An essay donated by Rabbi Allen S. Maller
Don't Read the Bible Alone: Study the Bible
with a Commentary and with Other Students
Reading the Bible is not like physical exercise. You do not need to think about exercise while you are doing it, in order to benefit from doing it. You do need to think about the Bible while you are reading it, because you are supposed to learn from reading, thinking about; and then discussing with others, the lessons to be learned from Bible study.
Other people, with different life experiences, will give you other insights into the Biblical text, even if you disagree with their perspective.
A commentary, especially one that offers more than one understanding of each verse, will give everyone, even your teacher, a deeper insight into why the Bible has been a great source of inspiration for so many different people over the course of more than 3,000 years.
In Jewish tradition, the best commentary is called Mikra'ot Gedolot, which is a large (gedolot) collection of (mikra'ot) scriptural interpretations from many different rabbinic sages over the last 1,000 years.
The various understandings usually fall into four general perspectives, all of which are correct, from the Jewish point of view.
For example, the famous narrative of Cain and Able (Geneses 4:1-18). What lessons should be derived from this narrative?
The four traditional Jewish methods of glossing scripture; each one providing us with different insights and different lessons are:
- The p'shat/plain text meaning concerns crime, punishment and repentance.
- The derash/didactic meaning concerns the need to deal with rejection.
- The remez/metaphor meaning concerns the two impulses of human nature.
- The sohd/hidden depth meaning concerns the nature of religion.
Read the whole narrative to yourself and derive as many spiritual lessons as you can from it on your own. Then read it again and again after you have read each of the following paragraphs.
- The p’shaht/plain text lessons: Cain murders Able due to jealousy, so envy and jealously are evil. We are our brother’s keeper. God exiles Cain to give him an opportunity to repent and live a more productive life. Cain establishes a town named after his son. Thus he repents and builds for the future.
- The derash/didactic lessons: We are not told why God favored Able and not Cain. It isn’t important because throughout life we will have to deal with failure and rejection. Often we succeed in love, in business, in sports, etc. and sometimes we fail or are rejected. Cain deals with rejection by scapegoating and killing his rival.
Cain takes his rejection as a personal insult. Cain should try another offering, or another time, or another way. He doesn’t. He blames Able because God didn’t favor Cain’s offering. He can’t stand losing. How have you reacted to rejection in the past. How would you want to react in the future?
- The remez/metaphor lessons: 4:7 is the key. Sin crouches at the doorway. We always have a choice. Rivalry and competition can lead to excelling or to destroying. The “evil” impulse (yetzer) isn’t inherently evil, but if untamed by a moral code (Torah) it easily leads us to do evil. Sex with love and marriage is good. Sex without love and marriage isn’t good. Extramarital sex or forced sex is evil.
The biology is simply the Yetzer or the yetzer haRah (the evil/wild impulse). The yetzer HaTov (the good/tamed impulse) is our moral learned response that makes us into creatures in the Image of God. God sometimes doesn’t favor us in order to challenge us to grow stronger in taming our wild infantile urges.
Our narrative is all about the dual nature of human nature. What aspects of self control do you need to grow stronger.
- The sohd/hidden depth: God does not ask Cain or Able to worship or to bring an offering. Able does it on his own and seems to prosper, so Cain decides to do it too.
Religions are human responses to our awareness of the Divine, but our particular forms of worship are not as important as our responses to other human beings. To be jealous of another person’s religious worship is a great sin that leads to even worse sins.
The only way religions should compete is through seeing which religion produces the highest percentage of people who in their everyday life are kind, responsible, loving, and charitable to all human beings.
All religions can help people secure God’s favor as long as people live up to the best teachings of their own religion. No religion guarantees success to those who use God as a weapon.
To read a holy text in such a way as to support evil acts on others is to follow the religion of Cain instead of Able. Let all believers be aware of this potential trap.
With few exceptions, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and followers of other religions agree on what their holy book says, whether it be the Hebrew Scriptures, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, Qur'an, etc. However, they often cannot agree on what their holy book means. Thus, each religion is divided into multiple groups holding different beliefs about what God expects from humans.
Many fundamentalists believe in the inerrancy of their own scripture. This implies that each passage has a single, detectable interpretation. Once found, the believer is often very resistant to change the interpretation.
The study method described in this essay draws on the life experience of multiple believers, and analyses passages in multiple ways to uncover multiple lessons contained within. Using this method leaves believers open to consider additional interpretations in the future.
About the author:
Allen Maller retired in 2006 after serving for 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Los Angeles. His web site is: http://www.rabbimaller.com
First posted: 2013-AUG-27
Latest update: 2013-AUG-27
Author: A.S. Maller