Sermon: Don’t add, don’t subtract; do interpret

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 23 August 2014

Don’t tell Sammy, but it’s out of my hands.
After the D’var Torah he’s given, we’ve no choice.  He’s leading us astray, subverting the people of this town.
You know what we need to do.
It says so – your brother, your son, your closest friend – whoever it is: “stone him to death, for he sought to make you stray from the Eternal your God”.
Poor Sammy.  Oh well. Them’s the breaks.

Not really, of course.

Sammy, your passion for pluralism, and your willingness to question the origin of Torah – those are anomalous in the history of Judaism, and certainly controversial for some.
A reality of being passionately within our section of the Jewish world, is that we are, once in a while, accused by others of being ‘destroyers of the faith’.
But no-one is going to demand your execution.

Partly that’s on a technicality.  You’ve never claimed, I don’t think – powers of prophecy.

But it also reflects something very positive feature about Judaism as crafted from Torah:  That it is somehow a tradition able to live with difference; a tradition that, for two thousand years, has found the ability to evolve and move; a tradition that, with a few horrific exceptions, does not have a history of text-justified violence.
All this despite the apparent starkness of the biblical text.

How is this possible with what we have read this morning?

To understand how, we can look at one verse in our portion for this morning, and see how it has been treated.  Because slipped in there is an instruction that, if we weren’t careful, should make us really intolerant of change and difference.  That should bind us to our ancient text in a very simplistic way:
“Be careful”, we’ve read, “to observe only that which I am commanding you – lo toseif alav – do not add to it; v’lo tigra mimenu – and do not take away from it.”
It’s the second time we’ve read such an instruction.  The first, a couple of weeks ago, also makes the link to idolatry.
The pshat – the plain meaning of the text is pretty clear – do it like this, and only like this.  Don’t try to chip away at the instructions in this book, and don’t go adding to them either.  To do otherwise is to go away from the only true path.

This is a commandment to resist change.  A commandment to do exactly as described.  Or else.
It is a commandment of the ‘one true path’ kind of religion.

But, that is not how Judaism develops.  Judaism adds, and takes away – from the very text that itself commands us not to.  The rabbinic exercise develops a whole structure of law which is, surely, ‘adding to’.
And where the rabbis aren’t comfortable with the explicit instruction of Torah they feel perfectly entitled to ‘take away’ too.
How can this possibly be the case?

Of course, the answer to this is complicated.
There is not a simple single expression of it, but a variety of metaphors, stories and explanations with different emphases and theologies.  And that is in itself telling.  Rabbinic Judaism is, fundamentally, in its nature, a poly-vocal tradition – one that does not impose one particular understanding, meaning, or reading.

Almost all rabbinic treatment of this question does, though, share a common idea – that the human engagement with Torah is itself of Torah.
Rabbinic Judaism is built on a fundamental idea that we are not bound to a simplistic understanding of the text – human intellectual activity is not merely allowed, but required, to engage creatively with it.  And this does not count as prohibited adding or subtracting.

This concept is expressed in a number of ways in rabbinic literature.
One is the suggestion that the Oral Torah – the exercise of interpretation – is somehow given alongside the Written Torah – that is, it exists in parallel with and therefore cannot be understood as an adding to.
As expressed in the Jerusalem Talmud:  All that a brilliant student will in the future expound in front of his teacher was already given to Moses at Sinai.
This metaphor – for metaphor it surely is – not meant to be understood literally – sets the boundary of legitimate interpretation – Interpretation which is grounded within the Torah itself, is ‘within’ – however creative this may be, and much of what the rabbis came up with really was.

This idea is expressed elsewhere in rabbinic literature in an extraordinary Talmudic story of Moses travelling 1000+ years into the future.  There he watches Rabbi Akiva teaching the Torah, but is unable to even understand what is being taught.  Yet he is reassured when Akiva describes a particular idea as Halacha l’Moshe miSinai – a law of Moses from Sinai – even though it is unrecognisable to Moses himself.

The content of divine revelation may be so interpreted that it is unrecognisable to Moses himself as long as it is grounded within Torah.  Change of this sort is not forbidden but divinely sanctioned because, ultimately, the rabbis believed that human reason can and must be applied.  The Torah is there to interpret.  Lo vashamayin hi – it is not in heaven.

What is the impact of this idea, this commitment to interpretation, this resistance to fixedness?
Ultimately, it is this that enables the rabbis to step away from the harsher elements of this wek’s portion, and the like; To create a reasonable, non-violent tradition out of an often violent, unreasonable text, without jettisoning the concept of divine revelation.  It allows them to develop ritual practices, to park difficult instructions, to discuss theological ideas, to disagree with one another – all whilst operating within Torah, not constrained by it.
It produces an activity of unparalleled religious intellectual creativity and genius of which we are the inheritors.

Wonderfully, the very verse that should limit this activity somehow becomes itself part of a rabbinic armoury against fixity, against extremist forms of interpretation.  The verse is taken to mean that is OK to add as long as one does not claim unique authority for that act of interpretation.  Our verse is understood to mean – no you may not add to Torah – you may not claim that your voice is equivalent to God’s voice – don’t claim that your reading of Torah is God’s reading.  Don’t claim for yourself an exclusive relationship with divine truth – yours is interpretation, too.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that all is rosy in the hermeneutical garden.  Once one allows for interpretation, one creates a whole other question about what counts as legitimate interpretation – the false darshan – the false interpreter – is as dangerous as the false prophet.  We will, inevitably, differ as to the limits of legitimate interpretation, as to whose version is right.  But as long as it is within a healthy dialectic – as long as it is creative and not destructive, that is classical Judaism in action.

So, the rabbinic treatment of this one verse tells us a lot.  It tells us about the classic rabbinic openness to change, the privileging of human reason, human ownership of Torah.
And it warns us against claiming divine authority for our human understandings.

And it is important
Because it is this willingness to change, to step away from the text that directly means the unimaginable horrors of the sort being carried out in the name of Islam in Syria and Iraq – are not part of Jewish practice – despite the text.  We can only imagine what a radical force could do with Sammy’s portion.  But the rabbis, strange as it may sound, freed us from the bond of Torah.
This is also why we should be wary, very wary, of some – a small but growing number – in the Jewish world – who are claiming exclusive understanding, and beginning to express it with violence, as this week at a mixed faith wedding in Israel.  They are not authentically Jewish in the way they respond to things with which they don’t agree –they declare their single voice to be the voice, and cite divine authority for it, out of all keeping with classical Jewish tradition.
Ours is a tradition that in its authentic form wouldn’t dream of violently stamping out dissent, difference and change.

The amazing beauty, the fabulous inspiration of Judaism is that somehow we have an evolving dialectical tradition that cherishes argument, that is polyvocal, and yet that somehow, somehow, has as its foundational text a work that is deeply unchangingly prescriptive. We know from looking around us, that not all faith traditions are like this.  We can only hope and pray, and work, that we remain so blessed.

And only by doing so can we ensure that Sammy, like all our B’nei Mitzvah, is able to engage within Torah for himself – with integrity, with thought and with love, and with no risk to his personal safety.