Friday, May 19, 2017

Values and Valuations: Embracing Derash and Peshat - Torah Portion Behar-Beḥukotai

Leviticus 27 discusses votive offerings to the Sanctuary: animals, houses, land, crops, possessions and people - a person could even offer him or herself, that is to say, their market value based on age and gender. The Torah (vv. 3-7) offers the following monetary assessments for persons:

value in shekels
value in shekels
1 month - 5 years53
5-20 years2010
20-60 years5030
60+ years1510

So for instance, if I make a vow to offer my 9-year-old son, I am pledging 20 shekels to the Sanctuary. If I vow to offer myself, I am pledging 50 shekels. What is the basis for these valuations?

Jacob Milgrom (Anchor Leviticus, Vol. III, pp. 2,370-2) cites the explanation that the amounts reflect the average that various individuals (based on age and gender) would fetch in the slave market. These figures are reflected in Assyria's tax of 50 shekel per Israelite landowner (2 Kings 15:20), and the 20 shekel price for which Joseph is sold (Gen 37:28) (G. J. Wenham, 1978). Milgrom rejects this view and suggests (accd. to Abravanel) that "these sums distinguish Israelite persons from slaves: all, regardless of productive capacity, bear a fixed price" (emphasis Milgrom's). He cites the Mishna (Arakhin 3:1) which states, "Whether a man vowed the valuation of the fairest (adult) in Israel or of the most unseemly in Israel, he must pay 50 selas." In other words, the valuations if anything attest to an ethos of equality.

What about the amount that women are valued at, as opposed to men? Milgrom likewise rejects the interpretation that women being valued less demonstrates their lower productive capacity (B. Levine, 1989), saying instead that "the relatively high value for female valuations indicates the reverse, that the woman was an indispensable part of the labor force, nearly equivalent to that of the male."

So I want to stop for a moment and make an observation about myself. When I read these explanations of Milgrom's, what I notice is that I like them.

Why is that? Well for one, I don't much care for the idea of people being assigned a monetary value, much less a value based on the slave market. And I can't say I'm partial to the idea that males are valued more than females, or that people become devalued once they've reached the age of sixty. Milgrom's explanations bring out a "softer" view of some of these distinctions. The figures the Torah gives in fact distinguish us from slaves. They show how highly valued women were in the society.

But here's my question: What do I do with this observation, the fact that I'm partial to these explanations? Should I embrace it, run with it, or should I be wary of it hampering my objectivity? My answer, at least at this point, is both.

On a religious level, it is critical, of utmost communal and spiritual importance, that we extract meaningful, relevant interpretations out of the text, so that Judaism should embody and promote our highest values (e.g. the idea that all human life is equally valuable regardless of age or gender). The Torah needs to be a place where we see these values reflected. So absolutely yes, run with it.

However on a scientific level, from a scholarly perspective, such a preference is arguably the occasion for added caution. "Wanting" something to be true, "liking" it because it comports with our way of thinking, can very easily cloud our judgment and prevent us from approaching the text with a focus on the most probable meaning. In addition to values inclining us toward certain explanations and not others, the process of devising original interpretations (ẖidushim) can itself be exciting, to the point where we can develop a "blind spot" and not see that in fact the explanation - creative though it is - lacks plausibility. So yes, be wary as well.

How do we accomplish both? I would say, by distinguishing between the two very distinct endeavors of peshat and derash. Here is how I view them at present (meaning that I see this conceptualization as a work in progress):

Peshat is the work of ascertaining - to the best of our abilities - the plain meaning of the text. It is an attempt to recreate the mind of the author/editor and understand their words from their perspective. It is by no means an exact science, but it is "scientific" in the sense that we expect our tentative conclusions to be based on the preponderance of evidence. It is detective work, much of it tedious, collecting clues and "fingerprints" which will lead us to an informed conclusion - rarely a "proof," but optimally with a convincingly high level of substantiation. Theoretically, it should not matter where the data points us, whether it affirms our values or contravenes them, whether it bolsters our hypothesis going in, or overturns it. True, there is no such thing as total objectivity. But we can take measures, apply academic standards to minimize our blind spots, remain vigilantly self-aware, humble and scrupulous, and "dust" for clues and evidence as thoroughly and carefully as we can.

Derash is a different realm altogether. It is the work of utilizing a sacred text to voice our values, our traditions, and achieve a pedagogical goal. It is a religious act, focusing not on the meaning of the text per se but rather on meaningfulness. A good drash in the "religious" sense is one that speaks to our spiritual needs, inclinations and aspirations. A good derash in the "technical" sense is one which makes creative use of any number of elements within the text in order to anchor the teaching, so that when we read the text, we almost cannot help but be reminded of the derash. To construct an effective drash on both counts requires creativity, artistry, associative thinking, and a combination of emotional, spiritual and intellectual sensitivity as to the needs of the intended audience. Not only are subjectivity, bias and preference not things to be wary of - they are openly embraced as part of the process of derash!

In a "clean" intellectual world, peshat and derash would be "non-overlapping magisteria," to borrow a term from the late scientist Stephen Jay Gould. Simply let peshat reside in the realm of science and facts, and derash in the realm of religion and values - and don't allow these worlds to encroach upon one another. Don't let values or religious sensitivities disturb our work of reconstructing the meanings and worldviews behind the text. And don't let the plain meaning of the text "force" us into adopting religious positions that we would otherwise find reprehensible.

Of course, real life is a good deal "messier" than that. I mentioned my reactions to Milgrom's peshat on the text. But what about Milgrom himself? Were his conclusions influenced by a desire for the Torah to say the "right" thing, to reflect the kind of Judaism he would be proud of? Did values seep into his thoughts on valuations? I think it's very likely.

But is that necessarily a bad thing? My inclination at the moment is to say that even if such seepage is inevitable, strictly speaking it is poor science. Not that scientists should seek to be robots, not that intuition, values and individual proclivities don't have their place in the investigative process (I think they surely do!), but that the conclusions we draw should come with a certain level of personal detachment, and that we need to minimize cognitive bias, so that evidence serves to derive our explanations, not justify our a priori views.

In order to aid that, I suggest that we also engage in derash. Rather than suppress our values, we should express them, give them a space to breathe - the circumscribed space of homiletics. And we ought to do so knowingly, explicitly, and confidently. We need to dispel the notion that it's "just a derash," that unfortunately what we want to say is not in the peshat, so we present it as a derash, a consolation prize of sorts. That thinking undermines both peshat and derash! It is a problem for peshat because again it implies "wanting" the text to carry a certain meaning. And it is a problem for derash because it "devalues" our values.

What this comes down to is the deep need for external justification. We're not comfortable "declaring" what our values are. What we desperately want is for our values to be "sourced" elsewhere - in a sacred text, in the will of God. Which I believe is why we talk about the derash (Midrash, Aggadah) of the Talmudic sages as hailing "from Sinai." It's why we - knowingly and unknowingly - remake the peshat in our own image by asserting that the text per se carries our values. In effect, we make derash masquerade as peshat.

I suggest instead that we take ownership of our values. Be honest and self-assured when making a derash. Don't fear the internal voice. Don't apologize for our conscience, our higher moral and spiritual sensibility. Be aware of it, embrace it, and use the Torah - deliberately, explicitly - as a means of speaking that voice. Earlier, I said, "The Torah needs to be a place where we see these values reflected." I worded that precisely, meaning that the Torah should be where we see our values "reflected," not externally "sourced."

I'll end with a derash of my own. The Talmud (Bava Kama 82a) cites the verse, "And [the Israelites] walked three days in the wilderness, and they did not find water" (Ex 15:22), and interprets it metaphorically to mean, "[The word] 'water' can only be referring to Torah" (אין מים אלא תורה). In the plain sense, the sages are expressing the view that the Torah is as vital as water, that we would die of thirst without it. But I will offer another interpretation, a "derash on the derash" if you will, and that is this:

In the stillest, calmest, clearest, most peaceful pool of water, when we look down at it, what we see is not the water, but rather our own faces reflected back up at us.

We have been looking at our reflections in the waters of Torah for thousands of years, in the form of derash. It's what makes the Torah "the Torah," a sacred, religious text. However, water is also water. The Torah is also an Ancient Near Eastern text, and those who wish to discover the peshat, understand it for what it is (out of pure curiosity, without an ideological agenda) will endeavor to the best of their ability to see through their own reflections and examine the text on its own terms.

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