Jewish Action Magazine, Peshat in Tanach, and Jimmy the Greek

Jean Calas learned the hard way that reading a dubious peshat into a pasuk can be fatal. Mr. Calas, a Protestant, was tortured to death in 1762 on the spurious charge of having murdered his son because he believed that he was planning to convert to Catholicism, the dominant religion at the time in France. (A later inquiry posthumously sustained Calas’ claim that his son had taken his own life.) The Catholics believed that Calas accepted John Calvin’s take on Devarim 18:21, the ben sorer umoreh passage. Calvin, the famous Protestant leader, paraphrased it as, “The Lord commands that all those who are disobedient to their parents be put to death.” Had Calvin been willing to consider the Jewish approach to the verse, Calas perhaps would have been spared.

Calas aside, if Calvin were correct many more of us could be in deep trouble. Fortunately, there are many ways of understanding almost any pasuk in Tanach. Centuries of our meforshim have given us many different approaches, allowing us to share the variegated responses that only a Divine text can evoke.

You would think that after all this time, no strikingly new methodologies would appear. In fact, there has been a quiet revolution in parts of the community in devoting more energy in looking at the plain peshat of Torah text, especially utilizing literary techniques that emerge from the secular academic world – techniques which, in many cases seem to have been very much part of the methodology of Chazal.

The current issue of Jewish Action devotes a number of articles exploring some of the current issues in how to approach Tanach. While tensions between proponents and opponents of the “new” approaches have been simmering for years, the editors diplomatically chose to ignore them and simply present to readers in the space of eight articles some of the views and some of the personalities on both sides.

There are contributions from the past (Nechama Leibowitz) and present. Eliyahu Krakowski provides a fascinating historical review of when learning Tanach went out of style, and why.

Traditionalist presentations are made by from both charedi and. Dati-Leumi perspectives – which may not differ at all. Rabbi Nosson Scherman’s pithy explanation of Artscroll’s goal – “to explain the pasuk as Chazal and the major meforshim understood” – contains much to think about. Rabbi Yaakov Ariel gently places, rather than throws, a gauntlet when he makes room for the new literary approaches, as long as they do not contradict the approach of Chazal. Rabbi Netanel Wiederblank offers an excellent and more detailed consideration of how important it is to understand the key personalities of Tanach through the lenses of the baalei mesorah.

We meet two popular teachers – again, one charedi (Rabbi Dovid Fohrman) and one Dati-Leumi (Dr. Yael Ziegler). Both could be describes as moderately tied to the new literary approaches, but not in the extreme.

It remains to explore what pitfalls, if any, attend to the new approaches. I can think of two that are worthwhile making explicit for our readers.

The first is where the new approaches sometimes lead. All those featured in this issue maintain a healthy respect for Chazal. Others who devote much time to the new approaches use them in concert with Chazal, or to demonstrate the necessity for the drashos of Chazal. The latter can only be appreciated by first determining what the simple peshat is – and the loose ends that remain to be addressed. Thus, paying keen attention to peshat becomes a tool in developing enhanced appreciation of the contribution of Chazal, rather than lessening it.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case with others enamored with or associated with the new, literary approaches. One hears all too often from those who run to the new approaches because they are running away from the old ones. They see the literary approaches as a welcome refuge from the traditional ones. Some are openly contemptuous of Chazal, seeing their world view as fanciful and ignorant of realities that are appreciated by contemporary scholars. When they offer an alternative to the positions of Chazal, they see them as superior and more enlightened, rather than as a base level from which Chazal departed for good reason. They regard as anathema the notion that a particular story line can be dictated by the musings of old rabbis.

A subset of this attitude is associated with the learning of Tanach – particularly in regard to its important personages – begovah einayim, at eye-level. Tired of placing the avos and others on a high pedestal that removes them from scrutinizing them the way we examine familiar people, advocates of this approach insist on understanding them in familiar terms. They speculate about their inner conflicts, their disappointments, their deficiencies. They do so good a job humanize them (only so that we can relate better to them, and learn from their lives, of course) that they bleed them of all their kedushah, of all that is important to our understanding of why they were so beloved to HKBH and significant to us. Because the Tanach begovah einayim camp leans heavily on the new literary approaches, proponents of more moderate uses of these tools are put on the defensive- which is understandable. They may very well be in the best position to convincingly show why those approaches are not a bor b’reshus ha-rabbim, a public spiritual menace. Among the advocates are enough people with yiras Shomayim that I will assume that they can succeed.

There is, I believe, another cause for hesitation, although it involves fewer people. The training I received from a number of my own rabbeim makes me a member of that smaller group.

None of us have an infinite amount of time available to learn. We have multiple goals when we open a sefer. I am not aware of a single, magisterial work that explains what we are to look for when we enter the beis medrash, other than the hope that our learning should be lishmah.

Some of us, however, do make assumptions about what learning is supposed to do for us. Not the least of our goals is to be instructed by Hashem’s wisdom. That’s what the word “Torah” means. We believe that Torah study is valuable because we encounter the Mind of G-d in its words. (The letters of Anochi, the first word of the Decalogue, is taken by the gemara (Shabbos 105A) to be an acronym for (at least according to one reading) “I wrote Myself into the Torah and gave it.” Torah thus becomes the place where our minds are bathed by the presence of HKBH’s chochmah.

Therefore, when we budget our time, we want maximum assurance that we are going to come away from our learning session with something that is part of HKBH’s greater message. When we are forced to choose between different authors and works, we behave very much like handicappers at a race track – we try to put our money on the likely “winner.” In assessing the likely quality of a candidate’s performance, we will take into account piety, scholarship, depth, past performance, and proximity to Sinai. The closer that a figure lived to maamad ha-nivchar, the more weight we will generally assign to his work. A contribution by a known rishon has to be generally more attractive in this regard than that of an unknown acharon.[1]

While Torah by its nature leaves room for new insights in every generation,[2] not all attempts at uncovering such insights and meaning end with the same degree of success. There are an infinite number of ways to interpret text. Not all of them contain enough emes to be termed Torah; of those that do, the amount of HKBH’s emes that they contain varies.

The bottom line is that it is, baruch Hashem, a crowded field of competitors out there. It will take some convincing to get me to spend quality time with material of recent vintage, especially when it openly concedes to be a new approach. This is not to imply that such material cannot contain insights of sterling worth. It does mean that many will remain skeptical as to whether to spend an hour with a new entry, when they could be spending it with a classic.

The issue comes to a head in the classroom. While experienced adult consumers may know enough about themselves to be drawn to particular contemporary authors, planning a curriculum is by its nature a statement about worth. When a teacher in the classroom picks from the new approaches rather than from the more or less standard fare, he or she subliminally transmits values about the greats of the past relative to the present. אם הם כבני אדם וכו’.

For this particular writer, when all is said and done, Rabbi Scherman’s contribution to the discussion[3] remains the most important.

  1. This is more of an art than a science. There is no formulaic method of choosing between competing works. We might pass over something very early not because we think it lacks gravitas, but rather because we believe that is has so much, that we won’t be able to penetrate to its essence. Our moods matter as well. At times, our souls will stand to be better impacted by a sharp vort from a particularly skillful baal derush than by the depth of a rishon. The exceptions, however, do not invalidate the rule. What we are looking for every time we sit down in front of a sefer, though, is something that will strike us as making HKBH’s journey, kivayachol, from shomayim to aretz to speak to us worthwhile.

  2. See, especially, the introduction to Rav Kook’s Eyn Aya”h.

  3. Referenced above

You may also like...

29 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Universities would often build curricula around Great Books (the name still exists, but often some greatness is lacking). This was not to suggest that great ideas were absent from other books. It relied on a traditional scholarly consensus about what noble ideas and themes were shared in common and could be a starting point for higher education. The idea of a starting point is important but does NOT devalue later solutions to knotty problems in the literature.

  2. dr. bill says:

    Call me old fashioned, but I am most interested in understanding the ancient interpreters, both the those who stressed peshat, like Onkelos to the those who provided incremental insight like various ancient Midrashim. One area that the articles in JA did not cover is modern efforts at a deeper understanding of both. I am most excited not by the insights of various modern methodologies but by an enhanced understanding of how interpreters from 1500+ years ago approached the text. I suspect that such approaches are viewed with more suspicion since they are plowing in fields where classical Jewish meforshim have worked for the last millennium.

  3. Yehoshua Duker says:

    Do you also refrain from learning the commentary of Rav Hirsch? The Netziv? R’ Zalman Sorotzkin? According to your theory, you probably should. After all, the Ramban was much greater, and closer to Sinai, than any of them. But wait, why bother with the Ramban? Chazal were much greater, and closer to Sinai, than he was, and we have their explanations on all of Tanakh.
    The bottom line is that different commentaries have different styles, and have different goals in writing their commentaries. There is no, and can be no, simple hierarchy of which are more valuable or less valuable than others.
    I would add that I think Dr. Zeigler’s sefer on megillas Rus is the most comprehensive and insightful treatment available on that megilla, in any language.

    • I think I dealt with some of these issues in my first footnote. I will have to take a look at Dr. Zeigler’s sefer, which might be a good idea anyway for me, since her husband is my new publisher! My favorite sefer on Rus is also a contemporary, relatively speaking. A mere hundred years is nothing on the scale of Torah bibliography; I’ve always been blown away by Nachlas Yosef on Rus.

  4. Raymond says:

    This is a subject that is very near and dear to me, simply because even at my advanced age, I still dream of one day becoming a Torah scholar. This is such a strong impulse in me, that I often assume that virtually all Jews share that same aspiration. It just seems to be built into our Jewish DNA. And so while I do not feel qualified to give a definitive view on this subject, I nevertheless, do want to say just a thing or two about it.

    In my quest to become a Torah scholar, I have spent a whole lot of my limited salary on Torah books, so much so that it can be said that I have too many of them (around 500 books on Torah commentaries alone), far more than I could ever realistically read or study. I do notice a certain pattern in what kind of books they are, though, that I think is relevant to this discussion. Part of my shelves are lined with Torah commentaries written by absolute Torah giants, Torah legends such as of course Rashi, the RambaN, The Ba’al Ha’Turim, Rabbeinu Bachya, the Ohr HaChayim, Rabbi Moshe Alshich, the Abarbanel, the Ramchal, Rav Hirsch, Rav Soloveitchik, the Rebbe, and so on. The other major kind of Torah commentaries I have, all come from individuals who are solidly Orthodox Rabbis, but they are from more recent years, and their lasting eminence is not yet known. It would seem obvious that since my time on Earth is so limited, and since every one of the major, classic commentaries take considerable time to study and truly absorb, that the most efficient course to take, is to confine myself to those who have the status of Torah superstars.

    However, I am not a great man, nor a true scholar. Whether I even have sufficient intellect or potential for wisdom, is for other people to decide about me. I am just a mere peasant, living a secular life in America, trying to survive. For me to jump right into studying the RambaN, for example, would really make no sense. It would be like a child who knows nothing about mathematics, to suddenly pick up a book on calculus or analytic geometry, foolishly thinking he could tackle the subject. And indeed, just a few years ago, I did actually try to study the RambaN, but after reading its first fifty pages, I finally gave up on it for the time being, when I realized that I had grasped maybe one of his ideas, and even that idea, I am not sure I truly understood. I probably did not. And so for me at least, it has to be a slow and gradual process, starting with the more modern day Torah commentaries written by relative unknowns, and then working myself backward in time to the truly great Torah commentaries. Especially given my age and poor physical health, there is the very real danger that I may never get to study the great Torah commentaries, and so I admit it is a race against time, but I do not see any other way to go about this that would bring me any positive results.

  5. D K says:

    I don’t understand what this whole article is about. If one learns something in Tanach or Mishnah/Gemara and can understand it with Rashi or another basic Mefareish, what is the reason to look further? Just to rack up differing opinions? Because of haughtiness, that he doesn’t agree with the explanations of the giants of the past generation?
    On the other hand, if he has real questions on the basic Pshat or he is researching the different approaches of the topic at hand, what is so wrong with using newfound methodology or seeing what the Rabbanim of this generation have to offer? As long as they too follow a Daas Torah approach, their understanding holds water as well…

  6. Steven Brizel says:

    Excellent article. There is do much to learn and decipher from the works of the classical Meforshim among the Rishonim who work from the views of Chazal as well as Netzviv Meshech Chachmah as well which can should be mastered efore one engages in what can frequently be viewed as Bible Criticism for the MO world snd viewing their work as mere drudge or worse. I take issue with The view that learning Ramban is beyond their intelllectbor interest while having no hesitation in delving into more contemporary approaches to Pardhanut

  7. Steven Brizel says:

    Rav Moshe Besdin ZL a great mchanech and rebbevand the founder of YUs JSS emphasized knowing Yo learn the classical Mefarshim
    And especially Ramban

  8. Steve Brizel says:

    It is a mistake to assume that one must choose between ThevMesrash Says and the Gush Derech of learning Tanach and especially Chumash. Rashi Ramban Seforno Ibn Ezra Rashbam (who yieldsto Rashi in Pekufei and Vayikra) and such Mefarshim as Netziv and Medhech Chachmsh should be familiar if not mastered before one engages in Pshat only study which arguably has no roots in Chazal and which IMO drains the moral teachings from the text that Chazal understood were there to be explicated and not dispensed with as mere drush or worse

    • Yehoshua Duker says:

      It seems that you are not overly familiar with the “Gush Derech of learning Tanakh.” Dr. Zeigler, who is one of the primary Tanakh teachers in Herzog, wrote a sefer on Rus, and Chazal are cited on almost every page.

  9. Ralph Kostant says:

    I would like to throw in a plug for the newly published English translation of PSHUTO SHEL MIKRA by Rabbi Yehuda Copperman ZTz”L [Mosaica Press, Inc. 2019]= Indeed, I hope to read a review by Rabbi Adlerstein very soon.

    • Reb Ralph, I may read yours first. Generally, the only way to get me to review a book requires 1) the publisher sending me a copy, and 2) the author having enough personal clout to be able to twist my arm. Badly.

    • Yehoshua Duker says:

      To be slightly more precise, it is a translation of his sefer “Kedushas Peshuto Shel Mikra,” not his earlier sefer “Peshuto Shel Mikra.” I do not know why they chose to not make this clear in the English title.

  10. Shades of Gray says:

    “Rabbi Scherman’s contribution to the discussion remains the most important”

    I agree that one of the purposes of learning is to be” …bathed by the presence of HKBH’s chochmah”. On a practical level, the time factor R. Adlerstein mentions means that there is certainly enough material to learn of Radak and Malbim before venturing to modern commentary. Yet elsewhere, R. Adlerstein noted an apparent area of difference with R. Scherman’s statement in the Jewish Action regarding Artscroll’s approach, that as a given, “we avoid that completely”, i.e., modern scholarship.

    In the 2015 Klal Perspectives, R. Adlerstein mentioned that the Daati-Leumi, in contrast to the yeshiva world, have home-grown bnei Torah who can either “address the issues from a position of strength” or are “who are both bnei Torah and conversant with the material.” R. Adlerstein similarly acknowledged that “The circles of most rigorous Torah study have so completely eschewed all other areas, that they are not familiar with the questions, let alone in a position to provide answers”(“Is Hersey Horrible”, CC 7/13). R. Adlerstein wrote an approbation to “G-d Versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry”, which according to the Amazon summary, offers proofs and difficulties to traditional and modern approaches. R. Nosson Scherman himself once told the JTA that “The Hertz was a masterpiece in its time, a piece of literature. What he did was heroic”.

    What all of this seems to show is that Modern Orthodoxy and the yeshiva world, including the latter’s kiruv branch, all need each other. The mere fact that the Jewish Action can publish a discussion about different approaches to parshanut, seems to me, to be a strength of the OU.

  11. Shades of Gray says:

    Some additional references (available online) concerning the balance of modern and traditional scholarship:

    Rav Hai and R. Saadiah Gaon followed the approach of kabel es haemes mimi sheomro regarding meaning of words of pesukim(quoted by R. Jonathan Sacks in “A Clash of Civilizations?: Judaic Sources on Co-existence in a World of Difference”, pgs. 42, 99) .

    R. Hershel Schachter’s view is that “some of the suggestions of the non-traditional scholars are gevaldig!”, but limits it to peirush ha-milot and peshuto shel mikra, vs. the overall picture of Tanakh(“Torah is Not Just a Collection of Dinim: An Interview with Rav Herschel Schachter” by Ari Lamm, Commentator, 11/07).

    Jewish Action (Winter, 2017) reviewed R. Haiyym Angel’s book on Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, describing how it “merges traditional and academic scholarship… It is no coincidence that the endorsements on the back of the book range from the yeshivah to the academy as well.”

    “Review Essay: Return of the Pashtanim” by R. Yaakov Beasley in Tradition, Spring, 2009(interestingly, available on Artscroll website).

    “The “New School” of Bible Study: an Exchange”(Tradition 42:3, 2009), an exchange between R. Yaakov Blau and Yaakov Beasley (R. Adlerstein made people aware of this article in an old CC discussion).

    R. Shalom Carmy(“Homer And The Bible”, Tradition, 2008), attempts a balance, “Though the crucial insights of the great aharonim in the last two centuries—Malbim, R. David Zvi Hoffmann, R. Mordekhai Breuer inter alia can usually be communicated reasonably well without referring to presuppositions of the critics, that creative work will not be transparent to those unaware of that background”. At the same time, R. Carmy criticizes those who “deliberately, coldly, indifferently, cheapen the characters of the Avot or the integrity of the Torah” and is also critical of “Minds unmoved by the intellectual encounter with the word of God, dulled by the study of Ramban and Abarbanel” but who only wake up when the lecturer mentions bible criticism.

  12. Steve Brizel says:

    Those interested in why the Gush Derech in Tanach offers IMO a safe haven for devotees of Kugel should look at the annexed essay and the comments especially those referring to a panel discussion between R Liebtag and Dr Kugel One IMO can and should ask whether the Gush Derech offers a means of “kashering” Kugel within a RZ and MO setting with little or no discussion as to whether has roots in Chazal and aids in the transmission of Torah and TSBP from Chazal to the great Mefarshim that I mentioned as the main means of transmission of Tanach as opposed to utilizing literary theory and creating a theological POV based on a Medrash Peliah or Daas Yachid such as that Avraham Avinu “failed” the test of the Akeidah.

    • dr. bill says:

      steve brizel, I am not proficient in the gush method of tanach study, to the extent that there is such a thing. But I have read much of what prof. kugel has written. his greatest contribution is rendering understandable many otherwise overly esoteric ma’amarei chazal. if that needs kashering, i prefer the unkosher version.

      kugel is not traditional in any sense; much of what he writes is an anathema to any traditional student of tanach and to traditional Jewish theological tenets. His de’ot about torah mi’sinai or torah min ha’shamayim are inconsistent with traditional Jewish beliefs. All that acknowledged, his work is not monolithic. Part cannot be kashered ; part needs no kashering. Gush kashered Rav Breuer ztl; nothing similar can be said about prof. kugel.

      btw, kugel is not a fan of most modern methodologies which does not consider all that useful.

  13. Bob Miller says:

    Innovative approaches can be constructive or destructive. While it’s good to consider arguments on their own apparent merits, we should also step back to look at those who advance them. Do they have subversive agendas, hidden or overt? I recall a spate of “new midrashim” some years back, from Reform and Conservative thinkers, that aimed to cut our Avot and Imahot and other revered figures in our past down to size. Much earlier, Heinrich Graetz and Gershom Bader falsified aspects of our sages’ lives.

  14. Steve Brizel says:

    Dr Bill-Your approach to Kugel is rooted in R Meir’s approach to Acher-extracting that what is helpful from his otherwise very problematic views and possibly in Ramban’s approach to certain comments of Rambam in MN re Karbanos and other statements of Ibn Ezra as well. IMO, the issue at hand goes beyond disagreeing with isolated comments in otherwise fine works.

    My objection is to utilizing Kugel as a source to understanding Chazal when his deos, as you yourself mention, are not just “inconsistent with traditional Jewish beliefs”, but quite contradictory to the same, and which arguably does not constitute a Cheftza Shel Torah . I shudder to think what what Kugel thinks when he gets an aliyah recites a Birkas HaTorah or other Tefilah and question whether one should answer Amen to such a Bracha.

    I do not believe Kugel’s views can and should be utilized by the average person who lacks familiarity with the views of classical Mefarshim or who views the Leibtag/Gush Derech ( which is available to anyone who subscribes by email and which I did for many years and still do notwithstanding my critique of the same) . I object to the usage of a Pshat only derech for the reasons that I previously stated especially when it is used as a substitute for mastering the classical Mefarshim especially for those Parshiyos that cannot be understood by Pshat only.

  15. Bob Miller says:

    Dr Bill wrote above, “kugel is not traditional in any sense”
    It kind of is, in the food sense.
    As for Kugel (capital K), my concern is lack of truth, as opposed to lack of plausibility.

  16. dr. bill says:

    steven brizel, acher was likely an early christian. kugel’s books include: one lauded as a modern-day kuzari, that is very critical when dealing with an intellectual bent BT. a follow-up, the kingly court, describes a level of piety that i cannot hope to approach. “the bible as it was”like his weekly dvar torah, might contain a stray comment but is much less problematic than Pirkei Moadot and Moadai Berashit, the standard part of the study of Bible at Gush. his books on prophecy or how God was thought of in the Biblical period or his personal struggle overcoming a lethal form of cancer also do not require a hechsher. The bible as it is should not be read.
    his commentary on Jubilees or his student’s Seconding Sinai are probably best left unread, although the latter explains thinking among writers in the second temple period. His student is Hindy Najman, a stern college graduate, observant and a full professor at Oxford.

    and btw, i value the comparison to rebbi Meir and Ramban. 🙂

    think of me as the canary in the coal mine, ferreting out what can or perhaps should be read. 🙂

  17. mb says:

    What happened to “accept the truth whatever the source”?

  18. DF says:

    It’s a question of extremes. Precedent for very modern sounding, “edgy” interpretations can be found in the Rishonim and even the Tannaim. That does not therefore confer license upon every man, woman, and child to routinely apply the same methods everywhere and to every verse.

  19. Steve Brizel says:

    Dr Bill -we agree to disagree-I find myself far more comfortable with every excellent question that was raised by a Tanna and which remains a question , a sugya that is ended with Teiku, a statement of a Rishon or Acharon who being far closer to Maamad Mar Sinai uttered Tzarich Iyun or Aino Yodea and the view that while noone ever died from a kashe, when there is a Tiyuvta, we have reached the limit of the vitality of a POV We should embrace their humility on such issues rather than thinking that approaches that are at best decidedly not within the boundaries of Parshanut be used as our means of exploring Toras HaShem Temimah

  20. Eli Turkel says:

    I completely disagree with the article. On a personal basis I enjoy articles by R Yoel Bin Nun, Rav Meidan and Rav Bazak among others from the Gush Rabbi Hayim Angel from the Portugese shul. With Purim coming up Rabbi Yonatan Grossman has an insightful book on Megillat Esther.
    Every year the Gush has a week long event attended by thousands on new insights into Tanach.
    These are all by by shomer mitzvot rabbis with new viewpoints on Tanach that were not discussed by the classical commentaries. They do not claim to replace Rashi or Ramban but give an entirely new perspective.
    A simple example is Rabbi Grossman’s comparison of Esther coming to the king and Sarah coming to Pharoh’s palace. Not the type of discussion that would appear in classical commentaries,
    I suggest some readers go to

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This