A blessing of butterflies
This week's portion: fruit

How I read the Bible

I've been tapped to answer the question of what books or scholars have most significantly impacted how I read the Bible. (The post so many books, so little time includes links to many others who've done this meme.)

The first scholar I'll mention is Rashi, whose commentary on Torah is considered central and foundational by pretty much the whole Jewish world. (You can find a weekly dose of chumash -- a.k.a. Torah -- with Rashi's commentary here at Chabad's Daily Study page, though it may not be very accessible; Rashi has a very particular way of engaging with the text, and he works so often with wordplay that he doesn't necessarily translate well.) It's often helpful to consider the question, "What's bugging Rashi here?" In other words: what leapt out at him, when he read the Torah text, which demanded his interpretation? His economy of language is pretty dazzling, though I think it also makes him trickier for the novice reader. Rashi isn't foundational to me, per se, but he's a basic part of the Torah-study enterprise. If you want to understand Torah Jewishly, Rashi is one good place to start.

Alicia Ostriker's The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions was deeply formative for me. This book had a huge impact on me. I'm also a longtime admirer of Ostriker's poetry, but this book really knocked me out when I first read it. She delves into foundational Biblical texts and, in conversation with those texts, offers a combination of autobiography and some of the finest contemporary midrash I know. This is a classic of Jewish feminist scholarship and I can't recommend it highly enough. (As a side note, Ostriker's recent For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book, which I reviewed for Lilith when it first came out, is also top-notch and really worth reading, especially if you are a religious liberal who doesn't want to abandon the Bible to fundamentalist interpretations.)

The third scholar I'm going to mention is Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, who's usually known as the Me'or Eynayim, "The Light of the Eyes" -- that's the name of his best-known work, which is a running commentary on Torah, written through his sweet Hasidic lens. I spent a semester studying his work a while back, and wrote about him from time to time (here's one of those posts: Meor Eynayim on hospitality and going forth.) One of my favorite quotes from him is, "You struggle and find the light that God has hidden in God's Torah, a light not revealed except through struggle. After a person has truly worked at such searching, it comes to be called his (her) Torah." (The gender-neutrality is my own translation, naturally.) I love the playfulness, the expansiveness, and the depth of his commentary. Most of his work is available only in Hebrew, but if you prefer English, I can recommend Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl: Upright Practices, The Light of the Eyes. If you're new to Hasidic ways of reading Torah, though, you might want to find a good teacher to study it with!

Number four is Everett Fox, whose translation The Five Books of Moses is not only clear and lucid but captures the gorgeous wordplay of the original Hebrew text in a way that no other translation I've seen has done. The footnotes are also excellent, but the reason I keep returning to this text is that Fox perennially shows me new ways of understanding the old words, and that's incredibly valuable to me. I recommend this translation highly. (The JPS is my standard bilingual edition, and sometimes I peek into the Oxford Study Bible or the JPS Torah Commentary series for additional perspectives, but for direct engagement with the Hebrew text rendered into creative and startling English, nobody beats Fox.)

And the fifth piece I'm going to mention is not a book but an essay, which I read quite recently but which has become one of the lenses through which I read Tanakh. It's an essay by Wendy Doniger which she offered as a convocation address at the University of Chicago in June of 2008. Here's a quote:

We need to balance what literary critics call a hermeneutics of suspicion -- a method of reading that ferrets out submerged agendas -- with a hermeneutics of retrieval, or even of reconciliation (to borrow a term from the literature on the aftermath of genocidal wars in Africa and elsewhere).... And then we can begin to read our own classics differently, with what the philosopher and theologian Paul Ricoeur called a second naiveté: where, in our first naiveté, we did not notice the racism, and in our subsequent hypercritical reading we couldn’t see anything else, in our second naiveté we can see how good some writers are despite the inhumanity of their underlying worldviews. If their works really are great literature, they will survive this new reading.

Doniger's speaking most directly about literary criticism, but to my mind her message is tremendously relevant when it comes to reading and rereading Tanakh. As a Jew and a rabbi I need to be able to read the Bible critically and devotionally: to keep my eyes open to the problematic passages, its sexism, its racism, everything in it which troubles me -- and also to allow myself to look beyond what's problematic in order to draw from the deep well of intellectual and spiritual sustenance which my tradition has always found there. Anyway, you can find her essay online here: Thinking Critically About Thinking Too Critically [pdf].

Thanks for tagging me, J.K. Gayle; I'm sorry to see that since you tagged me last week you've left the blogosphere, but I appreciate the posts and conversations, and hope that you'll return to us someday.

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