For reasons that don't bear exploration at this juncture, I spent a chunk of today emailing with a friend about gematria. (Not familiar with the term? Wikipedia entry; MyJewishLearning article.) His lawyer brain, he said, has difficulty with the notion of gematria as a valid interpretive device. Where do I come down on it? As I started writing him an email in response, I realized I had enough to say about it that perhaps I ought to consider a blog post. So here we are.
My favorite quote about gematria comes from my teacher Reb Elliot Ginsburg, who writes that "gematria is sometimes hermeneutics gone mad: in the right hands, anything can be made to mean anything else." I completely agree. But he goes on to assert that when a gematria clicks, something powerful happens, and I agree with him on that, too. When a gematria works, suddenly mochin d'gadlut (expanded mind) bursts through the confines of mochin d'katnut (constricted mind) and a flash of insight can emerge. (If that sounds familiar, it's because I quoted him on this in a post last fall.)
Gematria crops up from time to time in Talmud and midrash, though I think it became prevalent later than that; the Tur used it heavily, it's all over the Zohar, and it's a popular exegetical tool in the mystical tradition and in some Hasidic commentaries. In Renewal, too, I encounter a fair number of teachers who work with the idea that words which have the same numerical value share the same qualities, and that these kinds of linkages may reveal words' hidden depths.
Traditional Jewish hermeneutics are filled with puns and word play, and I see gematria as a part of that same tradition. Gematria's a kind of word game that can, from time to time, startle me with dazzling insight. Of course, it can also make me roll my eyes. At this point, I tend to hang on to the gematriot that wake me up, and to let go of the gematriot that feel far-fetched or absurd.
A lot of people get excited about the idea that gematria reveals all kinds of hidden codes and messages in Torah. For me, the lens of gematria is most revelatory in what it shows us about ourselves. Take, for instance, the tetragrammaton, which has a gematria of 26. That number doesn't have an innate meaning for me. But what other words can I find with that gematria, and what might I make of the connection between those words? (Here's a list -- Hebrew only.) What does it say about me if I link the Name of God with the phrase "My beloved father," or if I link it with the word meaning "honor" or "gravitas"? Linking two words because their numerical value is the same inevitably involves making choices, and those choices say something about who I am and how I see the world.
Like poetry, gematria's an associative art. My rational brain doesn't always find it useful as an interpretive tool, but the part of me that writes poems finds it delicious. (In fact, next time I'm facing writer's block, this would be a fun poetry prompt: take a Hebrew word, figure out its gematria, look for other words with that same gematria, and try to write a poem that draws on or hints at the different words in the gematria cluster.) At its best, maybe gematria works like poetry does: prompting us to make connections between things, and reminding us to revel in that act of connection.