Interpreting the Law in Judaism

Yesterday was the first part of a two-part Mid-Day Dialogue on Faith on the subject of Interpreting Scripture and Ascertaining Religious Law. Our speaker yesterday was my friend Rabbi Norman M. Cohen, the senior rabbi at Bet Shalom congregation in Minnetonka, who I have mentioned in several previous posts.

Rabbi Cohen began by talking about our need for law. In Jewish thought, because there is and always will be a tension between the good inclination and the evil inclination – an ongoing battle for the human will – we need to pay attention to and follow the teachings of our tradition as they can be found in the evolving system of law. He then talked about how the evolving development of Jewish law.

There was so much packed into Rabbi Cohen’s talk, but let me highlight only two thoughts. First, is the misconception that Judaism is the religion of the Old Testament and Christianity the religion of the New Testament. That phrasing, he suggested, runs the risk of a philosophy of triumphalism which suggests that “Christianity’s beginning marked the end of Judaism,” as though Judaism is “the roots, the purpose of which is only to provide sustenance for the tree that grows above it.”

Instead, he suggested, the better image is that or “roots nourish[ing] more than one tree growing out of that fertile ground, Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity…both of which developed in the centuries following the Roman’s destruction of the ancient Temple.”

The second has to do with interpretation of the Bible. Judaism is a dynamic religious system. Rabbi Cohen talked about the ancient rabbis who adopted a creative approach to Biblical understanding and interpretation. “They insisted that every text, every sentence, every word, and eery letter has various potential levels of meaning, all of which are valuable and precious, but none of which should have claim to be the sole explanation.”

This has the obvious implication that a literal reading of the Bible can never yield full truth and also provides a response to those who poke fun of Bible stories that can’t possibly be literally true to modern minds. Giving the example of Gulliver’s Travels, in which we easily see both a fanciful children’s story and a story with deeper levels of sophistication and meaning, Rabbi Cohen suggested that to “summarily dismiss certain Biblical stories, ideas or concepts indicates only our inability to appreciate the many layers of meaning intended by Biblical redactors.” I think he is quite correct in saying that we “often grant them less respect than we do Jonathan Swift. And it is we who are the poorer for our missing the opportunity to see beyond the superficial meaning of the text.”

At the second session of this program, which will be on March 28, Rabbi Cohen will return for a dialogue on the issue of how we read the Bible and ascertain religious law that will include me and my colleagues, Mark Osler Fr. Dan Griffith. (UST Friends: feel free to join us even if you missed yesterday’s gathering; just let Bethany Fletcher know you will be there, since lunch will be served.)

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