Tuesday, November 09, 2004

A text can only be understood within some linguistic tradition. As Hillel pointed out to the heathen who scoffed at the need for an oral tradition, even identifying the letters of the alphabet requires some tradition.

But how much is too much? Every now and then, I find myself wishing that I could read the chumash with fresh eyes, unencumbered by midrash, ethical traditions, and all the other layers that bias my understanding of every word. As I read Chayei Sarah this week, I felt this particularly acutely. Here are a few examples:

1. When Efron says to Avraham, "what's 400 shekel between us friends?", I would like the sounds of a typical negotiation in the shuk to resonate in my mind. The outer veneer of generosity, the subtle insinuation of the desired price into the conversation almost as an aside. In ordinary conversation we pick up oodles of subtle allusions all the time. But when I read just such a conversation in chumash, it's all formality. I can duly note that there's a "machloikes in the mefarshim" whether Efron was being kind or being sly, but I don't really hear it and capture the nuances anywhere near as capably as I do in a hundred conversations every day.

2. It took me until the age of, well until an advanced age, to realize that the Torah does not say that Avraham sent Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzhak. It says that he sent his servant (who is not named). Eliezer is mentioned but once in the whole book of Bereishis and not once in Vayerah or Chayei Sarah. Okay, so I'm myopic... but that's what they taught me in first grade, second grade, and forever after and I guess at some point I started to believe it.

3. Pretty much the only thing the Torah tells us about Rivka is that she's ... pretty. But our tradition is such that most of us are convinced that noting that a woman is pretty and valuing that fact, well, that's the yetzer hara talking. Surely attitudes to this vary greatly even within the frum community. Satmar and left-wing orthodox seem to devalue feminine beauty the most (at least officially and for very different reasons, but I digress) while some others hew closer to the plain meaning of the Biblical text, if you get my drift.

Of course, disconnecting from traditional reading to "read with fresh eyes" is probably nothing more than trading one set of biases for another (less legitimate) one. But still...


Blogger Russell said...

I have always wondered about those negotiations. When I read this for the first time, I had not studied the commentaries, and I took Ephron's initial offer as honest - and then understood his citing the 400 shekel value as anger that his offer to give it away had been rebuffed. It was almost like, "I will give it to you for free (to get the zchus), but if you insist on paying me, you also have to pay for the insult of turning me down."

12:10 AM  
Blogger DovBear said...

See, THIS is why I read Ben Chorin.


1:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about "Satmar" makes them denigrate beauty? The fact that they think it shouldn't flaunted?

7:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've accidentally stumbled upon the perfect way to read Tanach with 'fresh eyes'. Apparently, all it takes is being an Am HaAretz (like me).

Friends with more traditional yeshiva backgrounds are constantly telling me that my 'take' on various biblical passages is flawed (wrong) because I am unfamiliar with most of the mipharshim that are supposed to 'fill in the details of the picture'.

However, I have always enjoyed being able to see the very thing you complain about missing; pshat. I may never be able to explain a difficult Rif, Ran or Bach to my children... but they (and you) can always count on me for the most basic reading of 'Pshat'.


10:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On rivka, the psukim do describe her as doing more than was asked for in the water-drawing department. I don't really see how one can understand pshuto shel mikra except as depicting her as generous?

Now Rochel is pretty much only described as pretty.

Very important to try and read without meforshim sometimes - that goes for gemara too, IMO. It yields a lot of insight.

9:16 PM  
Blogger Shlomo said...

There is an excellent and well researched book about the life of Dinah called "The Red Tent." The book covers the events in Genesis surrounding the lives of Jacob and his family. The events are placed within the proper social, historical, and cultural context. The only down side is that the author (Diamante, a geyeress married to a Jew) takes a bit of literary license while filling in some of the blanks.

To me, it provided a set of fresh eyes.

The biggest problem with eyes tainted by the Midrash is that the Avos are painted as superheroes, and everyone else is seen as subhuman. If one reads through Bereshis approaching these characters as everyday people, the story fills in itself with human emotions, thoughts, and feelings that we share today.

How could one possibly learn about Mesiras Nefesh from Avraham Avinu if Avraham was a malach? or a ba'al mofes? That would be like asking me to stop a bullet just because Superman can.

The other problem is that many of Chazal's claims not only embellish things more than necesary, but actually contradict the peshuta shel mikra. Yet, as you pointed out, the spin is part of how it is taught, and it takes fresh eyes to discern the difference. (Another good reason to talk to apikorsim.)

"ben chamesh lamikra" Avos 5:25 Ok. So maybe the mishnah is telling us that a 5 year old should be able to understand the peshuta shel mikra without knowing anything of midrashim or aggadata. That is a fresh idea!

9:37 AM  
Blogger Shlomo said...

Rivka drew extra water not from generosity but of duty and her work ethic. Women in that society were slaves and considered as property. Their life was all work and no play, and their honor/status was defined by how well they took care of things.

How do I know this? For starters, I read history, which tells us about the attitudes of the prevaling cultures, which were rigidly patriarchal and controlling. Secondly, I read the chumash. Why would Rivka be offering to draw water (not an easy job if you've ever done it) for a complete stranger when he (Eliezer) could have done it himself? If I pull into a gas station and a woman is pumping gas into her own car, I would never expect or demand that she also fill mine while at the same time(hey Babe! check the oil too while yer at it!) It seems that men of the day expected women to do this kind of work, and women knew their position in society. Therefore, Eliezer did not object to Rivka's watering his camels, since it was her job anyhow. Rivka didn't object because her work culture demanded this kind of work ethic.

It is also possible that women feigned kindness to strangers to avoid angering them and ending up in precarious situations or to avoid being beaten or raped. Many women said 'yes' to the little things to avoid having to enforce a 'no' on the bigger things.

If Eliezer were a real man he would have watered his own damned camels and not let a woman do back breaking labor. BUT, that was the culture of the day. He knew it, she knew it, they all knew it.

There is also the possibility that she was trying to win favor with this seemingly wealthy stranger to catch a husband, and displayed her work ethic to impress him. In any case, her actions did not imply undue compassion or kindness, but more likely were based in real, contextual motivations.

Notice that I didn't need one single Midrash or any Divrei Chazal to garner all this information from the peshuta shel mikra.

10:04 AM  
Blogger Shlomo said...

To further the point, the Torah does not tell us of one other incident where Rivka displayed any chesed. In the case of Yaakov and the Birkas Bechor, her cunning was clearly evident, and that leads me to believe that her motives at the well with Eliezer were not based in simple kindness, but perhaps a well thought out and intentional plan of action for a specific purpose.

Let's face it, if you had to live as a servant to a mamzer like Lavan, you'd probably do anything and everything to escape him, much like an abused or neglected woman dreams and schemes of ways to flee her abusive male figure. These women have to put on a show to keep safe and alive on one hand, and beneath the surface be planning/hoping for a way out.

Rivka not only deceived Eliezer, Yitzchok, and Esav, but she fooled the Chazal too! The Chazal narrow her down to just being "beautiful" and then made up this huge story about her "kindness" when kindness really had nothing to do with Rivka's life.

I find her ingenuity and cunning to be more impressive than any alleged kindnesses or beauty. Rivka's ability to win her way in a world where women had no power or rights tells to her careful planning, intelligence, and resolve.

10:33 AM  

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