The Limits of Interpretation: Are There Red Lines in Peshat?

When studying classical Tanach commentaries, occasionally one encounters statements that seem to reject the interpretation of Chazal. Students are often shocked, since in matters of halachah all Orthodox thinkers agree that the positions of Chazal are authoritative. Why would this not apply to Tanach? Why would Rabbi Akiva’s viewpoint be binding in halachic realms but not with respect to parshanut?

These questions prompt further questions: if one may in fact disagree with Chazal about the interpretation of Tanach, are there any limits? Is any interpretation legitimate if it is rooted in the text, or might it be too creative, even sacrilegious?

Binding or Non-Binding?
Why are halachic statements of Chazal binding? While there are numerous approaches to answering this question, the most prominent view is expressed by Rambam in his introduction to Mishneh Torah. In Devarim 17, the Torah establishes the Sanhedrin’s authority with respect to the interpretation of the Torah and legislation (takanot, gezeirot and minhagim). As understood by Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, among others, Rambam asserts that any halachic ruling accepted by the Jewish people has the same standing as a ruling of Sanhedrin.1 This happened with the Talmud Bavli; the entire Jewish people accepted the Gemara’s conclusions, making it binding upon the entire nation. As such, no person, despite his brilliance or erudition, has the authority to argue with the Talmud’s conclusions.

While the Talmud’s authority was accepted with respect to the law, it is not clear whether it was accepted with respect to non-halachic matters, or whether the notion of acceptance is even possible, since there may be no such thing as a legal ruling on a non-legal matter. Thus, there are some thinkers who maintain that concerning non-halachic matters the positions of Chazal are not binding. This seems to be the stance adopted by a number of Geonim, though the precise opinion of the Geonim is the subject of a major debate.2 Many others disagree, averring that the non-halachic positions of Sanhedrin and Chazal are binding.3

One who adopts the first position can easily understand how, on occasion, commentators on Tanach argue with the Scriptural interpretations of Chazal. However, this is not the only way to explain this phenomenon.

The Seventy Faces of Torah
Often, when commentators explain a Torah verse differently from Chazal, they are not arguing with Chazal. Instead, they are elucidating the Torah on a level of peshat, in contrast to Chazal, who focus on derash. Peshat and derash are two methods of interpretation with different methodologies and goals. Thus, a commentator who elucidates a verse at variance with Chazal is not necessarily disagreeing as much as highlighting another one of the Torah’s seventy faces. This is often true even if his interpretation is initiated by questions upon the Midrashic interpretation; the alternative explanation does not reflect irreverence towards Chazal’s understanding.

Consider, for example, the commentary of Rashbam, who frequently questions Chazal’s interpretation of a verse and offers original and creative alternatives which interpret according to peshat. At the same time, he assigns preeminence to derash.4 On the other hand, Rashbam clearly felt that there is great value in the study of peshat, otherwise he would not devote his commentary towards explaining Scripture on a level of peshat.

Anyone who engages in the valuable pursuit of discovering novel interpretations of Scripture must be wary of going too far.

Thus, it would be incorrect to conclude that these pashtanim (those who seek a literal meaning of the Biblical text) are rejecting Chazal, even as they are offering interpretations that differ from Chazal, because they maintain that both levels of interpretation are valuable. But, Rashbam maintains, they may not be confused. Derash is meant to convey the truth of Torah on a different level than peshat. (While this is generally the case, there are cases where some Rishonim indicate that Chazal were wrong in their interpretations. I discuss this point in Illuminating Jewish Thought: Explorations in Faith and Knowledge of God.) Peshat or derash alone presents an incomplete perspective. Taken together, we get a more comprehensive understanding of the Torah’s message and come closer to understanding God’s will.

The Purpose of Derash—the Torah’s Inner Message
To better appreciate the goal of Midrash, and why it is a necessary complement to peshat, consider the following observation made by Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes (the Maharatz Chayot; 1805-1856). He notes that Chazal frequently use derash to highlight the extreme righteousness and extreme wickedness of many Biblical personalities, far in excess of what the text indicates.5 However, an important clarification is in order. The episodes recorded in Midrash are not thoughtless exaggeration; rather, they are precise metaphors intended to get at the heart of the story. This is true whether or not one presumes that they literally occurred.

As an example of this phenomenon, he cites the passage from the Talmud (Bava Batra 16b) that states that Eisav violated five major sins on the day he sold the birthright to Yaakov. One was the prohibition of having relations with a na’arah me’urasah (halachically betrothed maiden). Why do Chazal ascribe this specific sin to Eisav rather than simply stating that he committed adultery? After all, the concept of eirusin (halachic betrothal) did not even exist at the time.6 The answer, as I heard from my teacher Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky, is that the concept of eirusin highlights an orientation towards the future. Even though the maiden still lives at home, she is considered a married woman based on her future status of entering her husband’s home. Chazal recognized that the primary point of conflict between Yaakov and Eisav concerned their perception of reality. Eisav saw only the here and now, while Yaakov glimpsed an eternal reality beyond the present one. When Yaakov asked Eisav to sell the birthright, Eisav responded, “Hinei anochi holech lamut—behold, I am going to die” (Bereishit 25:32). According to the Talmud (ibid.), Eisav meant to say that death is final, that there is nothing besides our meager existence in this world. Ramban (Bereishit 25:34) explains that this attitude was why Eisav disparaged the birthright, arguing, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we will die.” To him, giving up on eternity for a good meal seemed like a fair deal. Yaakov disagreed; he argued that there is purpose in existence and direction to history.7

Thus, the aforementioned Talmudic passage is meant to get at the heart of the dispute between Yaakov and Eisav. It is not merely hagiographic exaggeration; it is precise imagery intended to convey the deeper message of the stories described in the Torah. Absent Chazal’s careful analysis, one might miss the primary message of the text and one could cogently argue that Eisav was an innocent victim while Yaakov was a scheming scoundrel. Thus, the interpretation of Chazal proves essential regardless of whether or not it actually happened in a literal sense. More importantly, failure to study Chazal’s analysis can cause one to miss the boat completely. To appreciate the extent to which this is true, consider the following: without Midrash one might read an entire parashah concerning tzara’at and miss its central lesson—namely, the evils of lashon hara.

Are there limits?
Thus far we have seen many commentaries offer interpretations that differ from Chazal, in the words of Rashbam cited above, “lefi hapeshutot hamitchadshim bichol yom—according to the new insights of peshat that arise each day.” One question that arises relates to whether there are limits to interpretation. Consider the possibility we alluded to earlier: could one argue that in the story of Parashat Toldot Yaakov is the duplicitous villain? I believe a careful reading of the pesukim does not allow for such a conclusion. But let’s imagine a person studies the text to the best of his or her ability and arrives at such an unfathomable conclusion. Could he or she say, “My interpretation is correct on a level of peshat since it is supported by the text of the Torah?”

Even if one simply claims his interpretation is true only on a level of peshat, an explanation that deviates from fundamental and universal assumptions made by Chazal is wrong and intolerable.

I believe the answer is no. To appreciate this, let us draw an analogy from Rambam’s treatment of Creation ex nihilo. The predominant scientific and philosophical viewpoint in Rambam’s era rejected the concept of Creation, accepting instead the Aristotelian notion that matter is eternal. Rambam (Guide for the Perplexed II, 25) rejects this position not because of the text of Parashat Bereishit, which could conceivably be read in a way that is consistent with the Aristotelian position, but for two other reasons. Firstly, Aristotle’s view has not been proved definitively. Secondly—and this is what is relevant to our discussion—Rambam argues that for a number of reasons the basis of the Torah is conceivable only if we reject Aristotle.8 There are limits. Rambam is informing us that when considering the appropriateness of an interpretation there are more than textual limitations.

I believe the same thing can be said about certain basic Torah principles that we know from Chazal, such as the rectitude of Yaakov.9 This does not mean Yaakov was perfect. Chazal themselves criticize some of his decisions. But there is no question that he was a tzaddik chosen by God to carry on the legacy of Avraham and Yitzchak.10

Two Examples of Red Lines
An illustration of this principle emerges from a debate concerning Nimrod. Chazal portray Nimrod as the epitome of evil. Among other things, he attempts to fight God through the construction of the Tower of Bavel and to murder Avram in a fiery furnace. Nimrod’s very name, which comes from the root mered (rebel), alludes to his primary objective—to rebel against God. (Who else could the most powerful person on earth rebel against?)

However, in the text of the Torah (Bereishit 10:9), the phrase “gibor tzayid lifnei Hashem” is ambiguous. Ibn Ezra translates this phrase as meaning “a mighty hunter in the presence of God.” This understanding allows for a positive conception of Nimrod: “Nimrod was the first to show mankind’s might over the animals for he was a ‘mighty hunter.’ The phrase ‘before God’ tells us that Nimrod would build altars to God and sacrifice the animals that he caught to God. This is the straightforward reading of the text [derech hapeshat]; however, the Midrash chooses a different reading.” Ibn Ezra notes outright that his explanation differs from Chazal, but insists it is correct on a level of peshat.

Ramban disagrees: “How can he be correct? He has transformed the rasha into a tzaddik! Our Sages know from the earliest tradition that Nimrod was evil.” Ramban’s principal contention is not textual. He asks no textual questions upon Ibn Ezra as he usually does. Instead, he asserts that Ibn Ezra has crossed the line cited above. While every interpretation of Midrash may not be the result of a tradition, basic and uncontested ideas—such as Nimrod’s wickedness—reflect tradition and cannot be questioned, even on a level of peshat. How did Ramban know this? Why is it different from the specific interpretations of the pesukim which Ramban frequently rejects, at least on a level of peshat? The answer seems to be that basic, uncontested assumptions in Chazal must reflect a tradition.11 Thus, even though Ramban’s explanation of the above verse differs from that of Chazal, it is in keeping with the basic premise that Nimrod was wicked.12

Let us consider one more example of a possible red line. Rav Soloveitchik maintained that there is no “peshat” in Shir HaShirim:

The allegorical character of the Song of Songs is a firm principle of the Halakhah, upon which are founded both the physical sanctity of the scroll of Song of Songs as not to be touched (Yadayim 3:5), and the sanctity of the name Shelomoh, occurrences of which in the Song of Songs are interpreted allegorically as appellations for God. The aggadic tradition also interprets the Song of Songs symbolically . . . .  The book cannot be interpreted according to pshat. In all of the rest of the Torah, we are permitted to interpret the verses according to either the midrashic reading or the plain sense . . . . In this case, the symbolic method is the only one we can use. Anyone who explains this book, in accordance with the literal meaning of the words, as referring to sensual love, defiles its sanctity and denies the Oral Torah.13

Generally, when pesukim speak allegorically, there is a mashal—the vehicle of the message being conveyed—and the nimshal, which is the message being conveyed. This is not the case for Shir HaShirim. While Rashi, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra all elucidate the verses according to peshat, they see the peshat as an allegory. What Rav Soloveitchik maintains is that the claim that Shir HaShirim on a level of peshat is a collection of love poems, entirely lacking in religious content, is false. Regarding such a basic and uncontested issue the position of Chazal reflects a tradition which cannot be debated, even on a level of peshat. Hence, Rabbi Akiva (Tosefta, Sanhedrin 12:10) said if someone treats Shir HaShirim as a love song, he has no portion in the World to Come.

The values, worldview and basic assumptions of Chazal are not the inventions of mortals but are traditions stemming from Sinai. As such, they are sacrosanct and uncontestable on any level of interpretation.

Rav Soloveitchik compared this to Rambam’s idea that when there is a tradition regarding the correct understanding of a particular verse, then all other interpretations are false. “In these cases, only the derashah exists; the plain meaning has been completely abolished. To interpret literally . . .  ‘an eye for an eye’ . . . constitutes denial of our tradition.”14  Of course, this does not mean one may ignore the literal reading. Rambam (Hilchot Chovel uMazik, chap. 1, 5) derives significant halachic and philosophical lessons from the Torah’s referring to this particular monetary payment as a penalty. Likewise, the fact that God chose to allegorize His relationship with the Jewish people through romantic human affection teaches us a great deal about the nature of religious love. Thus, even when the halachah (according to Rav Soloveitchik) places methodological limitations on peshat, one can never ignore the text.

On a practical level, this means that anyone who engages in the valuable pursuit of discovering novel interpretations of Scripture must be wary of going too far. Even if one accepts the view that the non-halachic words of Chazal are not binding, and even if one simply claims his interpretation is true only on a level of peshat, an explanation that deviates from fundamental and universal assumptions made by Chazal is wrong and intolerable. To be sure, there is no clear line. Great people may debate whether a particular interpretation is tenable. However, the values, worldview and basic assumptions of Chazal are not the inventions of mortals but are traditions stemming from Sinai. As such, they are sacrosanct and uncontestable on any level of interpretation. Of course, the above analysis will not always provide clear-cut guidelines. Some of the traditional commentators display remarkable creativity explaining Scripture in a way that deviates substantially from Chazal.15  I cannot tell you whether a particular interpretation has crossed the line. Such a decision often requires the intuition of a gadol. However, ultimately, we must always treat the words of Chazal with reverence and accept that sometimes there are even limits on peshat.16

1. This may be because the authority of the Sanhedrin is rooted in the Jewish people, and would explain how Rambam knew that the Sanhedrin and semichah can be reconstituted. Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman proposes a similar suggestion in Kuntres Divrei Sofrim, siman 2 (Kovetz Shiurim, vol. 2, p. 96).
2. I elaborate on this critical debate in chapter five of the forthcoming Illuminating Jewish Thought: Explorations in Faith and Knowledge of God (Jerusalem, expected Jan. 2019).
3. We should stress that the above debate relates to aggadic or philosophical matters with no halachic implications. Frequently, a philosophical question will have halachic implications. For example, the shechitah performed by someone who denies one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith is invalid.
4. Rashbam, Bereishit 37:2 writes: “Even though the primary goal of Torah is to teach and inform us—through various allusions in peshat—the teachings of aggadah, halachot and legal rulings through idiosyncrasies in the text and the thirty-two hermeneutical principles of Rabbi Eliezer and the thirteen of Rabbi Yishmael, the early commentators, due to their piety, focused on derash, for that is primary (accordingly, they were not accustomed to noting the depth of peshat).” While I believe this sentiment reflects the prevailing position among the commentators, there may be dissenters. Professor Mordechai Cohen has argued that Rav Saadia Gaon, Rav Shmuel bar Chofni Gaon and Rav Shmuel Hanagid all believed that what the Gemara means when it says “ein mikra yotzei mi’yedei peshuto” is that peshat is the primary meaning and the derash secondary.
5. Chapter 20 of Mevo HaTalmud, pp. 162-164 of the English edition (The Students’ Guide through the Talmud, translated by Jacob Shachter [New York, 1952]).
6. See the beginning of Hilchot Ishut in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah.
7. While the Midrash underscores this notion, Ramban demonstrates that it is textually rooted.
8. This is because if Aristotle were correct, miracles and prophecy would be impossible. (Aristotle believed that the universe has its present form as the result of fixed and necessary laws and thus cannot be altered by supernatural forces.) Yet the Torah clearly accepts miracles and prophecies. To interpret the Torah figuratively, such that there are no miracles or prophecy, would undermine more than the first chapter of Bereishit.
9. This idea was conveyed to me by many of my teachers, including Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky and Rabbi Moshe Stav. Rabbi Stav cited the introduction of the Sefer HaChinuch as an expression of this idea: “Among the fundamentals of the Torah is to believe that the true explanation of the Torah is the traditionally received explanation that is in our hands from the early Sages of Israel. And anyone who explains about it something that is the opposite of their intention is [expressing] a mistake and a completely void thing.” Rabbi Stav understood that this allows for explaining matters differently than Chazal, but never the opposite of Chazal.
10. Rabbi Shalom Carmy (“Homer and the Bible,” Tradition 41:4 [winter 2008], 1-7) offers a different type of critique on this sort of approach: “One manifestation of this ‘new irreverence’ is the proliferation of interpretations, presented in the lingo of pop psychology, purporting to take the Avot and other sanctified Biblical personalities down from their pedestal, and bring them down to earth. In Israel this is called Tanach begovah einayim. ‘Bible at eye level’ sees the Avot as dysfunctional guys very much like the ones in our society. For people like me, precisely because we want psychological insight to animate our religious life and do not want to treat Biblical characters as ‘petrified statues of ossified tsidkut’ (Rabbi [Aharon] Lichtenstein’s phrase), the results are disappointing. The tragedy is not only that they shrink the Avot to our size, but that failing to recognize the shaping religious personalities of our tradition in their magnificence, we lose the aspiration to live religiously passionate lives ourselves. We subject ourselves to the casual deterministic assumptions, clichéd depictions of emotion, typical of the therapeutic outlook at its dreariest, and adopt a philosophy that cannot grasp the dramatic, absolute, momentous solemnity of the moral-religious life.”
11. This may parallel Rambam’s contention in his introduction to Mishnah concerning uncontested halachic assumptions.
12. While, in this case, Ibn Ezra disagrees (perhaps because of Nimrod’s relative unimportance on a level of peshat), Ibn Ezra also has his red lines regarding when it is inappropriate to disagree with Chazal even on a level of peshat. These primarily relate to his objection to explaining halachic passages at variance with Chazal. Consider, for example, his famous letter concerning Shabbat. However, even in non-halachic passages where Ibn Ezra is inclined to disagree with Chazal, he prefaces his maverick ideas with qualifications such as the following: “v’im divrei kabbalah nekabel u’miderech sevara ein zeh nachon—if the interpretation of Chazal is based on tradition, we accept it, but if it is not, then it is incorrect” (Bereishit 22:5). At the same time, Ramban’s comments here must also be considered within the broader debate between him and Ibn Ezra (who is but one leading member of an entire exegetical school), which, among other things, concerns the value and role of Chazal in parshanut hamikra.
13. And From There You Shall Seek, translated by Naomi Goldblum (2009), pp. 151-153. See also Nefesh HaRav, p. 289-290 and In what sense is Shir HaShirim different from other Biblical allegories which should be understood as having a mashal and nimshal? Clearly, the fact that human love is used to allegorize our relationship with the Divine reflects the reality that the powerful emotions between people is the best vehicle to portray the love between the Jewish people and God. To appreciate what the Rav was saying, we can compare his statement to Rambam’s comments about Mishlei in his introduction to Moreh Nevuchim, where Rambam explains that generally Biblical metaphors offer insight on two levels: “The parables of the prophets are similar [to a golden apple overlaid in silver]. Their peshat [represented by the silver overlay] contains wisdom that is useful in many respects, among which is the welfare of human societies, as is shown by the peshat of Mishlei and of similar sayings. Their deeper meaning [comparable to the golden core] contains wisdom that allows a person to apprehend the truth as it is.” Perhaps Rav Soloveitchik intended to contrast sefarim like Mishlei, which convey wisdom and truth on multiple levels, to Shir HaShirim. Do not say that on a simple but true level Shir HaShirim is Shlomo Hamelech’s profession of love towards a woman and on a deeper level it reflects the relationship between the Jewish people and God; rather the only true level of interpretation is the nimshal. Of course, to understand the nimshal, one must understand the mashal. Hence, Rashi, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra all carefully elucidate the mashal independently of the nimshal. If that is indeed what Rav Soloveitchik intended, it would seem that there may be those who disagree. Consider Rabbi Yitzchak Arama’s introduction to Shir HaShirim, in which he writes: “u’mei’atah neva’er hamegillah hazot lefi chomer hamashal ki hu davar ra’ui v’na’ot, v’achar kach navo el hanimshal.”
14. Goldblum, p. 153.
15. Consider the following examples: Ralbag (and Derashot HaRan) contends that the people did not sin with the Tower of Bavel. God’s motivation was actually to ensure the dispersal of humanity in order to guarantee its survival in the event of a major catastrophe; Rambam understands that angels did not visit Avraham when he was sick, instead the episode took place in a dream; Rashbam argues that the brothers did not sell Yosef, instead they left him in the pit and the Midianites sold him to the Ishmaelites; Ibn Ezra asserts that Yocheved could not have been born on the way down to Egypt and that several of the plagues, including the first, affected Jew and Gentile indiscriminately, and Ralbag claims that there were no real walls in the splitting of the sea.
16. I would like to thank the following people who reviewed this article and offered valuable insights: Rabbis Mordechai Willig; Yitzhak Grossman; Matt Lubin, Doni Zuckerman and Aviyam Levinson.

Rabbi Netanel Wiederblank is a maggid shiur at Yeshiva University, where he teaches Tanach, Talmud, halachah and Jewish philosophy. Rabbi Wiederblank also serves as rabbi at the Yeshiva Community Shul (Shenk Shul) in Washington Heights. He recently published Illuminating Jewish Thought: Explorations of Free Will, the Afterlife, and the Messianic Era (Jerusalem, 2018).

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2018.