Thursday, May 04, 2006

Targeted Readings

I must admit that I was a bit disconcerted by this article, not so much for the conclusions that it reached, but for the way that it went about its thinking. Specifically, it pretended to be engaging a text when in fact there was only one interpretation that it would accept as legitimate. I think that it is somewhat intellectually dishonest to pretend to be discovering nuances in a text when you know how hard you are looking to find them. This is not an objection that I have only to Torah; I find it coming up continually in my English classes as well, where critics seem to pick a thesis before they bother reading the piece. The view was summed up in the title given to theis article on another site: "Reinterpreting What Hurts". How dare we reinterpret something simply because it hurts? How dare we twist the text to "make it more palatable to the liberal sensibility"? If we value the text enough to care what it says, shouldn't we value it enough to care about what it means?

That was all my first reaction. And if I had written this post just after reading the article, it might have been my only one. Thank goodness for homework. Because, when I thought about this more, I realized that I was lacking a bit of intellectual honesty myself. After all, how is this really different from the thinking that I, myself, went through with regards to the Amalek issue? As I admitted there, I refused to accept my teacher's explanations because I felt that they were so evil as to be impossible, so that I kept looking until I found a reading that conformed to my preconceived notions of morality. What lines can I presume to draw about what is or is not intellectually legitimate?

But there must be some lines. And I think that my actions differed from the ones in this article in a few small but significant ways. First of all, the reading that I chose was one based off of questions on the text, presented as a way to explain the p'shat. Had it been offered merely as apologetics, I doubt I would have trusted it as much. More importantly, I didn't just decide that the old interpretation had to be false. I left the matter up for question, ready to be resolved when and if I found a good answer, to be left as a question if nothing did occur to me. This is a luxury that I had because the question is not relevant today. Unfortunately, we do not have the same luxury with regards to homosexuality. We are forced to decide between loyalty to our morals and loyalty to the text. But I think that intellectual honesty demands that we admit that we are making a choice and not to pretend that there is no conflict.

And none of the readings that they offered really maintained any loyalty to the text. They struck me as desperate, grasping for straws, and ignoring one very simply, very obvious interpretation. Something like this fails to impress me:
Jewish law and tradition is big on separation. In fact, separating, differentiating, is a holy act. Creation was one big act of separation — night from dark, sky from earth, land from sea… So, what I’ve always taken from Leviticus 18:22 is simply the importance of differentiation.

…In my mind, it would be an abomination for a man to sleep with a man in the same way that he slept with a woman. It would be an affront to any sexual partner to not recognize him or her as unique and differentiated. Since sex is the most intimate and vulnerable of all acts, mistaking your partner for someone else is callous and cruel. It would evidence a complete disregard for that person’s holiness and spirit.

I'm sorry, but that does not strike me as anything like a realistic reading of the verse. It is, at best, a nice vort, but we do not make decisions based on nice vorts. And certainly not mediocre ones. The article described what they were doing as looking for facets within the law. Granted, but when you look for facets, it seems wrong to ignore the one that stares you in the face, especially when you have no textual excuse to do so. There may be layers in the law, but the surface layer ought to be one of the most important ones.

The article compares this to what the Talmud does to law. And I would agree that the Talmud often seems to offer equally radical interpretations. But I do not personally think that we have any right to be the Talmud now, and it is important to remember that the Talmud was formulated in the course of rigorous intellectual debate and true allegience to whatever truth that they thought that they found. Of course, they had biases and so does every rabbi in every responsa he writes, but these biases are and must be balanced by a healthy dose of loyalty to the text itself. And that, I felt, was missing in this article, as evidenced by the fact that they offered the suggestion that the verse did disagree with them, but so what?

In other words, I disagreed with the article's main claim that it is our duty to wrestle with the text until it yields a reading that we can accept. Texts are malleable things, and wills are powerful ones; we can bully any text into agreeing with anything we like. It is our duty, rather, to pound both the text and our opinions, allow ourselves to be tugged back and forth until we reach a place, suspended between the two. If that place is still close enough to touch both our opinions and an honest reading of the text, then let us accept it. If it does not matter which we hold, because the issue is moot, let us continue to hang there suspended. But if we find ourselves in the middle, the two poles still too far apart to stretch without bending one or the other beyond its natural shape, then let us have the courage to release one or the other, or at least to admit that we can hear the creak as we struggle to bridge the gap. And I don't pretend to know how much of a stretch is going to be too much, and how we can excuse ourselves for letting go of either of these. But at least I don't pretend not to be tugged.


dbs said...

I sometimes wonder what the overall effect would be if the orthodox world considered it acceptable to look at things like this as errors in the transmission of the Torah. (Something along the lines of 'The Torah is M'Sinai, but there may have been additions which reflected the popular concensus at the time'.)

Would it unduly weaken the adhearance to Torah and mitzvote, since we are calling into question aspects of the mesorah? Or, would it allow more people to be drawn to it (or less to be turned off)?

I suppose that the slope is far too slippery, but I wonder.

Tobie said...

I find your question exceptionally interesting, because it asks not whether such statements would be truthful, or correctly reflect the will of G-d, but whether or not they would be useful. Very utilitarian. I would argue that, since I don't believe that these things actually are errors, it would be wrong for me to say that I thought they might be, regardless of the pros and cons. Of course, if I did think it was possible, then there would still be the pragmatic questions of whether it is a wise position to endorse.

dbs said...

Well, it probably wouldn't work. Or, at the very least, it would take a very rigorous system of mesorah to control when you can invoke this principle. (It obviously couldn't be done at random).

In a sense, of course, this is what conservative Jews do. Conservative judaism looks like a failure to the orthodox (and to me), but perhaps it succedes on the level at which it is practiced.