Each Sunday morning, some TV preachers hold up Bibles in their hands and presume that ultimate authority can be lifted straight out of that book. They argue that the Bible says it, so that settles it, as though the presence of the book renders human input unnecessary. Many Jews have adopted that same approach, insisting that “Torah” Judaism is one in which the Torah has the final word—specifically that the p’shat (contextual meaning) is final. Thus, anyone who acts against the p'shat of the Torah is violating the will of God, and thereby going against the teachings of Judaism.
Yet that assessment of how we live the Torah is really an act of assimilation, taking on the standards of one type of Christianity as though it were all of traditional Judaism. In reality, Judaism has always insisted that the Torah means what the rabbinic sages say it means, and that the p’shat may be interesting from the perspective of study and scholarship (i.e. to find out what the Torah meant in its Ancient Near Eastern context) but that the p'shat was virtually irrelevant to what the Torah means for us today. For that relevance, we have always turned to the drash—the Torah as it is read by each generation of Jews. Not only is that un-fundamentalist Judaism traditional, it is a necessary implication of a belief in Torah sheh be-al peh, an oral teaching that parallels, elucidates and implements the written teaching. The written Torah means what the oral Torah understands it to mean.
One need not look far for examples in rabbinic writings. The Torah specifies that one cannot exempt oneself from a vow, yet the rabbis disregard the p'shat of the Torah to allow for rabbinic annulment of unwise vows. The Torah specifies the death penalty for certain crimes, and rabbinic interpretation virtually read capital punishment out of existence—in disregard of the biblical view. The Torah explicitly prohibits touching the corpse of an animal that is tamei (ritually impure), yet Jewish law permits it. That is not an act of rebellion, but an assertion that the Torah “is not in heaven”, it is ours to interpret and align with the moral insights of each new age. It is a way of continuing to hear the voice of the living God through its words.
In today’s Torah portion, we find a similar willingness to violate the p'shat of the Torah in the service of the spirit of the Torah. God instructs Moses and Aaron that no kohen “shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother, also a virgin sister.” Note, a kohen may participate in the funerals of his closest relatives: parents, siblings, and children.
What about his wife? The clear p'shat of the Torah is that a kohen may not defile himself by participating in his wife’s funeral. Rabbi Shimon ben Meir (12th Century France), the master explicator of p'shat, correctly notes, “No husband from among the kinship [of the priesthood] may defile himself for his wife.”
We are not the first generation of Jews to be troubled by that restriction. The Rabbis of antiquity and the middle ages also found it intolerable and unworthy of a loving God. If the Torah is a reflection of God, and if God is the loving source of morality, than any reading of the Torah that is unloving or immoral must be reinterpreted. So, they did impose their own interpretation.
Rashi (11th Century France), quoting from Sifra, an ancient midrash on Leviticus, understands “relatives closest to him” as only meaning “wife” and Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra(12th Century Spain) asserts “we have seen that our rabbis interpreted [the verse as] he shall defile himself for his wife.” Most detailed of all are the words of Maimonides (12th Century Spain and Egypt), who asserts, “as regards the wife of the priest—one must render himself impure, even against his will. … The Scribes gave her the status of ‘a dead person who one is commanded to bury’.”
The power of the rabbinic sage is supreme in traditional Judaism. In defense of the Torah as the preeminent vehicle for perceiving the will of the living God, the sage must be willing to read his or her interpretation back into the Torah, sometimes in violation of the contextual meaning of the Torah itself. To refuse to assert this authority demotes the Torah, from a living religious guide into a brittle fossil, incapable of refracting God’s love in the current age. To refrain from that traditional posture is to assimilate an unrabbinic view held by fundamentalist Protestant theology.
Etz Hayyim Hee, the Torah is a living tree. It is up to each new generation to water and fertilize the tree, to prune it, and to harvest its fruit. The gardener, not the plant, is the ultimate arbiter of what shape that tree will assume.
God cannot be restricted to the space between the covers of a book, any book. The Rabbis of each age, not the book, are the ultimate decisors of what the Torah will mean for that generation of Jews.
So pick your rabbi carefully.