, to which a narrow halakhic interpretation has been given as well. The Torah commands, “And you shall love the stranger (ger), for you were strangers (gerim) in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). In order to uphold the interpretation of Hazal that the text speaks only of a true convert (ger tsedek), Onkelos was driven to translate the word “stranger” (ger) differently in the first and second clauses: “And you shall love the convert, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” The fact that this interpretation makes different what is the same in the text reflects the extent of this deviation from thepeshat, which relates without any doubt to a resident-alien (ger toshav). The duty to treat the resident-alien properly is actually derived in the oral Torah from other verses, but even so, we would do well to refrain from mentioning the narrow halakhic interpretation “in the presence of commoners.” In other words, on the educational and communal level it is better to interpret by way of peshat, applying the mitsvah to all types of gerim, converts and resident-aliens. A people like ours, that has attained independence only after having known the soul of the ger, not only in Egypt but all over the world, may not, heaven forbid, forgo this. The straightforward demand of the text, in accordance with the full meaning of the peshat, stands for all to see.

The way to peshat is long and hard, and the way to a meaningful peshat is even longer. It is our duty to walk those roads, nonetheless, so that the peshat will be renewed and reconsecrated.


* Translation of “Mashma’utam ha-datit shel ha-peshatot ha-mithadeshim,” Ha-Mikra va-Anahnu, ed. Uriel Simon, The Institute for Judaism and Contemporary Thought and Devir (Tel-Aviv, 1979), pp. 133-52.

[1] Sifra, Tazria, parasha 13, 2.

[2] In the lines of verse that open his regular commentary to the Torah, which he named for the way of peshat- Sefer ha-Yashar (“The Book of Jashar,” i.e., of the straight interpretation).

[3] See I. Heinemann, Darkhei ha-Aggadah (Jerusalem, 1954).

[4] Eliezer Meir Lifschitz, Rashi (Jerusalem, 1966), pp. 161-64 (first ed., Warsaw, 1912).

[5] When necessary such broadening may also be expressed in restrictive exegesis, which drastically reduces the application of the law. By means of minute exegesis of the text’s wording, the law is encumbered by so many conditions that it becomes virtually impossible to perform. Clear examples of this are provided by the halakhic midrashim concerning the proscribed city, ir ha-niddahat (TB Sanhedrin 16b), and the rebellious son, ben sorer u-moreh (ibid., 68b-72a).

[6] Objectivity has many faces, and it is always, of course, relative. It is no wonder, then, that it is invoked in support of both peshat and derash. Whereas objectivity manifests itself in peshat in an impartial consideration of the words of the text (which entails the danger that the result will be a totally personal interpretation), objectivity manifests itself in derash by its attention to the received interpretation (even when its treatment of the words of the text is too tenuous). In other words: Even the darshan guards against total subjectivity, for even when he removes the text from its immediate context (the chapter or book in which it appears) he sees his obligation to explain it in conformity with its wider context (the general principles of sacred Scripture and the oral Torah).

[7] An instructive treatment of the legal history of the Declaration of Independence and of the American Bill of Rights with emphasis on the exegetical aspect may be found in Simon Greenberg, The Ethical in the Jewish and American Heritage (New York, 1977), pp. 95-155. Compare this statement by Israeli High Court Judge Hayyim Cohen in his article “Parshanut Ne’emanah-Telata Mashma,” Mishpatim 7/6 (Sivan 5736), pp. 5-14: “The judge should not ask himself what the legislator wanted to achieve at the time the law was made but rather, what would the law he was making look like had be performed the act of legislation at this time and under the present conditions” (p. 10). Hence: “Only by breathing life (anima legis) into the words of the law can the law be enacted and the will of the legislator become actual- the law begins, as it were, to see, hear, and react. The judge’s allegiance must be given to the living law; the interpretation of the dead law (‘the dead letter’) is of interest to historians, but their dutiful allegiance is of no interest here” (p. 8).

[8] “[Rabbi Akiba] said to him: ‘For it is no vain thing for you‘ (Deut. 32:47), and if it is vain- it is because of you, not knowing how to interpret midrashically” (Genesis Rabbah 1, 14).

[9] Compare Rashi’s commentary to Gen. 37:27.

[10] Ramban, in his observations on Rambam’s Sefer ha-Mitsvot, shoresh 2, argues that the principle “Scripture does nor escape its plain sense” (ein mikra yotste midei peshuto) does not refer to the opposition between peshat and derash but to the opposition between primary meaning and figurative meaning. He concludes: “The statement is ein mikra yotse midei peshuto, not ein mikra ela ki-peshuto (the Scripture means nothing but its plain sense)! We have its derash interpretation alongside its peshat one, and it does not escape either of them; rather, the text conveys both, and thus both are valid.”

[11] See what they say in their introductions to their Torah commentaries.

[12] See Rashbam’s remarks at Gen. 37:1 and at the beginning of Parshat Mishpatim (and compare them to the remarks of the Vilna Gaon in his commentary to Exod. 21:1). Nonetheless, it seems to me that Rashbam did not refrain from critiquing aggadic midrash out of formal and substantive considerations. See, for example, his comment at Lev. 10:3 (and compare Tosafot, TB Hullin 91b, from me-avnei ha-makom). The same is true for Ramban, who prefaces this declaration of principle to his critique of the chronology of the Flood that Rashi adduces from Genesis Rabbah: “Because Rashi in certain places deals critically with aggadic midrashim, trying to expound the peshat meaning of Scripture, he permits us to do the same, for the Torah has seventy faces, and many midrashim are the subject of controversy among the sages” (commentary to Gen. 8:4).

[13] New peshat meanings cannot be found without freeing oneself from the authority of earlier commentators, and the personal and spiritual effort that this entails finds expression in the biting polemical language that characterizes many of the peshat exegetes. Thus, for example, does Rabbi Joseph Kara express himself concerning an interpretation by Rashi (without mentioning him by name): “He [distorts] what is correct to anyone who has God’s Torah within him, and he turns upside down the words of the living God, and he leads all Israel astray with his interpretation” (commentary to I Kings 7:33).

[14] In his commentary to Judg. 8:18 Rabbi Joseph Kara raises very serious objections to the accepted interpretation, but because he himself has no solution at hand he concludes with a prayer-“May the Light of Israel turn the dark to light and the crooked to straight.” In his commentary to I Sam. 17:5, he formulates the problem incisively (why did Saul ask Abner “Whose son is this lad?” when he was already familiar with David?), adduces the midrashic solution at length, and concludes by rejecting it: “Thus is it interpreted in the midrash and in the Tractate Yevamot But a solution of the Scriptural difficulty without the help of midrash I cannot find, and Scripture does not escape its plain sense (ein mikra yotse midei peshuto).’”

[15] Such as Ibn Ezra’s hints concerning the anachronistic passages in the Torah (commentary to Deut. 1:2), and Rabbi Joseph Kara’s conclusion from I Sam. 9:9 “that this book was not written by Samuel,” which contradicts the statement by Hazal that Samuel wrote his book, a contradiction that he leaves open: “May He who enlightens the land turn the dark to light and the crooked to straight.”

[16] To a certain extent, this was also Rav Saadia Gaon’s attitude, as attested by his comments in the introduction to his long Torah commentary: “A person should not derogate the [mitsvot of the] Torah…when he sees me say ‘possibly,’ ‘perhaps,’ or ‘probably,’ because I do this only out of reverence to the words of God, and only when I suggest interpretations and meanings which are not conclusive…” (Perushei Rav Saadia Gaon le-sefer Bereshit, ed. M. Zucker [New York, 1984], p. 204).

[17] Beside the famous statement of Samuel bar Nahmani in the name of Rabbi Yonatan- “Whoever says that David sinned only errs, as it said ‘David was successful in all his ways, for the Lord was with him’ (I Sam. 18: \14)- could he have sinned while the shekhinah was with him? But then what account do I take of ‘Why have you despised the word of God to do evil?’ (II Sam. 12:9)? He sought to do it, but did not do it” (TB Shabbat 56a)-we find the statement by Rabbi Yohanan as well: “For three things was David sorry, and the Holy One was generous to him concerning them….And one concerning the wife of Uriah the Hittite, when Israel spoke ill of him: Could it be that David who snatched the sheep and slew the shepherd and led to Israel’s downfall by the sword (referring to II Sam 11:17) has salvation?- ‘There is no salvation for him from God, Selah’ (Ps. 3:3)! So (the Holy One) was generous to him and said: ‘The Lord has pardoned your sin, you shall not die’ (II Sam. 12:13)” (Yalkut Shimoni 2, remez 148).

[18] Thus Rashbam determines that Jacob paid Esau money for the birthright, and the pottage served only “to confirm the deal” (Commentary to Gen. 25:31-33). Similarly it is not beyond Ibn Ezra to reinforce the homiletical interpretation according to which Bathsheba “was not actually a married woman” (commentary to Ps. 51:1).

[19] On Jacob’s saying “I am Esau your firstborn” Ibn Ezra writes: “There are those who say: Heaven forbid that we attribute lies to a prophet! Rather it thus: I am who I am, and Esau is your firstborn. Others say that [Jacob] said ‘I am’ declaratively and the words ‘Esau your firstborn’ as a question. But these are empty words…” (commentary to Gen. 27:13-19, and in the longer commentary to Exod. 38:18).

[20] In Targum Jonathan the poignancy is taken out of the Psalmist’s request to avenge himself against the Babylonian infants with his own hands by placing it in the mouth of the angel Gabriel. In Midrash Shoher Tov to Ps. 121 it is placed in the mouth of the Holy One who was himself, as it were, wounded by what the Babylonians did. In Shoher Tov to Ps. 17, however, the event is removed from its historical actuality: “It is not reported that at the destruction of the Temple they dismembered our infants but that they led them out in manacles. This, rather, is what the Holy One said: You have destroyed the House that I built for the Israelites to uphold my Torah, which their infants received from me, as it is said ‘From the mouths of infants and sucklings have you founded strength’ (8:3). Therefore do I dismember your (temple). …” Radak identifies the “one” of “happy is he who will requite you” with “Darius the Mede who destroyed Babylon,” and it would seem that in this way he sought to free the Psalmist from a personal aspiration to avenge. The Meiri supports the approach of Radak, while Rav Saadia Gaon, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and S. R. Hirsch make no comment at all.

[21] See, for example, the shorter commentary of Ibn Ezra to Exod. 13:18 and the longer commentary to Exod. 20:1.

[22] See his article “The Unity of the Bible,” included in the selection of his writings Naharayim, tr. V. Amir (Jerusalem. 1961). pp. 29-30.

[23] Compare Rabbi Joseph ibn Caspi in the opening statement of his argument against the Christological exegesis of “l am that I am”; “You who read this book, know that any devout Hebrew should take pains to discover difficulties in the Bible and should then attempt to resolve them with whatever argumentation he can find so that he can answer any challenge that might arise. But I swear that in the entire Bible, even in the Torah of Moses, I have found no passage as dangerous as this one…” (Metsaref la-Kesef; ed. J. Last [Cracow, 1906], p. 129).

[24] What E. M. Lifschitz has written on this matter is so important it should be cited here: “We, from a scientific standpoint, should demand that the exegete step out of the present, free himself from tradition, and enter into a third world, the world of the Bible, and interpret it from within its world. Earlier commentators didn’t know of this demand- at least they didn’t clarify it to themselves. Before them were only two paths to take: either to adhere to tradition and the spirit of tradition, or to free themselves from the tradition and interpret the Bible according to the spirit of their times. To overcome all the barriers and penetrate to the spirit of the Biblical period is an impossible demand to make of Rashi’s generation…” (Rashi, p. 171).

[25] See the instructive article of Gad B.A. Tsarfati, “Ha-Kosmografia ha-Talmudit,” Tarbiz 35 (1966), pp. 137-148.

[26] See the commentary to Isa. 40:22.

[27] He deals with this issue in his commentary to Gen. 1:2. Radak supported this approach; see his commentary to Ezek. 5:5. It is widely held, even in the new Biblical scholarship, that the belief in the cosmic centrality of the sanctuary is found both in the Bible and in the mythology of the ancient Near Eastern peoples. Shemaryahu Talmon has recently disproved this notion through a convincing exegetical analysis of those few passages that touch on this matter: Judg. 9:36-37; Ezek. 5:5; 38:10-12; see “The ‘Navel of the Earth’ and the Comparative Method,” in Scripture in History and Theology, J. Coert Rylaarsdam Jubilee Volume (1977), pp. 243-68 (Hebrew version inTarbiz 45 [1976], 163-77).

[28]Ha-lggeret le-Hakhmei Provence be-lnyan ha-Astrologiya,” ed. A. Marx, HUCA 3 (1926), p. 356.

[29] R. Joseph Kara twice here uses the term Torah (“Torah”), even though he is dealing with “prophecy” in the Book of Samuel; and because he did not write a commentary on the Torah itself, it is difficult to know whether this opinion of his would also hold for the Torah.

[30] A clear expression of this double-value relationship toward Biblical scholarship is selectively using the fruits of scholarship but suppressing their source by an omission of the scholars’ names. This is characteristic of, among others, the Da ‘at Mikra series.

[31] See Agadat Ester, parasha 3; and Radak’s commentary to Gen. 33:17.

[32] E. E. Dessler, Sefer Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, 3rd ed. (Jerusalem, 1959), vol. I, p. 94.

[33] Ibid., vol. III, 10th ed. (Bene Berak, 1977), p. 156.