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Saturday, January 14, 2006

Pshat and Drash

In his masterpiece Peshat and Derash, David Weiss HaLivni writes (pg. 8):

The modern state of mind demands a greater faithfulness to the simple, literal meaning (to the pshat), and a greater obligation to preserve it. Only in the face of virtually insurmountable problems is this approach abandoned. The presence of an extra word, letter, or even an entire phrase can be easily seen as a stylistic peculiarity. Peshat, from this point of view is synonymous with exegetical truth, and one does not abandon truth lightly. But to the rabbis of the Talmud, deviation from peshat was not repugnant. Their interpretive state of mind saw no fault with an occasional reading in. It was not against their exegetical conscience, even though it may be against ours.

The argument professor HaLivni basically makes is that it is wrong to judge the midrashim of chazal by our current societal sensitivities and standards that have a preference for simple readings of texts. This is nothing less then an imposition of our own sensitivities onto Holy texts that very well might have been primarily written with drash in mind. In other words what the modern mind of the skeptic often sees as the brutalization of the text and a deviancy from its true meaning might actually be a more accurate reading of scripture to which chazal had more proper sensitivities.