By Rabbi Allen S. Maller
Zafarul-Islam Kahn writes in the March 30, 2021 issue of the MuslimMirror, “Today we read the Qur’an or listen to it for thawab (reward in the Hereafter), not as a source of guidance and inspiration, and not as a guide in our daily individual or community lives. Even those who know Arabic prefer to listen to famous reciters of the Qur’an in order to enjoy the recital, not as a guide and source of inspiration and admonition. This is why our noble Prophet will complain to Allah on the Day of Judgement: “O my Lord! Truly my people deserted this Qur’ān” (25:30).
“What a severe indictment of our character – we have deserted the Book which taught us and made us how to be Muslims – a community which submits to Allah. It is the book which lifted the barefoot illiterate Arabs into guides and masters of the world within decades of its first revelation in 610 CE.”
As a Reform Rabbi I can tell you that after the first destruction of Jerusalem and the ensuing exile of most of the Jewish People to Babylonia; the Torah was also in danger of being deserted.
Throughout the time period of the Babylonian exile, the Jews waited for the day that a Babylonian or Persian king would allow them to return to their land and rebuild their Temple. When Cyrus the Great became their King, their hopes were rewarded. King Cyrus allowed them to return to Israel and rebuild Prophet Solomon’s Temple. He even promised to provide supplies for the project.
Ecstatic, 42,360 people (Biblical Book of Ezra 2:64) journeyed back to Israel, to rebuild the Temple. They laid the foundations; but the next Persian king was less amicable toward his Jewish subjects and halted the project. This status remained unchanged until King Darius took over, and in the second year of his reign, the Prophets Haggai and Zechariah urged all the Jews to resume the re-construction of the Temple. (Ezra 5:1)
Prophet Ezra himself had not gone with the first group of returnees to Israel in order to avoid any power struggles with the High Priest Jeshua ben Jehozadak. Prophet Ezra established a model text for the Torah, writing a scroll against which all other Torah scrolls were to be checked for accuracy: “…the Torah scroll of Ezra, which was kept in the Temple and upon which all the Jewish communities relied.” (Talmud Moed Katan 18b)
There are good reasons for considering Prophet Ezra as a new Moses, not least his role both as a priest and a scribe (Ezra 7:1-5, 12:21; Nehemiah 8:9; 12:26) However, just as Jews never worshiped Prophet Moses, no Jews ever worshiped Prophet Ezra except for a few heretic Judeo-Christian families in sixth century Yemen. (Google my article on Ezra worship)
What kept the Jewish People using the Hebrew Bible; and especially the five books of Moses (the Torah), as a source of guidance, inspiration and guidance in our daily individual and community lives was Midrash: the on-going study of hidden meanings in the sacred written text.
Huston Smith, author of The World’s Religions, a book that has sold over one million copies worldwide, claims that revelations, like the Torah, the Gospels, the Qur’an and other Sacred Scriptures, have to be interpreted, and “These interpretations progress through four stages of ascending importance: literal, ethical, allegorical and anagogic.” (anagogic is the capacity the text has to inspire people today)
These four categories are similar to the traditional four rabbinic categories of: literal, allegorical, moral education, and hidden (usually glossed as mystical but in reality much closer to Smith’s anagogic). Jewish tradition does not rank the four categories, although individual Biblical commentators clearly had their preferences; but if Jewish tradition did rank the four, it would place the importance of moral education above allegorical philosophy.
Smith’s term of anagogic, is a better explanation of what Sod tries to accomplish. The word Sod literally means secret or hidden. Just as seeds are hidden within a fruit, so too there are hidden meanings within each verse of sacred scripture. Just as the hidden seeds enable life to continue from generation to generation, so too do the hidden meanings within each verse provide inspiration for future generations, when they discover them.
However, the most important example of the power of Sod to inspire pious behavior in future generations can be found in the development of the Jewish legal system; an area that is rarely associated with Sod. During the Talmudic period, 1st century CE to the 6th century CE, the rabbis greatly expanded and refined the rules of Shabbat observance and keeping Kosher. Often this expansion was based on an oral tradition that described the customary way that pious Jewish people had observed these things in previous generations.
The rabbis believed that all future developments within Jewish law that future rabbis would find, were already there; hidden seeds within the original text. Thus, although in many areas of Jewish religious life, Orthodox Judaism seems very remote from Biblical Judaism, it really is not further away than many Supreme Court decisions that are supposed to be based on the Constitution.
For example, the Supreme Court maintains that there is a Constitutional right to privacy, but it is not literally written in the constitution. The Supreme Court rather derives the hidden seeds of a right to privacy from the Bill of Rights explicit limits to government interference in a citizens private life. From a Jewish hermeneutic perspective, this is a Sod inspired insight from the constitution’s regard for the civil rights of all Americans.
Religious fundamentalists, who usually take Scripture literally and simplistically, always have problems with the obvious development of their religious tradition over the centuries. They often call these developments; deviations, distortions and even degenerations. They believe that only the behaviors and understandings of the first few generations of believers are correct.
But all religions that have a history of more than two or three centuries, have had to rely on Sod inspiration interpretations to met the changing circumstances of human history, and that is why they are still alive today.
Indeed, it is the ability of Sacred Scriptures to inspire people who live in very different circumstances from the original group of believers, that provides evidence that the original texts are more than simply human creations.
A religious text offers several messages to those who study it with the four paths. At different times in our personal lives, and in the life of our community and our nation, different people will need and will find different insights in God’s inspired words. As Prophet David’s Zabur (Psalm 62:12) says, “One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard.”
There are very few verses in the Torah, or other Sacred Scriptures, that have only one meaning! Jewish sages proclaim that every verse in the Torah has 70 different facets. No one person and no one generation knows all 70 aspects because there are questions that future generation will ask that previous generations cannot even imagine. Yet Jews believe that each generation will find its answers in Torah through the four methods of study of the Jewish tradition.
Thus, the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) states that contending interpretations of religious texts are both the words of the living God. “Rabbi Abba stated in the name of Rabbi Samuel: For three years there was a dispute between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel, the former asserting, “the Halacha (legal ruling) is in agreement with our views,” and the latter contending, “the Halacha (legal ruling) is in agreement with our views’. Then a heavenly voice announced, “ Both (views) are the words of the living God, but the Halacha is in agreement with the rulings of the School of Hillel.”
Since, “both are the words of the living God,” what entitled the School of Hillel to have the Halacha fixed in agreement with their rulings? – Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of the House of Shammai. Not only that, but they stated the opinion of the School of Shammai before they stated their own opinion.” This teaches us that kindness is more important to God than truth when making judgements and legal rules.
Another section of the Talmud (Megillah 15-16) does not limit Divinely approved disagreements and differences to two. Discussing a verse in the Biblical Book of Esther when Esther says, “Let the king and Haman come to my banquet” (5:4) the question is asked; “What was Esther’s reason for inviting Haman?
Rabbi Eleazar said: she set a trap for him. R. Joshua said: she had learned in her father house “If your enemy is hungry give him bread to eat” (Proverbs 25:21) R. Meir said: so Haman would not plot a coup. R. Judah said: so no one would suspect Esther was Jewish. R. Nehemiah said: so the Jewish people should not depend on her and stop praying.
R. Jose said: so she could keep her eye on him. R. Joshua ben Korha said: she thought—I will encourage Haman so the king will be enraged and kill us both. R. Eliezer of Modi’im said she made the king jealous of Haman and she also made the princes jealous of him.
When the saintly Rabbah ben Abbuha later came across Prophet Elijah he asked him: Which of these (eight different) reasons prompted Esther to act as she did? Elijah replied: All of them. All the reasons given by the Rabbis are correct. People often have mixed motivations in any action, so it is wise not to judge the motivations and intentions of others too quickly or too simply.
Public rules for community behavior may need to have one view prevail, but personal and private issues can be respected even if we disagree. The great blessing Jews and Muslims can receive from the four types of hermeneutics is learning respect for those who share our faith in Monotheism, but not our specific beliefs and rituals.
Allen S. Maller is an ordained Reform Rabbi who retired in 2006 after 39 years as the Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His web site is: www.rabbimaller.com. Rabbi Maller blogs in the Times of Israel. His book ‘Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi’s Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism’ (31 articles previously published by Islamic web sites) is for sale ($15) on Amazon.