The Garments of Torah: Essays in Biblical Hermeneutics

By Michael Fishbane | Go to book overview

·1·
INNER-BIBLICAL EXEGESIS:
TYPES AND STRATEGIES
OF INTERPRETATION IN
ANCIENT ISRAEL

One of the great and most characteristic features of the history of religions is the ongoing reinterpretation of sacred utterances which are believed to be foundational for each culture. So deeply has this phenomenon become part of our modern literary inheritance that we may overlook the peculiar type of imagination which it has sponsored and continues to nurture: an imagination which responds to and is deeply dependent upon received traditions; an imagination whose creativity is never entirely a new creation, but one founded upon older and authoritative words and images. This paradoxical dynamic, whereby religious change is characterized more often by revisions and explications of a traditional content than by new visions or abrupt innovations, is strikingly demonstrated by the fate of the teachings of Gautama Buddha. For if this remarkable teacher devoted himself to the ideal of breaking free of tradition and the dependencies thereby engendered, his disciples quickly turned his own words into sutras for commentary. Among the great western religions, however, Judaism has sought to dignify the status of religious commentary, and in one popular mythic image transferred to it a metaphysical dimension. For the well-known Talmudic image of God studying and interpreting his own Torah is nothing if not that tradition's realization that there is no authoritative teaching which is not also the source of its own renewal, that revealed teachings are a dead letter unless revitalized in the mouth of those who study them. 1

Pharisaic Judaism tried to minimize the gap between a divine Torah and ongoing human interpretation by projecting the origins of authorita‐

____________________
Originally published in Midrash and Literature, ed. G. H. Hartman and S. Budick (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986) and reprinted by permission.

-3-

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