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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

On prooftexting and Humpty Dumpty / Sanhedrin 92a

A man has had a successful business for decades. It is now going down the drain. Despondent, he seeks his rabbi’s advice, thinking that if he cannot find help, he will commit suicide.

The rabbi listens to the man’s tale of woe and offers this advice: “The Torah contains the answers to everything in life, including your problem. Take a chumash and beach chair and drive to the beach. Sit at the water’s edge, open the chumash, and let the wind blow it open. When the chumash stays open on a certain page, you will find your answer there.”

The man does precisely as his rabbi instructed. Three months later, he returns with his wife to the rabbi. He is wearing a $1500 Italian hand-tailored suit; his wife is wearing a beautiful silk dress and expensive jewelry. The man hands the rabbi a generous check and says, “Rabbi, your advice worked wonderfully. I want to donate this money to the synagogue.”

“Which words in the Torah brought this good fortune?” the rabbi asks.

The man replies, “Chapter 11.”

Prooftexting has a bad name among academics, and from an academic perspective deservedly so. The isolated use of biblical verses to prove the “truth” of a religious claim is hardly new. It is the S.O.P. of the Talmud. Often verses are decontextualized, which is a neutral, academic term meaning: wrenched out of context, original intent is ignored, they are made to mean something entirely different. When Alice objects to Humpty Dumpty’s definition of “glory” as “a nice knock-down argument,” Humpty Dumpty replies, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.” Substitute “verse” for “word” and you get the picture.
Chapter ten of Sanhedrin is a magnificent compendium of prooftexts to argue that resurrection of the dead derives from Torah.

In the section that follows, biblical verses are used slightly differently, but essentially this is a form of prooftexting. R. Elazar will argue that when a term is sandwiched between two divine names, that proves it is of special significance. This short passage is a tight unit by itself, and a lovely homily, as well.
R. Elazar said: Dei’ah is great because it was mentioned between two divine names, as it says, For the Lord is an all-knowing God (I Samuel 2:3).

R. Elazar said: The Temple (mikdash) is great because it was mentioned between two divine names, as it says, [in the place] that You made, Lord; in the sanctuary [mikdash] that your hands established (Exodus 15:17).

Rav Adda Karchina’ah objected: But now vengeance is great, for it is mentioned between two divine names, as it says, God to whom vengeance belongs; God to whom vengeance belongs shine forth (Psalms 94:1)

[R. Elazar] said to [Rav Adda Karchina’ah]: Because it is an important matter, it is as Ulla said: Why are there these two appearances [of the term “vengeance”, not one appearance as with dei’ah and mikdash]? One for a measure of good, and one for a measure of punishment.

R. Elazar said: Any person who possesses dei’ah, it is as if the Temple were built in his days because this [dei’ah] was mentioned between two divine names, and this [mikdash] was mentioned between two divine names.
The term Dei’ah, which I left in transliteration, means “knowledge” or “insight” or “wisdom.” That’s a lot of meaning for one word to hold. These are the facets of Talmud Torah, the Rabbis' enterprise.

R. Elazar’s methodology is simple: where a term is found in a verse with a name of God before it and after it, that signifies that it is extremely important and valuable. Dei’ah (knowledge, insight, wisdom, all the facets of Torah study) and Mikdash (either the sanctuary in the wilderness of later the Temple in Jerusalem, where God was served through sacrifices) fit the bill.

This simple structure -- a term sandwiched between two names of God -- opens the door to a raft of pasuk hunting. What other verses possess that characteristic? To what else then is Scripture ascribing greatness? Rav Adda Karchina’ah brings us an example that would seem to imply that “vengeance” must be a great thing according to R. Elazar’s methodology. R. Elazar has no trouble dismissing it because he finds the term “vengeance” twice in the verse and can interpret it to mean both the good kind of vengeance (presumably my vengeance against another?) and the bad kind of vengeance (presumably another vengeance against me?). To our minds, yet another scriptural slight of hand. To R. Elazar, completely legitimate.

R. Elazar now employs yet another rabbinic interpretative trick, a gezeira shava: since both Dei’ah and Mikdash share this distinction, they must be connected. The connection he draws for us is beautiful: one who possesses Dei’ah (understood here as Talmud Torah -- Torah knowledge and wisdom), it as if through his studies he has effectively built a Temple in his own day. Where once the Jewish People served God though sacrifices offered on an altar in the prescribed precinct of the Mikdash, now they serve God through Talmud Torah, the study of Torah. The “program of the rabbis” is furthered by this claim: it’s now all about Torah study.

We read in Pirke Avot (1:2), Shimon ha-Tzddik taught: Al shelosha devarim… The world depends upon three things: Torah [study], Avodah [worship, service], and Gemilut chasadim [deeds of loving kindness]. If we take a closer look, Torah is named first. It is the center post holding up the roof. Avodah has now been defined by R. Elazar as Torah study, Gemilut chasadim is the outgrowth of Torah study. In sum: The world is sustained by Talmud Torah, which serves God and humanity.

There is much truth to that. Torah tells us that the Jewish People came into existence to share our portion of God’s wisdom with the world. This is neither an exclusive claim to wisdom, nor a mandate to convert others. But it does define the Jewish mission: to share the wisdom of Torah with those seeking wisdom.

How well are we succeeding? If I were to be at all honest, I would have to see that we are doing a mediocre job at best. And that’s a generous evaluation. In our day we spend out time in internecine battles over legal trivialities, many centered on kashrut, which are a thin veneer for authority and turf battles. Or we argue about whose interpretation of Judaism is more valid. So unbecoming and such a tragic waste of human time and energy.

Our texts and the way we study them offer priceless riches for exploring the universal questions of humanity: What does it mean to be human? Does my life have purpose? How should we respond to evil? How can I fulfill my potential? How should I raise my children? How should I treat others? What are the attributes of a righteous community? How do we build one? How should community leaders behave? What are our obligations to the poor and homeless? How do we best take care of the sick and suffering? How should we deal with people who are different from us? How do we work our way to peace? Torah is not a textbook for looking up answers -- it is a way to work through the questions to find one’s own answers.

It seems to me that R. Elazar got it right after all.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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