Monday, March 15, 2004

Jewish texts go way back. The challenge for me, at this minute, is to learn how to read them. The trouble is that context changes very fast -- the mind of Rashi (or Ezra, or Jeremiah, or the person(s) who wrote Bereshit Rabbah) lives in a different context than I do, and it is hard sometimes to understand what they are talking about.

Rashi (one of the greatest Torah/Talmud scholars of all time) lived in medieval France, Troyes, to be exact. His world is so foreign to me, it might as well be science fiction. I am trying to learn to read his language, follow his logic, understand his worries, and learn from him. The Hebrew (which is tricky, since it is laced with shreds of Old French and technical jargon) is the least of it: I need to understand how the man thought.

Today in Midrash class, we worked our way steadily through a problem. A rabbi "opened" the discussion with a passage from Psalms. In the format he'd chosen, he would work his way from that passage back to the passage upon which he was expounding (in this case, Genesis 1:1) and in the process illuminate some aspect of the passage that was otherwise not obvious. I had puzzled over it at home, and gotten nowhere. I looked at the Soncino translation, and got nowhere. We were two hours into class before it dawned on me (only, I think, the third time the teacher said it) that the rabbis were playing a word game on names.


They could do this because they were virtuosi of the texts. I, on the other hand, am just a beginner with the texts, and I have not only the Torah, not only Tanach, but the Mishna and the Midrash and the Gemara and the Rashi on all of it...and..and...and...a LOT to learn.

And people ask me why rabbinical school takes so many years!

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