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November 27, 2014 / 5 Kislev, 5775
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Creative License When Interpreting the Bible

jacob and joseph

One of the more original Orthodox Jewish thinkers is Rabbi David Fohrman. On his excellent website, Rabbi Fohrman teaches his brand of inspiring, intellectual Torah. Every week, Rabbi Fohrman teaches a parsha class with animations. The Torah classes are clever and original ideas that are very often based on Midrashic interpretations and careful reading of the text of the Chumash. In a way, I find his approach similar in form to Rabbi Matis Weinberg in Frameworks, which I love. (I did a review of Rabbi Forhman’s book on Purim. It follows the same format.)

Here is Rabbi Forhman on Vayechi.

His basic idea is great. Joseph believes he is a dispossessed son. Pharaoh becomes like a father figure to him. Jacob is never sure that Joseph really considers him to be his true father until a key moment on his death bed. This explains the Midrash that says that the descendants of Canaan and Ishmael, two more dispossessed sons came to wage war with Jacob’s sons as they traveled to Canaan to bury Jacob but stopped when they saw “one of their own”, Joseph honoring Jacob.

Nice idea. He does a better job explaining it and fitting it all together than I do. It’s worth watching.

In response to this video, Rabbi Forhman received the following note:

“Rabbi Fohrman’s Parsah thoughts are brilliant & insightful. I just wonder are there any sources for his theories and if yes why do you not quote them?

Thank you so much…”

This inquiry touched on such a fundamental point that Rabbi Fohrman wrote a blog post to respond to this question. I think the response was at least as brilliant as the Dvar Torah on Vayechi and illuminates a very important principle in desperate need of clarification.

Here is my summary and explanation of his response:

There is a tradition that later authorities cannot contradict earlier authorities in the study of Talmud. Some people attribute this to a spiritual divide between generations. This idea appears to be in the spirit of “if we are humans they are angels and if they are humans we are donkeys”. However this conflates two separate things. The real reason later authorities do not contradict earlier authorities has little to do with spiritual prowess and everything to do with legal precedent. Talmud study is a study of law and law relies on precedent. It’s possible to overturn precedent. But great deference is given to previously held legal rulings and for good reason. It’s just more practical that way. Imagine if every generation of Jews rejected the ideas of the previous generation. Judaism would be unrecognizable in 5 minutes. So with regard to halachic matters, precedent matters.

However, when we are dealing in non-legal matters, we are no longer concerned with precedent. It is in this arena that we are given much greater creative license. In non-halachic matters we are not concerned with authority. We learn the text, we learn some commentaries, and we use our intellect and personality to decipher the text and commentaries. This is all fair game. This where Rabbi Fohrman operates.

Further, this is really just interpretation of a text. As long as it makes sense in the words it can be said that it is what the words are saying. So while the creative interpretation may have been expressed by the one reading the text, in essence the idea is really found in the text. It’s not relevant whether this was the intent of the Author. What matters is that this is what the words say to a particular reader and the interpretation can be reconciled with the rest of the text.

Finally, Rabbi Forhman recommends Learning to Read Midrash. I have not read this book, but under his recommendation, I will endeavor to add this to my reading list.

This is all quite significant. There is an ongoing debate about whether there is “psak” with regard to Hashkafa. Can we state that certain ideas or philosophies that are not prohibited by Jewish law are effectively out of bounds because certain rabbis rejected those ideas? Using the reasoning proposed by Rabbi Fohrman I think we can say that there is no psak in hashkafa. I think we can also say that there is no real reason to establish specific interpretations on Chumash as the “right” interpretations or give special privileges to popular interpretations or commentaries.

We are supposed to read the text and learn it. It’s not enough to review the same familiar commentaries. The idea is to challenge ourselves to find the interpretations that make sense to us and sometimes those might even be original ideas.

One final thought. I think we do a great service to Torah Judaism if we expand the limits of acceptable interpretations on Chumash. The more ideas we allow, the more flavors and varieties of thinking will flourish. This is a good thing. A more narrow view of what is acceptable in terms of non-halachic matters can have negative consequences. It would be wise to seek to avoid those consequences. I support Rabbi Forhman’s approach. I think it’s a good thing. More importantly, I think it’s the right thing.

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About the Author: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D. is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at finkorswim.com. Connect with Rabbi Fink on Facebook and Twitter.


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