Reading Like the Rabbis

Korah By :  Daniel Nevins Former Pearl Resnick Dean of The Rabbinical School and the Division of Religious Leadership Posted On Jun 28, 2008 / 5768 | Main Commentary

Grab a thick book and a cold drink and head for a comfy chair at a lake, beach, or pool. Lose yourself in luxurious chapters of artful narrative and savor the unique culture of a well-constructed novel or the incisive analysis of a work of nonfiction. This is the great joy of summer reading: to slow down enough to indulge in what is otherwise impossible, to enter the world of literature.

During our ordinary routines, many of us read in a different way. Increasingly, we read in staccato bursts of email, blogs, and quick articles. In a cover story for the Atlantic Monthly, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, Nicholas Carr argues that the new way of rapid reading is depriving our brains of the ability to focus on an extended narrative, with all of the depth that this entails. As he puts it, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

You might think that Judaism favors the sequential style of deep reading, and indeed, many recent books of scholarship such as Robert Alter’s Bible translations and commentaries have focused on the narrative structure of the Bible. But the rabbinic approach to reading is frequently more akin to the staccato bursts of association that we experience in the Internet age.

A prominent example of this intertextual reading technique is found in the Talmud’s treatment of a verse in this week’s Torah portion. Moses is faced with twin rebellions led respectively by Korah, and Datan and Aviram. God instructs Moses, “Separate from the midst (mitokh) of this group (eidah) and I will wipe them out immediately” (Num. 17:21). An ordinary contextual reading would see this as part of the negotiation between Moses and God. Should God punish the rebels, destroy the entire people, or forgive them all? Even as he is under attack by his Levite cousins, Moses has to restrain God from unleashing His fury without limit against the people of Israel.

The ancient Rabbis noticed this narrative context but they read the text in an idiosyncratic way that ripped the words from their surroundings. Suddenly, this verse was not about quashing a rebellion, but about constituting a prayer quorum. In their particular approach to reading, the Rabbis found proof in this verse that ten Jews are required to make a minyan for Jewish liturgy. Really? Go ahead, read this passage. Do you see any reference to a minyan? To prayer? To the number ten? Try as you may, you will not find such references unless you are reading with a specific form of intertextual technique called the gezerah shava.

What is a gezerah shava? Literally, it means a decree of equivalence. When faced with an unclear text, the Rabbis reserved for themselves the right to extrapolate meanings from a completely different context and to import all of the associations from one place to the other. The great twentieth-century JTS Talmud professor Saul Lieberman (z”l) demonstrated in his book, Greek in Jewish Palestine, that the Rabbis borrowed this technique from the rhetoric of Greek legal texts.

But how does God’s threat to wipe out these rebels prove that a minyan requires ten Israelites? To understand this, we will need to follow some hypertext links. First, let’s jump over to Leviticus 22:32: “You shall not profane My holy name; rather, I shall be sanctified in the midst (bitokh) of the children of Israel; I am the Lord.”

Reading this verse, the Talmudic Rabbi Ada bar Ahavah claims,

How do we know that an individual may not say the prayer kedushah? Because it says, “I shall be sanctified in the midst (bitokh) of the children of Israel.” Compare tokh and tokh. Here it says bitokh in the midst, and there (in Korah) it says, separate from the midst (mitokh) of this group. Just as there (in Korah) it means ten, so too here it means ten. (Berakhot 21b)

Rabbi Ada’s wordplay has major implications for our religion. How often have you gone to services and needed to wait for a tenth person to complete the minyan? Did you ever wonder why the rabbis required ten Jews to say prayers such askaddish and kedushah, and to read Torah? Now you know—it is Rabbi Ada’s decree of equivalence, or gezerah shava.

Very clever, except there’s more than one problem. The main problem is that the prooftext from our portion never mentions ten people! In fact, the text says that there were 250 rebels. In order to get to ten, the rabbis needed a second gezerah shava. Our portion calls the group an eidah. Last week, in the incident of the spies, God exclaimed, “How long shall this evil group (eidah) keep complaining about me?” Although there were twelve spies, Joshua and Caleb supported God’s plan. Thus the evil group, or eidah ha-ra’ah, must have been ten.

Follow the train of association. The ten bad spies in Parashat Shlach Lekha were called an eidah. In Parashat Korah, Moses is told to separate from the midst (tokh) of the group (edah). So a group must mean ten. And back in Leviticus, in Parashat Emor, God declares that He will be sanctified in the midst (tokh) of the children of Israel. Hence, the minimum number of Jews that can sanctify God’s name is ten.

There is nothing obvious about this interpretation. It is problematic to derive the concept of minyan from a context that is not liturgical. Moreover, wouldn’t you want the prototypical minyan to be comprised of righteous Jews, not ones who are about to be executed by God? The other Talmud, known as the Yerushalmi, does in fact find a happier association for the minyan. Joseph’s ten brothers who traveled to Egypt to get grain, were called the children of Israel. But it is the Babylonian Talmud that carries more weight in the Jewish world. So the basis for the minyan is this unsatisfying double decree of equivalence.

Most readers know that a minyan was traditionally restricted to men. Even though this restriction is not made by the Torah or Talmud and, indeed, does not appear until the Shulchan Arukh (Orech Hayim 55:1), you can easily see where it comes from. The ten spies were men. So, if the ten spies were men, and their group was compared to the group of Korah, and the group of Korah was linked by the word tokh to the verse in Leviticus about sanctifying God, then you must need ten men to sanctify God’s name. Still, this point has never been particularly cogent. By this logic, the Babylonian Talmud would restrict the minyan to ten wicked Jews! The Yerushalmi would restrict the minyan to ten brothers. Neither of these options has been taken by Jewish law.

The Conservative Movement began to explore arguments for an egalitarian minyan in 1955, and even today, when debating such policies, modern rabbis frequently return to the foundational texts of Torah, Talmud and Codes, hopping from one hypertext link to another in their pursuit of Torat Hayim, the living word. God is in the details, and the associative process of studying texts composed over the course of three millennia is an extension of the experience of revelation.

The type of reading that we have done here is not relaxing. In fact, you can’t do it in that beach chair that I described in the beginning. To read like the Rabbis, you need a thick stack of books or a CD ROM to follow all the links. You need to learn their associations, their assumptions, and their conclusions. You need to follow their staccato bursts while retaining your own ability to analyze the text from your distinctive point of view. Far from “making us stupid,” this type of reading deepens our understanding of the broad scope of Torah and heightens our awareness of the commanding voice of God.