June 12, 2024
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Jewish biblical exegesis operates on multiple levels. Rashi, who nearly a millennium later remains the most influential exegete, employed two methods of interpretation: Peshat, which is concerned with the plain sense of Scripture, and derash, which adds narrative or normative content to the written Torah from the midrashim of the Sages. Both approaches seek the “true” meaning of the text. But while peshat takes the Torah’s words at face value, reading them in context and in a straightforward manner, derash amplifies the text and can offer greater depth of meaning, especially when Scripture, as written, is ambiguous or lacks detail.

Beyond peshat and derash exegesis, there is also an ancient Jewish tradition of esoteric or mystical interpretation. Such an approach to Scripture looks beneath the surface of the text—even deeper than derash—for hidden meanings related to the nature of God and the metaphysical world. Ramban, for example, may explain a passage on three different levels, using peshat, derash, and kabbalah.

Just as there are multiple ways to read the Bible, both literal and nonliteral, there are a variety of approaches to comprehending the nature of the universe and the nature of man. While ancient man was awed by seemingly supernatural forces surrounding him, modern science sees a world governed by physical laws and mathematical formulas. Scientists “read” nature with an eye toward the peshat, taking the world literally and without embellishment; Galileo famously stated that the “Book of Nature” —the universe—is written in mathematics. With respect to man’s inner world, some neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists view the mind as the sum of the brain’s electrochemical activity; they know nothing of the soul. The very origin of the human mind, in their view, may have been an evolutionary fluke, if an extraordinary one.

Since the Scientific Revolution, we have acquired a firm grasp on the Book of Nature’s peshat. The universe follows predictable rules that are better understood with each passing year. But modern religious people also read nature’s text at the level of derash; some may even find mystical meaning between the lines of physical law.

This is not to say that scientists cannot see beyond the peshat of the universe. Perhaps even more than non-scientists, they can appreciate the mystery within nature. Albert Einstein, no stranger to cosmic mathematics and certainly not religious in a theistic sense, spoke of his own profound sense of the mysterious beauty and sublimity behind the world we perceive and, as a result of this experience, considered himself a religious man. As much as it has already revealed about the physical universe, modern cosmology continues to evince further mystery. Mystery is the derash behind nature’s peshat.

But we should not confuse mystery with magic (even mysticism does not imply a magical worldview). Man marvels with wonder at the world’s mysteries, and this experience may cause him to fear and love God. But modern man no longer has any use for magic, practiced by primitive people to exercise control over the gods and nature. In fact, magical thinking and practice is an affront to modern man’s dignity—his divine image—represented by the intellectual and technological progress he has achieved in the last few centuries.

In our own religious community, we have witnessed an unfortunate resurgence of magic and superstition, often masquerading as religion and cynically preying on the desperate. Miracle workers, astrologers, faith healers, and purveyors of blessings (for a small donation, they will magically provide a shidduch), have become an increasingly familiar presence in our religious institutions. “Torah Codes” —such as generating the names of historical figures from equidistant letter sequences—continue to be promoted, as if the text of the Torah were a word search puzzle or a Ouija Board (those with genuine interest in word magic can purchase the Milton Bradley version). While such efforts may come from a desire to bolster faith in our skeptical age, especially among young people, they are misguided and will ultimately undermine their advocates.

The Torah consists of peshat, derash and, for some, hidden mystical meaning, but it is not a magical text; God has much better ways to impress us. And while the universe remains a source of ever increasing mystery, humanity has grown up to realize that the world is not magic. The Book of Nature is written in a different language.

By David S. Zinberg

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