The Avot, Classic Commentaries and Us:
On Contemporary Parshanut

A reader who surveys different contemporary approaches to the avot might feel that this literature presents a choice between turning them into angelic figures totally removed from our experience of humanity or cutting the avot down to size by pointing out their many flaws. Is there an alternative to these two choices? How should we relate to opinions in Hazal that apparently whitewash the actions of biblical characters such as David HaMelekh, even though these actions are clearly sinful according to the simple reading of Tanakh? Should we encounter the biblical text independently without the aid of the traditional commentators, or is learning primarily about absorbing their interpretations?

In this interview, Rabbi Carmy holds up the Ramban as a model of someone willing to state that the avot sinned, yet at the same time able to maintain awesome reverence towards them. Strikingly, Rabbi Carmy argues that there is a relationship between how we view the avot and how we view ourselves. When we mistakenly adopt certain deterministic assumptions of pop-psychology, we make it impossible to view any human being as a creature of grandeur. Rabbi Carmy also advocates reading Tanakh and Hazal as complimentary sources. For example, Hazal's statement that David did not sin was never meant to deny the Biblical account where he clearly does sin. Rather, Hazal argued that while David may not have technically sinned, they wanted to teach us that hiding behind legal technicalities does not remove moral blemishes.

Finally, this article argues that we dare not ignore the invaluable work of our rabbinic predecessors. However, if we limit ourselves to merely examining prior interpretations, we will both fail to deal with passages of Tanakh that lack much commentary, as well as neglect creativity in exploring new questions that emerge throughout biblical study. A proper approach should be to think about our own questions and issues while remaining in constant dialogue with the classic meforshim.

Click here to read the essay (PDF 500KB).

Appeared as: "Imitate the Ramban, Not the Professors: Interview with Rabbi Shalom Carmy" by Asher Friedman, Hamevasser 38:1 (2000). (© SOY)

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