Can Jewish Texts Expand Our Thinking?

Can Jewish Texts Expand Our Thinking?

Rabbi Richard Hirsh wonders if Jewish texts and teachings ever lead us to a position different from those we already hold, and Rabbi Jill Maderer responds, looking to Pirke Avot to help us find a way to broaden and challenge our thinking. 

By Rabbi Richard Hirsh

Given the variety of Jewish opinion on any issue, it is hard to claim that anything is “the” Jewish position. Pick your issue: the death penalty, gun laws, legalizing same-sex marriage, economic equality or health care. Any of these topics — and a myriad of others – finds Jews on various sides of the argument, often quoting scripture, midrash, codes or liturgy to back them up. If it is so obvious “what Judaism says,” presumably we would find more agreement and less dissent.

When a Jewish organization takes a position, inevitably a series of Jewish sources are cited to support the decision, as if it were that specific text, teaching or concept that led to that specific position. In other words: “I believe in X because the Torah teaches Y.” But I wonder whether this inverts the way things actually work.

It seems equally plausible that when a Jewish organization takes a position on an issue of public policy, it is already clear where on the spectrum of opinion they will land. If the Union for Reform Judaism and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America each were to issue a statement on same-sex marriage, it is reasonably certain that the URJ would be in favor and the O.U. opposed. Each would likely cite chapter and verse in support of its respective position. But it would not be as if those chapters and those verses led them to their positions.

Put differently with a different example, Jewish organizations often say something like the following: “Because of these Jewish values and these Jewish texts, we support restrictions on/no restrictions on gun ownership.” But what we really mean is: “Convinced as we already are that there should be restrictions on/no restrictions on gun ownership, we support our position by citing these Jewish texts/values in support.”

The interpretation and/or application of texts and concepts are no less subjective than the process by which those texts and concepts are selected. Exegesis, or “reading out,” is an illusion, and eisegesis, or  “reading in,” is the reality. More often, people start with conclusions and interpret and apply the texts and concepts that support them.

Do Jewish texts and teachings ever lead us to a position different from those we already hold? Or are those texts and teachings selectively cited to legitimate beliefs, opinions and positions we already have come to affirm? If that is so, in what ways does Jewish tradition challenge, shape and even change our perspectives rather than confirm them?

Rabbi Richard Hirsh is an interim associate rabbi at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood. 


Rabbi Jill Maderer responds:

If it’s true that, as Pirke Avot teaches, when we turn and turn it, we can find everything in Torah (5:22), does that mean that we can find anything in Torah?

In his book, Wiser: Getting Beyond Group Think to Make Groups Smarter, Cass Sunstein describes a study of a group of liberals who were gathered to discuss global climate change, same-sex marriage and affirmative action. As they talked, they all became more left-leaning. A group of conservatives was gathered to discuss the same three issues and after they spoke, they became more right-leaning. 

Sunstein asserts: Time with like-minded thinkers can limit the range of thinking we do. To which I would add: Time with like-minded Torah can limit the range of thinking we can do.

I am certainly at risk when I rely on Facebook friends for commentary, choose the columnist I know shares my ideology or when I stay safely within the comfort zone of my Jewish denomination, which is Reform. Yet, through participation in the Board of Rabbis and in the Kehillah of Center City, I am blessed in Philadelphia to be enriched by a diverse Jewish community. When engaged in pluralism, perhaps I am less likely to  seek out only the Torah that confirms my beliefs, and I am more likely to encounter the Torah that challenges my beliefs.

Pirke Avot’s next verse? “Reflect; grow old and gray with it.” May we learn in each other’s presence, reflect and grow old and gray with it.

Rabbi Maderer is associate rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia.