To be an observant Jew, do you have to believe the moon can talk?
This question, posed one day by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, left a roomful of rabbinical students at Yeshiva University scratching their heads.
But, rather than giving them an answer, Goldin used the question to examine the difference in Torah study between midrash, considered an accepted interpretation of a text, and pshat, or what is understood to be its plain meaning.
"I feel very strongly that the way we teach chumash in school is problematic, since we fail to distinguish for students between pshat and midrash, and they end up understanding neither," said Goldin, a point he makes in the introduction to the first volume of his contemporary study of the Torah, "Unlocking the Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey into the Weekly Parsha" (Gefen Publishing, ‘007). The publication of that volume, dealing with the book of Genesis, is timed to coincide with the start of the new Torah cycle. He has already begun work on volume two in the series, dealing with the Book of Exodus.
"Part of what I’ve tried to do is show that midrash has its place, and, at the same time, how beautiful, pertinent, and relevant pshat can be. If you think midrash is the understanding of text, you’ll never look at the lesson beyond it," he explained.
Like any rabbi, Shmuel Goldin loves to ask questions questions to which there may not be straightforward or simple answers.
He’s been asking them for so many years of his rabbinical students at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, of his congregants and others who attend his Tuesday morning classes in the Eve Flechner Torah Institute at Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood, and of a group that studies with him during summers he spends in Woodbridge, N.Y. that he finally decided to write them all down.
Goldin hopes the series, an outgrowth of his classroom instruction, will fill a particular niche, somewhere between popular parasha books that offer brief analyses of the week’s Torah portion for people with little background in Jewish study, and works by Bible scholars like Nechama Leibowitz, complex exegesis targeted to an academic audience.
If the response to his classes by the strictly observant crowd in Woodbridge is any gauge, Goldin’s book will be a surefire winner. "It’s hard to be humble because [the classes] have become something of a phenomenon," said Goldin with characteristic modesty. "The women have told me that this is the first time anyone’s challenged them to think. The men were all hiding behind the mechitza, trying to listen, so I finally started a class for them, too.
"I take each parasha and divide it into four or five sugyot, narratives," he said of his approach to the material. In each, he raises what he considers to be the critical questions, reviewing the classical responses and intertwining or appending original ideas. Finally, he offers "points to ponder," he said, "raising current issues and asking how Torah can be applied to our lives now."
The questions that interest Goldin most, he said, do not concern placement of particular letters in the text, but rather those of a more global nature. Examples abound in Bereishit, he noted: Why did Avraham argue with God about Sodom but not during the Akeda? Why is he silent in one episode, but not another? If God created all male and female animals simultaneously, but created Adam before Eve, what was the original reason for Adam’s aloneness? Why did God create the Tree of Knowledge and then forbid man to eat from it? Why did Rivka tell Ya’akov to lie to his father?
Goldin closely explores seeming textual contradictions, like Avraham’s declaration at the end of his life that he is both a stranger and a citizen (l’gur v’ toshav) and the fact that the sun and the moon in the creation story are described at once as two great luminaries and as one being large and the other small.
Biblical personalities likewise come in for scrutiny that reveals fascinating patterns and evolutions. The character of Lot, for instance, is presented in three different ways in relation to the city of Sodom, a fact that gives rise to Goldin’s "long study of Lot and why he acts as he does." In the first reference, Lot is living in a tent "ad Sodom," and the word "ad" is open to two interpretations: "up to and including" or "up to but not including," said Goldin. "’Tented’ implies that his dwelling is temporary, that Lot is ambivalent, with one foot in and one foot out of the city."
In the following chapter, Goldin noted, Lot has taken up residence in Sodom. By the final reference, Lot is again sitting outside its boundaries, but this time at the city gates, where the elders generally congregate. Goldin wonders: Has Lot evolved into a man who thinks he can resist the pull of Sodom, who can avoid getting sucked into the city’s questionable practices?
In the case of Avraham, Goldin offers an explanation that elevates the pshat to a level of deep understanding. In calling himself, before his death, both a "gur," a temporary resident or stranger, and a "toshav,"a permanent resident or citizen, which at face value are mutually contradictory, Avraham might well be "defining his own place in society that summarizes the place of the Jew throughout history. What are we?," asked Goldin, answering, "strangers and citizens," and paraphrasing Avraham: "’I know now [at the end of my life] that I am at once a citizen who may rise to the top echelons of involvement in this society, but I will always remain a stranger to maintain my own identity.’" Midrashic readings treat Avraham’s statement as either chronological "I was a stranger, and now I am a citizen" or as presenting his listeners with a choice: "I can be either a stranger or a citizen, depending on how you treat me."
"Those are fine explanations," said Goldin of the midrash. "But, it is possible that the richest [interpretation] is one that takes the text at face value."
Not that a straightforward reading always yields an obvious explanation or insight. "I was having a disagreement with one of my rabbinic colleagues on the pshat of the passages that alternately describe the sun and the moon as great luminaries and as one large and one small," Goldin related. "My pshat is that, from man’s perspective, they are equivalent solar bodies, but from the perspective of their capacity to illuminate, they underscore the miracle of creation, the creation of day and night, enabling life to exist on this planet. Another rabbi told me he had a different understanding, a different pshat."
Goldin will discuss his book and sign copies at the Judaica House in Teaneck on Sunday from noon to ‘ p.m.