RABBI ELIEZER BERKOVITS
I once remarked to an acquaintance that much of the Torah is to be interpreted, not read literally. He asked, "Who chooses the correct interpretation?" I explained there is no Pope in Judaism, no equivalent of papal encyclicals that are sufficiently authoritative to end debate, among all Jews, on a particular question.
There are rabbinical assemblies that offer their views for denominations within Judaism. There are highly respected individual Rabbis that do so for local communities. There is responsa literature--often quite useful and compelling--written by "poskim" (the term for scholars of Jewish law). But dialogue and disagreement are the norm, not monolithic, institutionalized dogma. "There is no grand system that has answers to all the questions. Both the whole and broken tablets were placed in the ark. The broken tablets were placed there for our generation, because we need to pick up the fragments and put them together in our own mosaic." (Rabbi Art Green)
The key to this tradition of disagreement is that it's for the sake of truth, not of victory. It is argument "out of a desire to discover the truth, not out of cantankerousness or a wish to prevail." (Rabbi Menahem Meiri). "The Divine Presence is to be found not in this voice as against that, but in the totality of the conversation. In an argument for the sake of truth, both sides win, for each is willing to listen to the views of its opponents, and is thereby enlarged. 'Argument for the sake of Heaven' (מחלוקת לשם שמים) is one of Judaism’s noblest ideals: conflict resolution by honoring both sides and employing humility in the pursuit of truth." (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)
"The Mishna records incompatible opinions and lists the name of their author. But at no point does the Mishna tell you who to follow. It is a book about honoring multiple opinions, honoring the process of thinking through opinions not your own, and standing on your own two feet and taking responsibility for your own choices. The Talmud, which is the commentary on the Mishna, multiplies arguments. There are over 5,000 arguments in the Talmud, only 50 of which are resolved. The questions are always more important than the answers. Answers shut down discussion. Questions open it up." (Rabbi Brad Artson)
Ultimately every individual--informed by opposing views--decides which fundamental principle ("klal gadol" - כלל גדול) of the Torah should govern the latter's interpretation. In this sense, there is autonomy within the tradition. For example, the Talmud tells of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ben Azzai disagreeing about the fundamental principle: Akiva said "love thy neighbor as thyself" while Ben Azzai said it is the notion that everyone is made in God's image. Berkovits, in the text below, indicates a preference for the pursuit of peace. What is your klal gadol?
Following are Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits’ words from his 1983 book, Not in Heaven. My goal is to keep his voice alive, since he offers the most lucid, crisp explanation of why much of the Torah is to be interepreted, not read literally.
"There is confrontation between the Torah, which is set, and actual life situations, which are forever in motion. The Torah takes a journey of realization in the innumerable concrete situations that render Torah into living teaching and relevant law.
There is no such thing as life in general, since it is always a certain form of life at a specific time in history, in a specific situation. The Torah must apply to the daily situations of human existence. If one sees the supreme manifestation of the Torah in its codified form, one’s chief preoccupation will be with the text. One becomes alienated from the life within which the Torah is to be realized. The Torah formulates general principles, but life situations are always particulars.
Therefore, the intention of the Torah has to be interpreted. All interpretation is an activity of the intellect. It is the conscience that creates interpretation. Logical thinking is no less authoritative than the Torah itself. New laws that depart from a prevailing rule may be created by logical thinking. Torah commandments can be overruled through reinterpretation of the plain literal meaning of Torah text. Logical reasoning has the validity of a Torah statement. If one has valid reasons, he has the authority to rule according to his own insights and after giving consideration to even greater authorities who lived before him. Exemptions, exceptions, and new regulations may be introduced.
Judaism is guided by Torah principles of doing what is pleasant, peaceful, and righteous. The Torah in its entirety exists for the sake of the ways of peace. Its concern is with the dignity and well-being of his fellow human, for it is written: “seek peace and pursue it” and “you shall love truth and peace.”
Corrective innovation is attached to the Torah. This is necessary because the Torah is always general. But its very general validity is, at times, unable to do justice to the particular or specific. It is impossible to mention in the Torah the entirety of what should be human conduct with neighbors and friends and in all business activities. Innovations are instituted to prevent quarrels and hatred between people. It is acceptable to go against the Torah or beyond it because of the importance of peace, leniency, and generosity toward fellow humans. It is sometimes necessary to go beyond the Torah, which in itself is right and good, in order to do what is right and good.
The Torah can be criticized. But that criticism is based on the Torah. One does not obliterate the Torah but expands its meaningful applicability. Broaden the possibility of serving a Torah purpose by new laws not provided for in the Torah. An interpretation can show that the plain, literal meaning of a text was never meant to be applied. The interpretation can limit or even frustrate completely the implementation of a law in actual life situations. It is expected to have tension between the Torah and the living conscience. Find solutions to the daily problems arising from the confrontation between the Torah and the ethical needs of the concrete situation.
The conditions in which the Torah was written no longer prevail. Reasons for new rulings are based on prevailing conditions. Innovative solutions are found in ways not originally provided for in the Torah. Deal with the problems of the day as they arise. Judaism insists on the human share and responsibility in the interpretation and administration of the Torah. The deciding authority is human pragmatism. The subjective human element was included in the meaning of the Torah from the very beginning. Interpretation is unavoidable. It is a vital requirement.
It is not for humans to ask God to reveal the ultimate, objective truth for all generations. The affairs of a people on Earth cannot be guided by a permanent hotline to the heavens. That is impossible. Interpretation is entrusted to each generation. Decisions are in accordance with their resolution. Interpretations accepted in one generation may be supplanted with interpretations in another. Both are words of the living God. The Torah takes note of the needs of the hour, acknowledging changes in the material as well as spiritual history of humans.
The Torah could not be complete in such a manner that it should be adequate for all times. New details are continually occurring in the affairs of humans in customs and actions, too many to be included in a book. One dare not relegate responsibility to a text. Each generation may deduce new particulars appropriate for new situations. At times one reason is valid, at other times another reason. For reasons change in the wake of even only small changes in the situation. Each variant may have its day. As the result of even only small changes it may become the accepted reason in its day for its hour.
Nothing more is required than to judge a situation according to the best of one's knowledge, understanding, insight, and reason. There is always a subjective element conditioned by personality, time, and place. Perhaps the person—having lived longer or at a different time—would have seen things differently and would also have ruled differently.
The Torah provides the roots: “seek peace and pursue it” and “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Develop branches from the roots. The Torah was not recorded so that it should always be as it is written there. The Torah is preserved so that a wise person, reading it often, should acquire efficiency in weighing up matters rationally, as well as a good method in giving decisions. The human mind can decide an “earthly truth” that the human intellect is able to grasp. Contemporaneous decisions deal with the situation at hand, the concrete situation of the hour, with which preceding generations did not deal.
The meaning of “the law of the hour” is that what happened here is something unique, an extraordinary event not provided for in the Torah. There is often no law for the exceptional historical situation in which humans find themselves. Create one for that hour. The Torah is meant for the normal, natural course of the life of a people. The moment is more sacred than any temple service. The unique occasion calls for a unique expression. The solution has to be found outside the received teaching. Find the right response.
Apply the Torah’s general principles to life. No written word can deal in advance with the innumerable situations, changes of circumstance, and new developments that normally occur in history. The eternal word of the Torah is a time-related teaching. Its generalities require realization in numerous different life situations. The Torah’s realization of peace on Earth is our responsibility, to be shouldered by human ability and human insight. Take into consideration human nature and its needs, human character and its problems, the human condition and its forever-fluctuating dimension, in its unique historical reality. That is the secret of the Torah’s eternal validity and the most potent antidote for fundamentalism.
Differences of interpretation and modes of realization of the Torah have been envisaged by the Torah itself from its inception. Intellectual tolerance goes hand in hand with the realization that the Torah is no longer in heaven. There is a high measure of independence granted to interpreters of the Torah, as well as a strong portion of relativism. It is a matter of coordination between the Torah and the human world. The coordination is possible because the interpreters are disciples of—and committed to—the Torah. Interpretations are spoken in the intimacy of affirmation, acceptance, and responsibility. Judaism presupposes a community that accepts the Torah freely. One enters it and belongs to it in complete personal freedom and responsibility. Judaism belongs to the realm of the spirit, and in the spiritual realm nothing fails like compulsion.
There is no such thing as the will of man. There are innumerable human wills, differing from each other in their subjectivity. But autonomous interpretations can degenerate into everyone doing their own thing, resulting in social decadence. Autonomy can serve a common purpose with the Torah, since the latter provides supreme principles to which humans are subject (“thou shalt live by the Torah and not die by it,” “all its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its path, paths of peace”). The Torah can protect human will from the potentially destructive relativism of its subjectivity.
Interpretation of the Torah carries within itself the awareness of its situation-dependent validity as well as a vitality of self-renewal. The Torah speaks with timely meaningfulness to all generations because of its ever-present capacity for creative vigor in its application. The Torah can cope with life. It is quite capable of providing a basis for responsible dialogue. It must be stretched in order to further peace and unity.
The Torah is eternal because it has a Word for each generation. Every day the Torah should seem as new to you as if it had been given on that day. One can find the Word that has been waiting for this new hour, for today, this generation."
As explained by Professor Daniel Matt, the Jewish mystical tradition (Kabbalah) offers a parable to convey the importance of interpretation:
Matt notes: "The Kabbalah sees the Torah as an infinite progression, an infinite unfolding of possible meanings. Don't get stuck at any one stage. Be open to learning. However, because of this allowance for interpretation, Judaism also recognizes the need for a safeguard. There is a danger that, if you cultivate your own relationship with the Divine, you might feel, 'Who needs a rabbi? Who needs the tradition? I feel the Divine presence, I feel an intimacy with God, and I know what that can inspire within me, so I don't need the tradition.'
"The safeguard is the millenia-old emphasis on אַל תִּפְרֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר -- 'Do not separate yourself from the community' (Pirkei Avot 2:4). One should be part of the community, have a teacher, and give respect to the traditional forms of Judaism all the while one is immersed in interpretation. Be wary of the selfishness that can disguise itself as high spiritual attainment. Balance and ground yourself. Be careful not to immerse yourself so deeply in the radical newness of interpretation that you forget the ancient origins. This 'new-ancient' combination is an important balance. The root (קבל) of the word Kabballah means "to receive." Kabbalah can mean "putting yourself in a receptive mode" (to that which is new, immediate, and spontaneous) or Kabbalah can mean "that which has been received" (ancient wisdom from the past).
In the first video below, Rabbi Brad Artson explains, citing Nehemiah 8:7-8 (particularly the Hebrew word for "meaning" - מְפֹרָ֑שׁ), how the interpretative tradition began in the Torah itself! In the second video, Artson explains how that tradition affects one's reading of the Torah.