Home » Religion and Jewish Thought, Simon Holloway

Not in Heaven

October 12, 2009 – 9:47 pm29 Comments

By Simon HollowayEmpty sky

A story is told of a man who approaches his Rabbi with a question: “Rabbi, is there a Biblical source for wearing a yarmulka?”

His Rabbi nods emphatically. “Why, yes! The Torah says, ‘And Abraham went.’ Can you imagine that Abraham went… without a yarmulka!?”

This story is really just a bit of fun, but it highlights a neat distinction between what scholars refer to as exegesis and eisegesis. Exegesis is a familiar term: it refers to the process of finding information within the Biblical text. When the Torah says that one should cease from “labour” on Shabbat, and then goes on to relate the “labours” involved in constructing the Tabernacle, an exegetical reading derives the nature of the work that is prohibited on the seventh day.

Eisegesis, on the other hand, is the process by which meaning is read into the text. We start with a cultural practise (let’s say, lighting the candles on a Friday night), and then find a scriptural passage that might be taken out of context and utilised to serve as a justification for the practise that already exists. The rabbis of the Talmud referred to such a source as an asmakhta: literally, a scriptural support, on which the practise can “lean”.

I mention all this because sometimes (sometimes) people forget just which bits of their faith derive from the Bible and which bits derive from an external body of thought. This is not to disparage external bodies of thought! Ours, after all, is a religion of many books, of which the Hebrew Bible is merely one – albeit, perhaps, the most important.

Such is the power of these secondary interpretations that people often read them back into the original text. I often find that people commence by stating that “The Torah says…”, and then conclude by mentioning something not found within the Torah at all. An example of this is with the phrase, “The Torah is not in heaven.”

This phrase does appear in the Bible, but people who quote this phrase almost always do so with a passage from the Babylonian Talmud in mind. That passage can be found in Baba Metzia 59b, and concerns a small group of sages who debate with one another over the purity of an oven. Rabbi Eliezer, whose opinion is bolstered by earthly miracles and heavenly proclamations, is overruled by the majority, who then go on to publically humiliate him and ruin his life. As my good friend, CyberJew, has observed: the story concerns the tyranny of the masses. Nonetheless, the sad ending to the story is frequently overlooked, for such is the power of the story’s introduction. Witnessing the miracles that Eliezer produces in favour of his opinion, the other rabbis remain unconvinced and declare that “the Torah is not in heaven.” In other words, legal authority rests with the rabbis and not with continuing revelation from God.

This interpretation of the phrase is a radical departure from its usage within the Bible, and an equally radical departure from the Bible’s explicit message! The phrase appears in Deuteronomy 30:12, and I invite readers to look at it in context. It’s a beautiful chapter (one of the finest in the book of Deuteronomy) and, in this passage, concerns the ease with which all Israel should be able to perform mitzvot. Do not suppose that the Torah is too lofty for you! It is not in the sky that you should require somebody to bring it down to earth, and nor is it beyond the ocean that you should need a mariner to fetch it hence. On the contrary, it is within your own mouth and in the very core of your being.

The rabbinic interpretation glosses the word “sky” as “heaven” – which is to say, the emphasis is removed from the height-metaphor (‘Torah is too lofty for us; who will bring it down?’) and shifted to the God-metaphor (‘Torah resides in the same location as God, who alone is arbiter’). Nowhere does the Torah intimate that the law should be changed or adapted by future generations, so this rabbinic interpretation is eisegetical. That is to say, the rabbis had a tradition of reinterpreting the Biblical laws, and sought a scriptural passage that would serve as an asmakhta to their mandate.

When all is said and done, the rabbis were correct. Many of the laws within the Bible, if followed to the letter, would produce a society most barbarous by today’s standards. The sort of person who wishes to live their life in strict accordance with a literal understanding of such laws is not the sort of person you would want to count in your minyan! By providing themselves with the authority to recontextualise the Biblical message, the scholars of the Talmud turned Jewishness into Judaism. Those of us who love the religion that they founded owe them a debt of gratitude and, at the very least, the honour of recognising the nature of their work.

_____________________________________

You may also be interested in

Print Friendly

29 Comments »

  • inabsentia says:

    The above mentioned episode from the Talmud demonstrate the Rabbi’s utter disregard for Scripture and their determination to maintain absolute control of its interpretation to suit their own political aims.

    The story demonstrates clearly that R Eliezer was right and yet the Rabbis, through their proto-postmodernist mode of interpretation manage to literally remake truth itself.

    That Jewish sources go on to laud this act, with some regarding it as the central and defining episode of the Talmud demonstrates just how far away from God Judaism strayed.

    And your conclusion – that this allowed Jewishness to become Judaism is utterly absurd. Obviously any legal system has to have an appropriate amount of flexibility and scope for adaptation. It is implicit within the concept of law and no legal system has been succesful over a long period without it.

    However this is a far cry from being able to reinterpret an entire value system based on arbitrary notions and to ignore outright miracles and divine directives.

    This is a story in sore need of reinterpretation, not simply another rehash of banging the Halachic party’s drum.

    (And as an aside – these Rabbis could ignore miracles and the voice of God, but can’t give an Agunah a divorce. Wha

  • inabsentia says:


    (And as an aside – these Rabbis could ignore miracles and the voice of God, but can’t give an Agunah a divorce. What great intellectual honesty. Truly these are men to be admired.)

  • To respond to four of your claims:

    1. You have suggested that there are sources that consider this to be the “central and defining episode of the Talmud”. Can you name one?

    2. You disparage the halakhic system on the grounds that it does not allow for “outright miracles and divine directives” as continuing revelation. Can you think of any legal system that does?

    3. You have referred to the rabbinic method as “proto-postmodernist”. I have absolutely no idea what this expression means and, unless you wish to retract it, would you mind providing a definition?

    4. I think that you should take a moment to read the actual story, and realise that it’s fictitious. Suggesting that Rabbi Eliezer was clearly correct because he had the weight of miracles on his side, demonstrates a very poor (and literalistic) reading of the passage. This story was written by people whose opinion constituted the story’s conclusion.

    [By the way, your reading of the story is very similar to the reading undertaken by Gershom Gale, the editor of the Jerusalem Post Christian Edition. I’m no longer sure where to find it online, now that the source I quoted has disappeared, but you can read my critique of it here if you like.]

  • inabsentia says:

    1. Kzot HaChoshen – Hakdamah

    2. Irrelevant question.

    The question was over the purity of the Tanur Shel Achnai. Purity and Impurity are objective realities, they are not subject to interpretation. Either a thing is pure or it is not. This was fudamentally a machloket metziut.

    3. The rabinninc method is obvioulsy not post-modernist in the literal sense as this is a mode of thought indigenous to the twentieth century. However their methodologies regarding the inference and creation of meaning from texts are extremely similar.

    4. I daresay you don´t quite understand the difference between fiction and metaphor. Furthermore, to extrapolate that the debate itself did not occur simply becasue the version presented to us is from the Rabbinic side is to step on a very slipperly slope. If we applied this standard to the rest of the corpus of Jewish literature then the Exodus from Egypt never took place, Moses was a fictitous charcater and David and Solomon never existed. If you are comfortable with this position then so be it. But it represents a cognitive dissonance between a historical event and the record of it.

    5. As for your critique of Gale, without having read the original it would be unfair to comment. Nevertheless, your bombastic tone and argument by volume does little to impress me. I am not sure of Gale´s actual position, but mine would be that it is the very essence of talmudic hermeneutics that reveals the Sanhedrin´s slide to a form of humanism. I would, however, argue that it was less humanism then a form of nationalism, but again, without having read him in the original I cannot comment.

    His would seem to be a standard Chrsitian position, as the Gospels refer to Jesus demonstrating the difference between the laws of God and laws of Man. Quite possibly a code for critiquing the post-modernist tendencies of the rabbis and one of the key areas of disagreement between the two.

  • ariel says:

    I agree with your conclusion that these Rabbis made Judaism what it is today and we should be grateful.

    However, what if – as David W points out in his article – these Rabbis did have a direct line of tradition from Moses as to the interpretations of the Torah and based their decisions on these? In other words, it can be believed that perhaps some of the nasty sounding precepts in the Torah – such as “an eye for an eye” – were never carried out literally, even in Moses’ time; that Moses himself interpreted the directive as meaning “compensation to the value of an eye”. For if Torah is the Word of G-d as interpreted and internalised by Moses – a human being with flaws – then this very well could be the case.

    Also, there are many people who refer to the entirety of Jewish Law literature – Tanach, Talmud, Kabbalah – collectively as “Torah”. This may be why some people say “Torah says…” when they could very well mean “It says in tractate X” or “It says in Zohar”…

    Regarding your opening story, there is another famous one:
    A group of chassidim were trying to convince a group of misnagdim that Moshe Rabeinu wore a schtreiml.
    “Where does it say in Torah that Moshe Rabeinu wore a schtreiml?” asked the misnagdim.
    After a few moments of deep thought, one of the chassidim blurted out: “Are you trying to say that a tzaddik like Moshe Rabeinu didn’t go with a schtreiml?!”

    See also here for proof of how Moses was a Satmar chassid.

  • Gary Mallin says:

    Much can be put down to interpretation, a practice fraught with thousands of possibilities.
    The great Jewish sage and scholar Hillel, who lived in Jerusalem at the time of King Herod about 2000 years ago, said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”
    Simply put, the basis of Torah is just being kind to your fellow man.

  • ariel says:

    Gary, this is very true and it is the message the Prophets tried to convey to Am Yisrael.

    However, it is not the be all and end all of Torah. Which is why Hillel told the prostelyte to “go and learn the rest”

  • Inabsentia: Jim Davila makes reference to Gale’s review here. I imagine you can follow the links and it should turn up his original article. I tried, but failed to find it. I’m at work now, and so I don’t have the luxury of checking all of them but if you have a moment, you can possibly do a better job than I did.

    As for the historical basis to the story, that a fellow named Eliezer ever argued with a group of rabbis about the purity of an oven is a bit of a moot point. The bits in the story that actually make this story what it is (the miracles that Eliezer produces and the voice from heaven) are fictitious. You can call them metaphor if you please, but they originated in somebody’s head. If, for some strange reason, you feel compelled to take them literally, then you may as well also take literally God’s response to the whole affair, which is to laugh and to express his respect for the rabbinic method. Pretty obvious, really, who it was who made up this story and why.

    As for purity and impurity being objective realities: according to whom? Not according to rabbinic halakha! If the beit din declares the oven pure, it is pure. If it declares it impure, it is impure. That, in a nutshell, is the essence of this part of the story. You might disagree with that, but it is our obligation to understand the texts – not to pass judgment on them.

  • Simon,

    On what basis do you declare the story in the Talmud fictitious?

    And given that you don’t believe in God or the divinity of the Torah (and by that I mean the Pentateuch), why does it have more authority for you than the Talmud or some other source?

  • BeetleJuice says:

    There are at least two cores of authority that are at play in this article.

    There are those who require an external validation of something to be right. This mode of thought can only read the Torah or Talmud as having authority because God said so, more capable scholars spoke its words, or previous authority figures (normally rabbis) said so.

    The second mode is an internal mode. The authority comes from a deepened loyalty to one’s own heritage, personal moral conviction of what is right, or one’s own interpretation of personal life events.

    The internal mode is subject to change, as one’s life experiences change. This complexity and incongruency is part of this way of being – for good and bad.

    The external mode of authority changes based on the convictions on whoever is the latest figure of authority. The latter often attempts to deny change, through lofty reasoning that seeks to harmonise incongruencies. That the rabbis rule themselves as more right than God, or that Hillel cancels a Torah mitzvah through a widely embraced prozbul must be reasoned as having an internal logic that defies human input.

    Both systems are flawed – as they are reasoned through human mind.

    That it is only males who are part of the conversation, that a non-anthropomorphic God can laugh, that miraculous acts can occur post the destruction of the Beit Mikdash, that the rabbis cared to include this event within a corpus of work that often excludes other events, that this may be metaphoric or fictitious while Jesus performing nature defying acts is recorded in the same Tamlud that excludes women, mutes and other as minors (fact, fictious or metaphoric), is all differently reasoned based upon what we must do to justify our own loci of authority.

    For both – when the mode of authority is lost, the meaning that was once attached to it is also lost or reinvented. The one will never convince the other. Eilu v’eilu….

    I leave it to you to determine whether what I have written is fictious, authoratative or metaphoric, or merely more words to be discarded.

  • First of all, I have never suggested that the Torah has “more authority” than anything. How much authority it has, if it has any at all, depends on the information that you are trying to derive. For somebody who wishes to derive halakha, the Torah has authority commensurate with the Mishna, but the Talmudic explanations of the Mosaic/Mishnaic halakha have greater authority still, and the greatest authority rests with the mediaeval codifications of these laws.

    Nonetheless, I am concerned here with the manner in which statements from the Bible are taken out of context and then recontextualised within the rabbinic literature. This happens frequently, but I chose the example that I chose because it’s one that people often quote. I could just as easily have chosen אין עוד מלבדו, or וחסד לאומים חטאת, or כי כל־שלחנות מלאו קיא צואה בלי מקום, etc. It’s no great secret that this is the way that rabbinic exegesis works; I just think that more people should be aware of it. There’s no value judgment involved either, I assure you. For the record, I think it’s great.

    As for the story, in its particulars, being fictitious: if you are inclined to take it literally, then there’s nothing I can say to change your mind. So far as I am concerned, any story that involves miracles, or the speech of God coming from heaven, is by necessity a fictitious story, irrespective of which text in which it is written and which group of people choose to transmit it. It would really never cross my mind to assume otherwise.

  • Chaim says:

    Rashi on the Pasuk in Devarim actually brings Eruvim 55a in order to understand it not Bava Metziah- “don’t think it is too lofty OR distant to learn the Torah (and commandements)”.

    the authority for Rabbinic interpretation is not from here but rather Devarim 17:11, Shemos 23:2(Majority rulings)

    inabsentia – you forget the rest of the story: Rav Nasan found Eliyahu the prophet and asked him what Ha Kodesh Baruch Hu was doing at that moment when the heavenly proofs were rejected and the halacha was established like the majority opinion. Eliyahu responded that God smiled and said: “My children have triumphed over me.”

    ALthough the Torah is clearly compromised by Human intellect and interpretation. Hashem does not mind. It is the only way Hashem can pass on his infinite wisdom to a finite creation in order to be sensitive to man’s needs and weaknesses. This is considered an enhancement to the Torah and a boost to Divine revelation in the world by incorporating the Torah into the world instead of it being kept in its lofty, removed origin. Obviously there need to be the understanding that the Rabbis were divinely (subconsciously) inspired too.

    Even though R. Eliezer was right as proved by the Bas Kol – the Halacha need to be intellectually determined – rationally using Talmudic logic – and goes by the majority.

    EACH TO HIS OWN.

  • Chaim says:

    As a side note;

    Bereishis Rabba 8:8: Whoever wishes to err, let him err..

    The Torah both written and Oral can be appear to be undetermined by the vast array of Rabbinic disputes. G-d did not omit potentially confusing passages because they may be misleading because ultimately the individual “wishes to err”.

    i.e. the person has a vested interest in confirming a polytheistic or atheistic position and therefore allows himself wittingly or unwittingly to be troubled by disputes in the Torah.

    If a person is sincere and does not seek a pretense for an easier life (he does not WISH to err) then he will never be misled by the Torah since something that is 100% truth can not by definition, mislead.

    Since coming to Galus, I have realized that I know very little and that the Torah is very broad. Judaism has changed vastly over the millenia and we have no concept of what it was even like during or prior to the first Temple. I can not say someone is wrong or that I am right. I choose a derech that I decide it right for me. Each to his own. It is all based on faith in something – G-d, Rabbis or your own intellect. But have sincerity.

  • Algernon Misanthrope says:

    So, just to be certain I understand this correctly, Rabbi Skinner’s cat walks into an oven, and the purity of said cat within the oven is determined on whether or not the Rabbis declare it so? Will the cat die if the Rabbis declare it impure and do we believe that purity is expressed as a wave particle?

    But on a more serious note and weighing on on the troubled waters of the Mr Holloway and Inabsentia debate, surely Inabsentia, one can not dismiss an article on the grounds of its tone, rather than the content expressed regardless of tone? That aside, you do realise that ‘bombastic’ is a term I feel is quite fitting to your response to Mr Holloway’s piece.

    Did it touch a nerve perchance?

    Either way, as being ‘bombastic’ is now grounds for dismissing an argument would you like us to ignore your response or shall we attempt this again in a more civil tone?

  • Chaim – what a marvellous comment! Anything that encourages you to learn more is excellent indeed, and a hearty kudos then to Galus Australis. So far as feeling as though you know very little: I hear you loud and clear. We are both of us most certainly in that same boat, and I doubt that we are rowing in such different directions.

  • JediKnight says:

    For millenia the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice throughout the galaxy.

    The Jedi Knights drew their strength from the Force, an energy field that surrouds and penetrates all living things.

    The path to becoming a Jedi was fraught with danger, as the temptations of the Dark Side of the Force lurked at every corner.

    So to minimise the temptations of the Dark Side, the order established the Jedi Code, a rigorous set of laws and principles to determine the way both an individual Jedi and the Order as a whole should behave.

    However, the Code is not the same as the Force itself. The Force is a Super-Conscious entity thut fundamentally directs everything in the Galaxy, from the vibrations of electrons to the movements of history. The Code is a guideline for humans attempting to communicate with this Consciousness.

    Eventually, the prescriptions of the Code came into onflict with the Force itself, with disastrous consequences for the Jedi Order.

    A Jedi Master by the name of Qui Gon Jinn lived by a philosophy of following the Living Force. A Jedi, through his connection to the Force could feel the Force´s will. He would follow the impulses and urges of this Will, even if it came into conflict with the Ancient Jedi Code. For him the Will of the Force was the ultimate arbiter of reality, the Code merely a guideline to aid a Jedi on the path to understanding the Force.

    Qui-Gon Jinnn´s attitude set him at odds with the Jedi Coucil, the Order´s ruling body. Yet Qui Gon´s path had never led him to the Dark Side, and his power and wisdom were exceptional, so the Jedi Council tolerated him and allowed him to remain part of the Order.

    Thousands of years before Qui Gon Jinn had been born, the Jedi Knights received a prophecy. It foretold of the coming of The Chosen One, a messianic figure for the Jedi Order who would “bring balance to the force”. The Jedi Order, through the Code, had strict rules on the interpretation of this prophecy, what it meant and what “bringing balance to the force” meant as well.

    On one of Qui Gon´s journeys he encountered a young boy named Anakin Skywalker. The boy was unusually strong with the Force and displayed other charcteristics that made him a strong candidate to be the Chosen One of the ancient prophecy. Qui Gon´s intuition told him that finding this particular boy, at this particular point in the Galaxy´s history was no mere coincidence, that it was part of the Galaxy´s destiny that the Force was guiding. He knew, in the core of his being, that Anakin Skywalker was the Chosen One. It was the Will of the Force.

    So he brought the boy to the Jedi Council. And there a debate ensued. Qui Gon Jinn held that the boy was the Chosen One, becasue he clearly felt the will of the Force determine it as such. The elders of the Jedi Council however, still interpreted the prophecy using the code, and thus according to them, the boy´s candidacy as the Chosen One was inconclusive.

    The Will of the Force is a real, objective reality. It is not bound by the Code, or by the minds of the Jedi. The boy either was the Chosen One or he was not. The status of being the Chosen One is not something that can be legislated by the Jedi Council, anymore than they can legislate the sky not be blue (on some worlds anyway).

    Yet the Council, as they had always done, determined the law in the favour of the majority, overruling the opinion of the one, Qui Gon Jinn, the one who was able to perceive the will of the Living Force.

    The consequences of this debate had far reaching ramifications for the galaxy. Anakin Skywalker was indeed the Chosen One, he did, eventually, bring balance to the Force, however, it was through a long, twisting and torurous path that involved war, terror and the complete destruction of the Jedi Order by his own hand.

    Had the Council accepted that Qui Gon was right, that he was in tune with the will of the Living Force, as opposed to being governed by the strictures of the Jedi code, then they would have allowed him to train young Anakin, and Anakin would have been trained by the master most appropriate for him and his nature.

    Instead Anakin was trained by the inexperienced Obi Wan Kenobi, a master-disciple relationship that was instrumental in turning Anakin to the Dark Side of the Force. The Jedi COuncil´s hostility and ambivalence to Anakin ensured that he would eventually come to destroy them.

    Despite being the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, and despite being the “children of the Force”, it was the will of the Force that the Jedi be destroyed. Millenia of following the code had made the Jedi stale and arrogant, their order becmae the tool of politicians and defending peace and justice became executing missions on behalf of the Galactic Senate, not “freeing slaves”, the highest and supreme moral task.

    It was the Will of the Force that the Chosen One help to destroy this stale and tired Order, one who´s inertia was witholding the Galaxy from further evolution. It was also the Will of the Force that those Jedi who followed the Code would be too blind to see the reality before it overtook them completely.

    This is the danger of following a philosophy that places the legislative powers of man higher than objective reality.

  • ariel says:

    JediKnight:

    Judging by the timestamp on your comment, I’ll assume you wrote this towards the end of an all-night Star Wars marathon…

    Nonetheless, your analysis is quite intriguing. However there are a a couple of questions which remain:

    a) If the council had allowed Qui-Gon to train Anakin, would he still not have been killed by Darth Maul, thus passing on the role of teacher to Obi Wan? Or would Anakin have been enrolled in one of the main courses for jedi under the full auspices of the coucil?

    b) It is reasonable to assume that if Qui-Gon was so in tune with the Force that he “knew” Anakin was the chosen one, then kal va’chomer Master Yoda would have known this too upon meeting the boy. In fact we know that Yoda tapped into the Force and it was revealed to him that “clouded his future is” and later he says to Obi Wan, “The chosen one, the boy may be. Nevertheless, grave danger I fear in training him”.
    Did Yoda then understand that the coming of the chosen one would bring balance only through such a wave of destruction, which he felt the galaxy could not tolerate?
    Or was he, as you suggest, so blinded by the code that he refused to allow him to be trained properly?

  • JediKnight says:

    Good points.

    1. No, the Will of the Force was for Anakin to be trained by Obi Wan and for him to turn to the Dark Side etc etc. So too, it was the Ratzon Hashem that Rabbanan win the debate over the Tanur Shel Achnai. This does not mean that either Qui Gon or R´ Eliezer was wrong.

    2. I disagree with your kal v´chomer. Qui Gon was specifically in touch with an aspect of the Force known as the Living Force. Yoda was not as strong in the same aspect.

    Indeed Yoda and the rest of the Council were blinded, not only to the fate of Anakin, but indeed to everything. It is only in the dying moments of the Clone Wars that they realise that there may be a plot to destory the Jedi. It is their blindness to many things that is the seed of their destruction.

  • frosh says:

    JediKnight is, at minimum, accurate about that last point…

    Yoda: Blind we are, if the creation of this clone army we could not see.
    Mace Windu: I think it is time to inform the Senate that our ability to use the Force has diminished.
    Yoda: Only the Dark Lords of the Sith know of our weakness. If informed, the Senate is, multiply, our adversaries will.

    Oh dear, if commenters are talking about Star Wars and even including quotes, this can only mean one thing:
    Galus is in grave danger of turning into yet another Star Wars internet discussion site… I think I’d prefer to be frozen in carbonite :-)

  • Simon,

    You assume that “rabbinic literature” is an invention of the Rabbis, as is their translation/interpretation of biblical verses, where it differs from your own (or one that makes more sense to you). An alternate view is that their interpretations are “tradition” that is fully a part of the Oral Torah given to Moshe. Faith derives not from the Bible (i.e. 5 books), but from the Torah, which includes both the written and oral.

    In that case, your entire premise that there is a fundamental difference between exegesis and eisegesis falls away. The only difference is the degree of documentation each one has.

  • Jedi & related comments,

    The difference here is between process and outcome. The system of halachic authority and its associated processes are what is sacrosanct. No-one has the right to jump straight to the conclusion, even if they know they are correct. Following the correct process will by definition lead to the correct result.

    BTW, I love the Star Wars analogy. Great thought experiment to substitute in, say, Rabbi Akiva & Bar Kochba.

    Looking for a English-Yoda translator I have been, but found one, sadly I have not.

  • Well, of course rabbinic literature is an invention of the rabbis, to the same degree as the Shulchan Arukh is an “invention” of Joseph Karo. To deny that their composition was based on longstanding traditions would be silly, but it would be equally silly to ignore the compositional role that they, as human beings, played. Even allowing for the existence of traditions on which their writings are based (and whether they go back to Moses or elsewhere is not important in terms of this particular issue), the difference between exegesis and eisegesis still comes into effect. To frame that in terminology that you might prefer: Exegesis is deriving explicit information from the Written Torah; Eisegesis is deriving explicit information from the Oral Torah, but then pinning that to a passage (taken out of its literal context) in the Written Torah.

  • Simon,

    Now you’ve sent me scurrying off to Wikipedia for a definition of eisegesis. The difference between it and exegesis is that the former (a) misinterprets the text, and (b) introduces one’s own ideas. Even with your reframing, the Oral Torah is not anyone’s own ideas.

  • I was going to ask you to pardon my language, but instead I’ll simply not swear. “Forget” Wikipedia :)

    Eisegesis does not have to have anything to do with misinterpretation: it is merely the process of reading ideas from one source (be that source your own head, an external text, or even an external body of tradition) into another. If you wish to take a strictly literalistic reading of the Tanakh (and this has a value of its own as well), then some of the rabbinic methods of eisegesis are deliberate misreadings. They impose rabbinic Hebrew translations (for example, עולם = “world”, rather than “eternity”; מקום = “God”, rather than “place”; etc) onto Biblical words, found in passages that are then taken from their immediate context. That’s only one type of eisegetical method, and it’s not one that is at play in the passage that I’ve referred to above.

  • Ah yes – you academics don’t like Wiki. Is a dictionary a more reputable source? I found several dictionary sources that all included the common notion of “one’s own ideas”, rather than more generically going from one source to another. The misinterpretation aspect is not material to my comment.

    Because the Oral Torah isn’t anyone’s “own ideas”, the process of finding an asmachta isn’t eisegesis.

  • Well, that’s food for thought! The word literally means “leading into [the text]” (as opposed to exegesis), and I’m used to using it (and hearing it used) with greater flexibility than these definitions are allowing. Whether the word has garnered a broader nuance in Biblical studies over recent years is something that would have to be investigated (and fairly easily, if anybody here has access to the OED?), but my clarification remains the same: I am not suggesting that the authors of the rabbinic literature necessarily pulled these interpretations off the top of their heads.

    I am by no means a rabbinic scholar, so the following is my opinion only. I will certainly disagree with any suggestion that traditions in the Talmud date back to Moses and, while that might seem like a minor point when you consider that I do allow for several generations, I only allow for several generations in traditions of halakha. When we come to textual readings of the Bible (specifically those that are used in order to make a homiletic, political or polemical point), I wouldn’t even grace them with that. I see no harm in suggesting that they originated with their authors or their author’s teachers, and don’t feel as though that cheapens them in any way.

    Furthermore, I cannot help but feel that you are advocating a broader conception of “Oral Law” than is found explicitly within the early rabbinic literature. Excepting general statements that suggest that anything said by a diligent student (תלמיד ותיק) was given to Moses at Sinai, what is there to state emphatically that the entire commentary on the Mishna derives from the same source as the Mishna itself? Bearing in mind, please, that we are referring to the whole Talmud as a commentary on the Mishna here, and not just those sections that explicitly comment upon it.

  • rachsd says:

    Direct quote from the OED online:

    The interpretation of a word or passage (of the Scriptures) by reading into it one’s own ideas. Hence eisegetical a.
    1878 P. SCHAFF Through Bible Lands I. v. 53 The eisegetical manner of those allegorical and typological exegetes who make the Scriptures responsible for their own pious thoughts and fancies. 1892 N.Y. Evangelist 3 Mar. 4/4 (Funk), Dr. Elliot..held firmly to the doctrine that exegesis, and not ‘eisegesis’, is the province of the student of the Scriptures. 1924 H. E. FOSDICK Mod. Use Bible iii. 87 The reformers..could use eisegesis instead of exegesis on many a passage which they thought they were literally interpreting. 1958 Times Lit. Suppl. 3 Jan. 10/1 Fully aware of the perils of eisegesis, Dr. Grant pronounces quite firmly against any such reverence for philosophy or theology as would empty history of meaning.

  • I stand corrected. Thanks, Rach – and David! I feel, then, that there should be a correlative word that refers to the “reading into” the text that I spoke about, but now don’t know what that word is. I’d rather find a new word than adapt my opinion of the rabbis to suit this one :)

  • Chaim says:

    I think it is important to understand what was given on Har Sinai and what was not. For sure not every word in the Talmud was and what about gezeiros and takanos which were only enacted during Bayit Sheni. We have to say that the Rabbis had Ruach Hakodesh in order to tap into the truth when deciding things. This is also why the Rabbis up to the Rishonim can not be disputed.

    The Halacha learned from “the Torah is not in heaven” is that we do not decide Halacha according to prophecy. I can not find it discussed anywhere else. In Terumah 15 and the midrash it talks about after Moshe died 3000 halachas were forgotten. The Jews wanted Joshua to divine them and he refused because the Torah was only given once by revelation and they would need to learn them again from the text, not from Prophecy. R. Eliezer knew this and there are interesting sichas on this.

    What is interesting here is that it is leared from aggadah / story but no one here disagrees with the source (the actual halacha is a given) which seems to me that it was an undisputed learning from a long time back – Har Sinai?

2 Pingbacks »

Leave a comment!

You must be logged in to post a comment.