“Truthiness” in the Bible

Robbie Harris
By :  Robert Harris Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages Posted On Feb 7, 2013 / 5773 | Livestream Lunch and Learn | Philosophy

What the Bible Means, What it Meant, and Why the Difference Matters: A recorded live stream lunch and learn

In an age when biblical texts are cited to justify political, religious, and moral beliefs, the question of how to interpret the Bible’s meaning is increasingly important. In this JTS Live Stream Lunch and Learn, Rabbi Robert Harris will discuss several classical Jewish texts in order to guide participants toward an understanding of the distinction between derash and peshat—that is, how we define the difference between the questions “What does the Bible mean?” and “What did the Bible mean?”—and why understanding the difference matters. 


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R. Yosef Kara on 1 Samuel 1:17

אך דע לך, כשנכתבה הנבואה, שלימה נכתבה עם פתרונה וכל הצורך, שלא יכשלו בה דורות הבאים, וממקומו אין חסר כלום. ואין צריך להביא ראיה ממקום אחר, ולא מדרש, כי תורה — תמימה נתנה, תמימה נכתבה, ולא תתחס כל בה. ומדרש חכמינו — כדי להגדיל תורה ויאדיר. אבל כל מי שאינו יודע פשוטו של מקרא, ונוטה לו אחר מדרשו של דבר, דומה לזה ששטפתהו שבולת הנהר ומעמקי מים מציפין, ואוחז כל אשר יעלה בידו להינצל. ואילו שם לבו אל דבר ה‘, היה חוקר אחר פשר דבר ופשוטו, ומוצא לקיים מה שנאמר: אם תבקשנה ככסף וכמטמונים תחפשנה אז תביןיראת ה‘ ודעת אלהים תמצא (משלי ב:ד-ה)…

Know well, that when Scripture was written, it was written completely, with every explanation and need taken care of, so that future generations would not stumble in it, and in its place, it lacks nothing. Moreover, one does not need to bring proofs from another place, and certainly not midrash, for the Torah was “given completely and written completely” (see Psalm 19:8: תורת ה‘ תמימה ), and lacks nothing. Whereas the midrash of the Sages is for the purpose of glorifying Torah and enhancing it (Isaiah 42:21). But anyone who doesn’t know the context of Scripture (the methodology of peshat), and prefers to incline towards a midrashic explanation, is similar to one who is drowning in a river, and the depths of the waters are sweeping him away, and who grabs hold of any old thing that comes into his hand to save himself. Whereas had he paid attention to the word of the Lord, he would have investigated the true explanation of the matter and its context, and would have fulfilled that which is written: If you seek it as you do silver, and search for it as for treasures, then you will understand reverence for the LORD and attain knowledge of God (Proverbs 2:4–5)…

Rashi on Genesis 3:8:

יש מדרשי אגדה רבים, וכבר סדרום רבותינו על מכונם בבראשית רבה ובשאר מדרשים. ואני לא באתי אלא לפשוטו של מקרא, ולאגדה המיישבת דבר המקרא ושמעו, דבר דבור על אפניו 

There are many homiletical midrashim (on these verses), and the Rabbis have long ago arranged them in their proper place in Genesis Rabba and the other midrashim. Whereas I have only come to explain Scripture according to its plain meaning [peshuto], and according to the aggadah that “settles” a matter of Scripture and its sense, a matter understood according to its character [lit. “a word fitly spoken”; see Proverbs 25:11).

Rashbam: Introduction to Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1):

ידעו ויבינו יודעי שכל כי לא באתי לפרש הלכות, אף על פי שהם עיקר, כמו שפירשתי בבראשית. כי מיתור המקראות נשמעין ההגדות וההלכות. ומקצתן ימצאו בפירושי רבינו שלמה אבי אמי זצ”ל. ואני לפרש פשוטן של מקראות באתי. ואפרש הדינין וההלכות לפי דרך ארץ. ואף על פי כן ההלכות עיקר, כמו שאמרו רבותינו: הלכה עוקרת מקרא 

Let knowers of wisdom know and understand that I have not come to explain halakhot, even though these are the essence of Torah, as I have explained in my Genesis commentary (e.g., at Genesis 1:1; 37:2). For it is from the apparent superfluousness of Scriptural language that aggadot and halakhot are derived. Some of these can be found in the commentary of our Rabbi Solomon, my mother’s father, may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing. But I have come to explain the contextual meaning of Scripture. And I will explain the laws and halakhot according to realia (lit. “the way of the world”). And (I will do this) even though (the rabbinic understanding of) the halakhot is the essence, as the Rabbis taught: “halakha uproots Scripture” (BT Sota 16a, with emendation).