An Essential Complexity

October 25, 2012

          Edward Greenstein, in his chapter titled “Medieval Bible Commentaries,” strives to redefine and legitimize the biblical interpretative method of peshat. With thorough details of biblical interpretation’s relevant background and irremovable importance to the Jewish people and religion, Greenstein produces a history-oriented argument that peshat is not, in fact, “simple” or “plain,” as it is often defined. “Medieval Bible Commentaries” validates the gaps in Judaism that peshat filled by necessity, as well the retained philosophies and methods included in peshat as a compromise of tensions in the Jewish world.

Greenstein introduces his claims by providing readers with pertinent historical evidence of the introduction of biblical interpretation as a phenomenon to the Jewish world in the Middle Ages. He illustrates the stakes and relativity that interpretation holds on Judaism then and today—“Even when one understands, or thinks one understands the text, one often doesn’t wish to proceed too far without checking in on the sensibilities of one or another of the medievals.” (Greenstein, 243) The goals of derash, says Greenstein, are to read Scripture in a way that allows the text to be relatable and applicable to the current society and “to adapt [biblical precepts] to later social circumstances.” (224) Here, derash is prescribed legitimacy and necessity to the success of Judaism’s continuity, despite the admittance of derash’s tendency to seemingly contradict Scripture. With this information, the audience moves forward to learn Greenstein’s insight in the origination of peshat and its essentiality.

         Redefining peshat is Greenstein’s first step in explaining the difference between it and derash. Peshat is often defined as “plain” or “literal,” but Greenstein does not accept this. With the example of the interpretations on Exodus 13.9, readers find that the derash, in this case, actually took the literal approach and the peshat the figurative, in contrary to the common misassumptions of the two methods. Therefore, Greenstein argues that peshat is truly the contextual approach to the text, while derash is the acontextual method of exegesis. (Greenstein, 220) A contextual exegesis and historical meaning of Scripture is not always “plain,” but may often be “complex and figurative, neither simple or straightforward.” (Greenstein, 219) With this claim, the author uproots the common assumptions of peshat, exposing its innate complexity, which endows peshat with its legitimacy in which Greenstein believes. Since peshat is not just “simple,” we can better understand the nuances of context, history, figurativeness and literality that furnish peshat with its rational and applicability.

          Once this point is well established, Greenstein explains the influence of the Islamic world on Jews in order to expose a crucial element missing from pre-peshat Judaism. With Arabic grammarians advancing a system to analyze the structure and style of Arabic, Jews living in this community were excited by this linguistic science and wished to apply it to their Biblical exegesis. (Greenstein, 222) Greenstein identifies that the impact of Islamic culture on Judaism pressured Jewish scholars to find a lacking essential in their current methods. Derash did not fulfill the trend to treat Scriptural language as a science worth interpreting, but Jews understood from the cultural progress surrounding them that this was logically required.  A gap existed, and it needed to be filled. Greenstein begins to legitimize the purpose and goal of peshat as a required addition to maintain Judaism in a changing world. While Greenstein recognizes the threats of linguistics as a possibly purely secular science, he argues that the worldly knowledge required of this philosophy was actually a significant step to solve a problem in Jewry at the time, through peshat.

          The author transitions his thought by alluding to the contextual method’s reliance “on academic discipline more than on particular ideologies.” (223) Language and context provided a “common ground [for] conflicting religious traditions that base themselves on Hebrew scripture.” (Greenstein, 223) In reference to the feuding inner-Jewish conflict with the rabbanate and Karaites, and to Islam and Christianity, Greenstein claims that the peshat is non-partisan. If “everyone could respect” peshat, then the author is really conveying that peshat reunited a threatened Judaism and is therefore undeniably integral in the fabric of Jewish survival. (Greenstein, 223)

Karaites rejected the Oral Torah and rabbinic traditions in order to focus on philology and grammar to understand a Jewish life from the Written Torah only, influenced by the central relationship on the Qur’an in Islam at the time. Greenstein interjects here, arguing that the main ideas of peshat encompass the mastery of language as well. Again, peshat is a relatable method, even for the Karaites. But peshat, in Greenstein’s understanding, is not only relatable—it is the perfect compromise to solve the tension between the Karaites and medrashic rabbinic traditions. To expose this compromise, Greenstein references Rashbam in his commentary to Genesis 37.2:

“Rashbam emphasizes the superior importance of derash for the derivation of law and homily; he, nevertheless, will expose the level of meaning that can be determined by the contextual approach.” (227)

          The author is introducing the not-so-simple peshat through Rashbam’s explanation of this method, which is nuanced always by reason—language and context are not enough. Peshat is therefore filling the gap of derash with a contextual reading of Scripture while maintaining the reasonable and reliable rabbinic traditions that had come to define Judaism. Greenstein argues that without peshat, rabbinic tradition or contextual meaning could not have become united into complicated and nuanced, yet well-balanced interpretations. The author furthers his proof with Rashi’s words about the sentence in Samuel 1: “Now that man would go up.” (Greenstein, 233) Greenstein identifies two parts of Rashi’s interpretation: contextually and homiletically based. (Greenstein, 233) Again, peshat is in no way “simple.” The innovators of this method worked to balance readings of Scripture between derash and peshat, depending upon what the language and the reason presented. While derash is specifically accounted for all topics having to do with laws, peshat is still layered with the literal and the figurative, the historical and the linguistic.

            Greenstein validates the motives of peshat and credits Jewish continuity and survival to its success in the interpretive realm. He redefines peshat as a complicated, contextual reading of Scripture, which is constantly nuanced by the balancing act accrediting derash and rabbinic tradition with authority as well.  Peshat, as Greenstein claims, is a vital essential to the Jewish classroom, learning, and intellect and must not be disregarded as incorrectly “simple.”

By Lucille Marshall

Written for History of Biblical Reception with Rabbi Robbie Harris at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America


About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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