How Far Can Interpretation Go?

Time lapse photography of water ripple, Photo by Jordan McDonald on Unsplash
Time lapse photography of water ripple, Photo by Jordan McDonald on Unsplash

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Edmond H. Weiss, Ph.D., joins Jewish Sacred Aging as a regular contributor.

There are two main types of Torah interpretation. Exegesis is the process of extracting understanding from a difficult or obscure text. Eisegesis is the process of finding what you need in the text — whether it’s there or not. Much of what represents itself as exegesis is really eisegesis: everything from establishing property rights for disputed land to finding “hidden codes.”

A strong impulse toward eisegesis comes from the desire or need to “interpret” the ethical and behavioral rules asserted in the Torah so that they are consistent with current social norms and values. When they study a “troubling” passage that violates the modern moral sense — approval of slavery, human sacrifice, different laws for Jewish and non-Jewish people — Jews use all their interpretive skills to make the problem go away. (Just as they do with “apparent” contradictions and errors.) The skill needed to do this has created a nation of lawyers, able to make complicated laws and rules jump through intellectual hoops.

Sometimes, though, the Bible is too plain in its language and no amount of legal maneuvering — you would think —can make it do what we want it to do. Such is the case, for example, with the prohibition against male homosexuality in Leviticus.[1]

During my lifetime, which began in the 1940s, the proportion of people who consider male homosexuality simply another way of living and loving has steadily increased. For the most part, the Levitical abhorrence of homosexuality is a Bronze Age curiosity at best, an utter irrelevancy at worst[2]. So, what Leviticus thinks about homosexuality just doesn’t matter. Or shouldn’t.

But as clear as the Bible is on this point, there are many who try to find an interpretation—or a conflicting text—that will give a religious warrant to homosexuality. The film, Trembling Before God, showed the heartbreak suffered by gay men and women who were ardent in their orthodox Judaism, while being shunned by the people they loved.

To make matters worse, Peter Gomes — who calls homosexuality the last “biblically sanctioned prejudice” — learned in his research that the Bible’s antigay pronouncements are used as a divine authorization by those who injure and kill homosexual men, and that these criminals feel righteousness without guilt![3]

Consequently, although it is not possible to find a biblical approval for homosexual behavior, there are quite a few scholars concerned with weakening the absolutism of the ban. Gomes[4], for example, argues that the context of the Levitical ban renders it non-binding on those living today. He sees it as part of a survival and growth plan for the exodus travelers about to enter Canaan. In effect, it’s one of several ways of encouraging procreation and community building, like a ban on contraception, thought necessary for survival of an beleaguered group.

Clearly, when “experts” use the Bible to thwart discussion about social problems and political issues (like homosexuality, abortion, the rights of women…), it takes other experts to show that the text can be nudged in the other direction.

Rabbi Richard Elliot Friedman and Prof. Shawna Dolansky published recently The Bible Now, a heroic collection of interpretations that counter the positions usually associated with the Bible in these controversial areas. In their chapter on homosexuality, for example, Friedman points out that the word usually translated as “an abomination” is toebah; this is the only act in the holiness code characterized this way, and, thus, the question is whether it is an absolute opprobrium. The same word, he points out, is used by Joseph when he tells his brothers that the Egyptians find cowherds toebah — offensive or disgusting. Thus, Friedman reasons, we may conclude that, since offensiveness is relative to the sensibilities of the offended, it cannot be considered an absolute condemnation of the practice.

Within any Jewish adult study group, one finds participants with broad, even irreconcilable, differences about the provenance of the text. I once asked a class why Joshua was not in the Torah, since it is the real ending of the story of Israel’s deliverance[5].  A well-educated physician in the group answered: Because Moshe Rabbenu didn’t write it!

What can a Torah teacher do when leading discussions of this and similar controversies?? How can we prevent the conversation from devolving into pure eisegesis and unproductive activism? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Trust in the power of debate. When controversial interpretations are offered, encourage opposing views.
  • When opposing views are not available, assume the opposing position, clarifying to those present that your position is “for the sake of argument.”
  • Study, study, study. Always have relevant resources and commentaries at hand. Keep abreast of new publications.
  • Rely on the internet to find commentaries and resolve disputes of fact and translation, in real time.
  • Make clear to your students the notion expressed by Mordechai Kaplan: The Past has a Vote but not a Veto. Thus, if we cannot “interpret” the text into agreeing with us, we must be prepared to amend or nullify part of it. Remember: the Pharisees/Rabbis of old invented a whole new Torah.
  • Be knowledgeable about secular ethical philosophy and science. Never give the Bible the last word, when there are better words available from non-religious sources.

And, of course, keep turning it….


[1] I have found no prohibition against female homosexuality in either the Tanach or Talmud. Women are forbidden to dress as men, but, in ancient times, men wore garments that were rather dress-like.

[2] Ian Assman considers the ban a form of “normative inversion,” just a way of differentiating Jews from others who include homosexual acts in their religious practices.

[3] The same can be said of John’s Gospel and Nazi atrocities.

[4] The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind

[5] The extant theory is that there was a rivalry between the Aaron faction and the Joshua faction during the redaction, and the Aaron faction won.

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