Wrestling with Words

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April 1, 2001
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Or Rose

I want to thank Dr. Aryeh Cohen for sharing his experiences and for providing a creative herme-neutic model that responds to troubling religious texts with both an intellectual honesty and an ethical sensitivity. As a graduate student in Jewish thought, I wrestle daily with disturbing Jewish sources – sources that I view as Torah – and I have found his essay to be a helpful guide in my own search for spiritual meaning.

I begin my reflections by turning to the last paragraph of Cohen’s essay. It is here that he applies the principles of his reading strategy and makes the difficult decision to exclude the disturbing midrash from his vision of Torah. While I commend Cohen for following his conscience and boldly taking his theory to its logical conclusion, I feel that the implications of this decision are not addressed adequately in the essay. Two questions come to mind.

First, in creating his boundaries for what is considered Torah, Cohen acts alone. In fact, all three of his biblical models act alone. What is the role of one’s religious community in defining such boundaries? Further, if a reader can determine the limits of Torah alone, can one also make independent or autonomous decisions about his or her religious practice? This issue is most striking given that Cohen teaches at a rabbinical school where “halakhah defines the parameters of daily life and interaction with the sacred.”

Second, the title of Cohen’s essay is “Teaching Troubling Texts.” While he speaks at length about his own struggles with the text, he does not discuss how his personal discovery affects his teaching or his students. Will he continue to teach rabbinical students texts that fall outside of the limits of Torah, since he views their text study as an act of talmud Torah? If so, will he share his hermeneutic model with them (assuming that they do not all read Sh’ma) or encourage them to create models of their own?

Another issue that struck me in reading this essay was Cohen’s treatment of the role of history in the religious life of the interpreter. Throughout the article he dismisses the historicizing of troubling texts as but a preliminary, and ultimately unsatisfactory, reading practice. While I agree that alone this approach is insufficient, I also feel that it serves at least two important functions in this situation. First, by placing a troubling text within its historical and cultural framework, one is able to establish enough distance from the text to challenge or refute its claims. This is particularly important for students who may not otherwise have the confidence to “take on the tradition.” This act also serves simultaneously to inject a healthy dose of humility into the interpretive process by reminding contemporary readers that we, like our ancestors, participate in the ongoing evolution of Torah.

It is my hope that these questions and challenges will help to stimulate further discussion on this important and complex issue.

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Or Rose is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic studies at Brandeis University and a teacher at the Jewish Community Day School in Newton, MA.

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