Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32, 1 – 32, 52) – the interpretation of the Bible in the Jewish tradition

The Torah reading of Ha’azinu contains an extended poem (Deuteronomy 32, 1-43), which is termed by the Bible as a song (Deuteronomy 31, 19), and Moses according to the Biblical account is commanded by God to write down the song – “Now therefore write this song for you (“you” here is in the plural), and teach the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel”. According to the Biblical account Moses writes down the song, teaching it to the children of Israel (Deuteronomy 31, 22) and the song was spoken before the children of Israel in an assembly (Deuteronomy 31, 30). According to the Jewish tradition, the song is known as the song of Moses or as the song Ha’azinu after the first word of the song, Ha’azinu, which means “listen” – “Listen, you heavens, and I will speak, and let the earth hear the words of my mouth” (Deuteronomy 32, 1). The song has the literary form of a poem as it is written in the form of two parallel columns.

 

There is a remarkable Talmudic source (Nedarim 38a) according to which the Biblical verse (Deuteronomy 31, 19) referring to the poem Ha’azinu as a song is referring to the entire Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) – and is not referring specifically to the song of Moses of the Torah reading of Ha’azinu. That is, the Talmud in this source understands that the entire Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) is a poem or song – even though clearly the 5 Books of Moses are in the main written in the literary form of prose, except for some poetic material including several extended poems. Two extended poems of the 5 Books of Moses, which are referred to as songs, the song of the sea (Exodus 15, 1-19) and the song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32, 1-43), are clearly written in the literary form of a poem (in columns). This is shocking and demands explanation – how can the Talmud consider the entire Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) to be a poem or song?

 

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (the Netziv), a great Biblical commentator who lived in the 19th century, addresses this question (Ha’amek Davar, Introduction to Genesis):

 

In the Talmud (Nedarim 38a) it is explicitly stated that the term “song” in the verse (Deuteronomy 31, 19) “write this song for you” means the whole of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses). But surely the whole of the Torah was not written in poetic form! We must therefore conclude that it possesses the nature and essential character of poetry. Everyone knows that there is a distinction between poetry and prose. In poetry, the subject matter is not plainly set forth as in prose. Additional explanations are necessary in order to indicate the allusions condensed into each expression. It is still, however, not considered to be midrash (a homiletic explanation beyond the plain meaning), but this is the nature of poetry, even of that composed by the unlettered. It is obvious too that one who is aware of the background of the allusions and figurative expressions of poetry can better appreciate its character than the person who has only an external apprehension of the immediate literal meaning of the words, which may lead one to misunderstanding the poet’s intention. Such is the nature of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses). Its story is not elaborated on and plainly explained, but it requires additional explanations in order to appreciate its allusions. This is not midrash (a homiletic explanation beyond the plain meaning), but this is the plain meaning of Scripture.

 

Rabbi Berlin here uses two central Talmudic concepts of the plain meaning of Scripture and midrash (a unique Talmudic methodology in which texts are elaborated upon beyond their plain meaning) – and, I want to begin by explaining the meaning of these concepts in order to understand the argument that Rabbi Berlin is making here. The two concepts represent the main methodology of the Talmudic rabbis in interpreting the Hebrew Bible, and they are actually related concepts with the relationship between them being one of mutual exclusivity – if a particular interpretation is the plain meaning of the text, then it is not midrash; and, conversely, if midrash, then it is not the plain meaning.

 

The rabbinic term for the plain meaning of a text (פשט) comes from a root in Hebrew meaning simple. However, to understand the plain meaning of a particular text is anything but simple, and is a matter of subjective interpretation and argument. The rabbinic term midrash (דרש) comes from a root that has several meanings, among them to interpret. The Talmudic rabbis were not systematic philosophers or thinkers, and they did not give formal, systematic definitions of important concepts that they used – such as these concepts of the plain meaning of a text and midrash. Thus, we cannot define these concepts in a precise way. I want to explain in a general way, though, the meaning of these two concepts in greater depth.

 

The concepts of the plain meaning of a text and midrashic interpretation as forms of Biblical commentary, can also be applied to rabbinic texts of the Jewish tradition, and even to non-Jewish literature as well. One can speak of the plain meaning of a text of Shakespeare, for example. However, originally the two methodologies were forms of Biblical commentary among the Talmudic rabbis. One way of understanding the concept of the plain meaning of a text is as the intention of the text or author. By this definition, the term midrash then means any interpretation that does not constitute the intention of the text or author. Although it sounds like a modern concept to speak of the intention of the text or author, it appears that the Talmudic rabbis were familiar with such a concept. The Babylonian Talmud often uses one of two phrases in quoting Biblical verses as supporting texts – “the verse says…” (אמר קרא), or “the Merciful One says…” (אמר רחמנא). In my opinion, these are different ways of speaking of the intention of the text (“the verse says”), or of the intention of the author (“the Merciful One says”) in that the ultimate author of the words of sacred literature for the Talmudic rabbis is God.

 

I want to tell a joke of two Yeshiva (study academy) students to illustrate the difference between the plain meaning of a text, and a midrashic interpretation. There is a custom in Yeshivot that students do not study on Friday before the Sabbath beginning Friday evening. So, these two students would go each Friday morning to a tennis court to play tennis in order to get some exercise. One Friday, they arrived at the court, and to their dismay the court was closed and locked. There was a sign on the fence:

 

Tennis court closed

No tennis today

 

The first student looked at the sign, and said to the second student: Too bad, I was really looking forward to playing today. The second student said: I don’t understand what you are talking about – why shouldn’t we play today? The first student pointed to the sign on the fence, asking: Can’t you read? He explained: It’s written in black and white that the tennis court is closed today. The second student responded: Excuse me, can’t you read? He explained that the first student was not reading the sign correctly. He then proceeded to read the first part of the sign as a question: Tennis court closed? He then continued by dividing the second part into two parts as an answer and exclamation: No, meaning that the tennis court is not closed, and tennis today – yes, he exclaimed to his friend, and suggested let’s hop the fence and play.

 

Without any question whatsoever the interpretation of the first student is the plain meaning of the sign, as the clear intention of the sign, or the author of the sign, is to prohibit entrance to the court to play. The plain meaning of a text is not a mere summary of what is written. Rather, the plain meaning is an interpretation of the intention of the text, or the intention of the author of the text – in this case that it is forbidden to enter the tennis court and play tennis today. The second student in his midrashic interpretation of the sign distorts the plain meaning, turning the sign upside down, in interpreting the sign to allow them to enter the court and play tennis – the exact opposite of the plain meaning, which prohibits their entering and playing.

 

Not always do midrashic interpretations of the Talmudic rabbis distort Biblical texts to such a degree, turning them upside down to mean the exact opposite of the plain meaning. There are, though, such midrashic interpretations that do indeed turn Biblical texts upside down. By contrast, there are also midrashic interpretations that are an elaboration of a Biblical text, which do not represent the intention of the text or author; and, yet, are very close to the spirit of the plain meaning of the text.

 

I want to clarify one other point here. The plain meaning is not necessarily the literal meaning of a text. I will give an example to illustrate. In the messianic vision of Isaiah the prophet, Isaiah says (Isaiah 11, 6) – “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the tiger shall lie down with the kid”. The literal meaning of the verse is that there will be a change in the animal kingdom from a biological point of view in which animals of prey, such as the wolf or tiger, will no longer be carnivorous and prey upon other animals, such as a lamb or kid. Such a literal understanding of the verse is a complete distortion of the plain meaning, and is possible only by uprooting the verse from its literary context. In the context of the passage, it is clear that the prophet, Isaiah, is speaking in poetic and metaphorical terms of peace, justice and equality between people (see Isaiah 11, 4) – and, his messianic vision is a moral vision. The wolf and tiger then represent the strong and rich who oppress and exploit the weak and poor, symbolized by the lamb and kid.

 

Incidentally, we might offer a midrashic interpretation of the verse from Isaiah, according to a literal understanding of the verse. We might interpret the verse to be teaching that if in the end of days (the messianic period) there will be a change in the animal kingdom, and such carnivorous animals as a wolf or tiger will become vegetarian; then, all the more so will there be a change in human nature, and human beings will also be vegetarian. Such a midrashic interpretation is clearly not the intention of the prophetic text or of the prophet. It is characteristic then of midrash (which is a reading into the text of a meaning of the reader that the text itself, or author, is not teaching) to uproot the text from its context and understand it not according to its plain meaning.

 

With this distinction in mind between the plain meaning of Scripture and midrash we can now understand the argument of Rabbi Berlin. I want to clarify that Rabbi Berlin in his argument is not presenting his own personal view in relation to the question of how the entire Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) can be considered a poem or song – rather, Rabbi Berlin in his argument is attempting to explain the intention of the Talmud in the Talmudic source (Nedarim 38a) in which the Talmud suggests that the entire 5 Books of Moses are to be considered a poem or song.

 

Rabbi Berlin, in my view, is arguing that (according to the Talmud) the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) in its entirety must be read from a literary point of view – the same way that we would read a poem. That is, we cannot read the Torah like we would read a newspaper without any literary analysis. As Rabbi Berlin makes clear, when we read prose, such as a newspaper, we are not in need of “additional explanations” – the intent of a newspaper is clear without additional explanations. However, the Torah in its entirety is a religious document and as such it must be read in its entirety (including the overwhelming majority of prose material) from a literary point of view as we would read a poem. That is, not only must the two songs of the Torah, which are written in the form of poems – the song of the sea (Exodus 15, 1-19) and the song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32, 1-43) – be read from a literary point of view as poetry, but the entire Torah that is written in the form of prose (except for some poetic material) must be read from a literary point of view as poetry. Rabbi Berlin is arguing that the entire Torah must be read from a literary point of view in order to uncover and appreciate its allusions and figurative expressions.

 

Moreover, Rabbi Berlin is arguing that in interpreting the entirety of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) as a religious document from a literary point of view as we would read a poem, this constitutes the plain meaning of Scripture and not midrash. That is, such a reading of the Torah as a religious document is not a reading into the text of ideas of the reader, which constitutes midrash – rather, such a reading, for Rabbi Berlin, is a reading out of the text ideas of the Torah itself, which constitutes the plain meaning of what Scripture is teaching.

 

This argument of Rabbi Berlin raises a fundamental problem – there is clearly prose material in the Torah (such as historical material, legal material or genealogical lists), which does not lend itself to being read as we would read poetry. However, a large part of the Torah is prose material in the form of stories that does lend itself to being read as we would read poetry – and, all of the material of the Torah (including such prose material as historical material, legal material and genealogical lists) is actually in the context of an extended narrative and story of the people Israel.

 

In my view, the intention of Rabbi Berlin is that if, according to the Talmud the entire Torah is a poem or song, then when we read even prose material of the Torah, especially the narrative material, as we would read poetry we must be faithful in our interpretations to the words of the text – and, we must read the text in a critical and careful way paying attention to repetitions, parallel words or phrases, allusions and figurative expressions. I want to suggest that when we read a text from a literary point of view, then the interpretation that we offer in order to be considered the plain meaning must fit the words of the text like clothing fits a body. If an interpretation distorts the words of a text, then this is like clothing too small that bends the body out of shape – and, if an interpretation adds something to the text that has no basis in the words of the text, then this is like clothing too big that doesn’t fit the body. In both cases of an interpretation distorting the words of a text, and of an interpretation adding something to the text that has no basis in the words, such interpretation constitutes midrash and a reading into the text of an idea of the reader.

 

I taught in a Yeshiva (study academy) for a period of several years a course on the Hebrew Bible and issues of Jewish thought. I would begin by telling students that we will study and analyze in a critical way what various Biblical texts are teaching – the very same way that we would study and analyze in a critical way what a text of Shakespeare is teaching. Invariably, a student would immediately object, and ask how I can compare the study of a text of the Bible that is Divine to the study of a text of Shakespeare that is a human work. I would respond by saying that when we read a text of Shakespeare, which we are assuming contains a great deal of wisdom that we wish to learn, we must read the text in a critical way from  a literary point of view in order to understand what the text is teaching us. Therefore, even if one makes no religious assumption and views Biblical texts as human works (like a work of Shakespeare), then we must read Biblical texts in a critical way from a literary point of view in order to understand what they are teaching us – as, in my view, Biblical texts contain no less wisdom than those of Shakespeare, and Biblical texts represent literature no less profound than the works of Shakespeare. However, if we do assume that Biblical texts represent the very word of God, I would argue that all the more so must we read the texts in a critical way from a literary point of view in order to understand what the texts are teaching us.

 

In my view, the Hebrew Bible, regardless of religious assumptions (without assuming that the Hebrew Bible is Divinely revealed or inspired), is the greatest and most influential piece of literature ever written (at least in the western world). Thus, reading the Bible from a literary point of view, enables us to uncover and appreciate the profound wisdom and greatness of the Hebrew Bible as literature regardless of religious assumptions – whether one assumes that the Hebrew Bible is Divinely revealed, Divinely inspired or a human document inspired by religious feelings.

Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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