On the value of biblical interpretation

(Photo: Unsplash/Tim Wildsmith)

On Shabbat October 1st, all our autumnal Jewish festivals will be over and we start at the beginning again with the story of Genesis and the creation of the world.

We finished on the previous Shabbat with a reading from Kohelet (meaning 'ingathering'), known in English as Ecclesiastes.

For the last 20 months, most of us have been hunkering down, fearful of the plague that has affected every region of the world. Globally, around 5 million have died from Covid, and in some areas, this plague shows no sign of going away.

During this time, the State of Israel has been watched like a hawk, as she took the initiative in ordering doses, jabbing and recently giving a third dose to her population of nearly 10 million people.

And now, the new Prime Minister of Israel, whose immigrant father became an estate agent in Haifa, has just addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations – and his main warning was about Iran and its recently-elected President, known locally as 'the Butcher of Tehran'.

Despite distress, doldrums and even death, Israel has refused to capitulate to total despair, and has insisted on enjoying the final autumn festival which comes just before we start all over again, and that is the festival of Simchat Torah – 'the joy of the law' – a completely crazy holiday, when Jews get drunk, and dance around Shul as if they didn't have a care in the world. If only ....

This year, more even than any other year, I couldn't help noticing in our own area of Broughton Park, Salford, the increase in numbers of people who want to convert to the Jewish religion, coming from all parts of the globe, and spanning a vast variety of ethnicities and religious backgrounds, all wanting to join in with the Jewish family – surely the most difficult thing in the world!

The subject-matter of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is fitting for these mellow times of autumn, accompanied by falling leaves, not to mention gales, downpours – and, in many cases, a complete sweeping away of the old.

Kohelet is a thoughtful Book of the Bible, but upbeat, all the same. For it states that there is 'nothing new under the sun', the sun being the Torah, which does indeed provide constantly new insights.

But, even though there may be 'nothing new under the sun', that doesn't mean that everyday life and learning are unnecessary and futile. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Let me explain this seeming paradox of there being 'nothing new' with an example from my own life. When I was young, I studied Music for GCSE 'O' Level. In those days, Music was a very difficult and intricate subject, necessitating intimate knowledge of the technical side of two classical pieces – Mozart's Symphony no. 40 in G minor, and Dvorak's New World Symphony.

Learning things by rote really helped. Because now, whenever I hear a performance of these two masterpieces of composition, I recall, in addition, those days of long ago, when my dear mother, to whom musical notation didn't mean a thing, would test me time and time again, and then ended up learning to play the piano herself!

The miracle is that there are only 12 notes: the pieces we hear are simply a combination of these 12 notes – but the possibilities for these 12 notes in their variety of combinations are almost infinitesimal.

That's how we're supposed to regard G-d's creation, which comes up again on October 1, starting as it does, not with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, but with the letter Bet, the second letter, which opens up in front, as if to welcome everyone inside. And not for nothing does the letter Bet also signify the concept of 'home', that place where you are always welcome.

Yes, language should always be understood in its proper context. 'Nothing new under the sun' doesn't need to mean despair – it ought to mean 'possibilities'.

Always look to the question being asked and the situation which is intervening. From the Jewish perspective, the Bible isn't a timeless rulebook for every situation. At most we regard it as a set of very loose principles – but you need to study to understand even those principles. That is why we believe that interpretation is on a par with the written text itself, and encourage friendly dispute, disagreement and listening to the other person's point of view.

The Jewish approach is not to look for straightforward formulae of prohibition, for instance (for example on abortion, or euthanasia, – subjects I have taught in a number of schools), but clear principles (don't take life – but sometimes you have to prioritize in extreme circumstances).

This appears to be a problem with popular Protestant religious morality – either you take the text strictly, literally and usually in translation (all frowned upon in Jewish teaching), or you assume that 'anything goes' if it's loving! Again, far too simplistic. Was Florence Nightingale touchy-feely in the Crimean wards? I don't think so!

But that's the difficulty with those who don't really believe that there is a tradition of what might be called 'inspired case law' in Christian teaching - the accumulated wisdom of interpretation, just as we have in Judaism, where we follow halakhah, or oral teaching made explicit in context.

A good example of wrong use of language in this regard is employing the term 'apartheid' in order to 'bash' the State of Israel (direct antisemitism being less possible for seasoned anti-Semites than it used to be). 'Apartheid' is in actual fact the precise terminology for a system based on explicit theories of racial superiority and total non-participation.

Israel, on the other hand, is made up of people from all over the world, from more than 100 countries, and speaking more than 100 native languages, all of whom are welcome and expected to participate as soon as they touch down at Ben Gurion airport. Which other country can say as much?

And that is how, as I just watched the son of my friend, the estate agent from Haifa, thanking the USA for not allowing the hatred of a section of that country to permit the destruction of the Jewish State, I realized that Israel is actually the opposite of the 'apartheid' system of which she is so often falsely accused (just the latest in a long history of blood libels against the Jewish people).

So, as we start again on the upcoming Shabbat with the biblical words 'In the beginning', a phrase that has lent itself to more interpretations in its long life than any other, let's not demean this well-used Book. Let's not take it literally in vernacular, whenever it suits us, while dismissing out of hand all those bits we don't like.

Why don't we for a change adopt the more modest approach of trying to learn, to understand, to interpret and to live it, always in context. For as the famous Hillel said in response to a Roman centurion: 'The Torah is all about loving your neighbour – now go and learn!'

So maybe, likewise, this New Jewish Year resolution might be ' .... Now go and learn!'

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.