23 October 2009

On the Rabbinic Concept of Exegesis: A Quote from Faur

A somewhat interesting rabbinic statement that is not easy of which to make heads or tails is found on page 5a in the Babylonian Talmud in the tractate of Berakhot:
א"ר לוי בר חמא אמר ר' שמעון בן לקיש מאי דכתיב (שמות כד) ואתנה לך את לוחות האבן והתורה והמצוה אשר כתבתי להורותם לוחות אלו עשרת הדברות תורה זה מקרא והמצוה זו משנה אשר כתבתי אלו נביאים וכתובים להורותם זה <גמרא> {תלמוד} מלמד שכולם נתנו למשה מסיני
Rabbi Levi, son of Hama said Rabbi Simeon, son of Lakish: "What is it that is written And I will give you the tablets of stone and the direction and the commandment which I have written to guide them? 'tablets' - these are the ten statements; 'direction' - this is Scripture; 'and the commandment' - this is Mishnah; 'which I have written' - these are the Prophetic writings and Hagiographa; 'to guide them' - this is Talmudic learning; to teach that all of these were given to Moses from Sinai."
As mentioned earlier this week, I have discovered the treasure trove of articles written by José Faur online and one such article that I read was his "Law and Hermeneutics in Rabbinic Jurisprudence: A Maimonidean Perspective," Cardozo Law Review 14 (1993): 1657-1679, which included the following explanation of the above rabbinic quotation (p1658):
The idea of writing as creation reflects the rabbinic concept of exegesis. It generates rather than discovers, meaning. Commenting on the verse, "and I shall give you the tablets of stone, and the law and the commandment which I wrote to instruct them," the rabbis taught as follows: "'the tablets of stone' - this is the Miqra [(Scripture)]; 'the law' - this is the Mishnah." If the text is like stone, then exegesis is the "a blow of a hammer," giving forth various sparks. Like the stone, the text itself remains inviolable and absolute, whereas the explanations and commentaries flee like sparks. In explaining the polysemic character of the Scripture, the rabbis stated, "Just as each blow of a hammer strikes forth many sparks, a single verse unfolds into many senses." Exegesis serves to reinforce and supplement the oral tradition; it can never be the explanation of a text. In contemporary terms, this means that the rabbis viewed the text as a semiological composition whose unit, the word, is a sign which is not subject to definition; it is either recognized or not. As Émile Benveniste shows, "[i]n semiology there is no need to define what a sign signifies. For a sign to exist, it is necessary and sufficient that it should be received and that it should be related somehow to other signs." At the semiological level, whether or not a sign signifies is a matter of recognition, not interpretation. "Does the entity in question signify?" The answer must be an unequivocal yes or no. "If it is yes, everything was said, and it is registered; if it is no, it is rejected, and also everything was said." Exegesis pertains to the semantic aspect of the word, where meaning is generated by establishing new connections.
This is in contrast to the general way of seeing it (pp1657-1658):
Rabbinic texts are ordinarily examined through hierarchical distinctions and categories peculiar to Western classical studies. The basic assumption underlying this methodology is that the rabbinic truth is essentially platonic. As such the purpose of rabbinic exegesis is to "uncover" the text and reveal its "true meaning." This method reflects the scholastic view that the "literal sense" of the Scripture is what the author intended. Once the "intention" of the author has been determined, the text itself becomes insignificant - a "metaphor" marginal to its "true meaning." The object of interpretation thus becomes displacement of the text. This view is intrinsic to Western tradition, in general, and Christianity, in particular, where writing is displaced on behalf of logocentrism. The classic example of this type of hermeneutics is the Christian Scripture interpreting, and thereby displacing, the Hebrew Scripture. It is worth noting that John's logos (word) is "unwritable," and therefore anti-book and anti-text. By way of contrast, the logos of Philo and the memra (word) of the rabbis do not exclude writing; writing is creation itself.
I find the above to pretty interesting when considering rabbinic statements and their generation.
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דבי ר' ישמעאל תנא (ירמיהו כג) וכפטיש יפוצץ סלע מה פטיש זה מתחלק לכמה ניצוצות אף מקרא אחד יוצא לכמה טעמים

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