One of the (many) things I love about Judaism is its infinite potential to reinterpret texts. In some ways, this aspect of our ancient tradition is incredibly modern; like postmodern philosophers, our Sages were happy to read texts out of context, in their own right, and often ignorant of the authorship or background to the material. For them, the Torah was something beyond simply a book, and thus should be approached accordingly.
This flexibility may seem to many to be purposefully unfaithful to the text, and indeed, some of the intellectual gymnastics in which we indulge can be frustrating to say the least– but at the end of the day, it is precisely this dynamic approach to difficult stories, characters, and phrases which has enabled Judaism to continue to be a vivid and lively faith across millennia of instability and persecution.
One of my favourite examples of this phenomenon relates to this weeks parashah, Beshallach. The centrepiece of Beshallach is Shirat haYam (The Song of the Sea), a passage which we sing daily in the morning service, and which we quote numerous times elsewhere (including in the daily evening service, the Shabbat service, etc.) Shirat haYam is, according to scholars, one of the oldest texts of the Torah, written in an archaic sort of Hebrew that is difficult to translate. In addition, it is physically written differently– being only one of two sections in the Torah scroll which scribes layout in a particular format (in this case, like a brick-work).
Among the many praises and verses of Shirat haYam, there is one that many readers and commentators alike find difficult, Exodus 15:3, “Adonai is a man of war- Adonai is his name.” For a religion which continually attempts to affirm that God is beyond all physical reality, and certainly beyond physical appearance, the characterisation of God as a warrior is troubling, to say the least. It would appear there is no other way to read this verse; quite plainly it seems to say that God is a warrior– or does it?
Rabbi Yitschak Abu-Hatseira was a 16th century Moroccan sage who wrote a brilliant commentary on the siddur. When he reaches this verse, he introduces a totally other way to read it. The word for ‘man’ can also mean ‘husband,’ just as ‘wife’ and ‘woman’ are the same word. Thus, he creatively re-reads the verse as ‘God is the husband of War.’ He explains that the divine presence of God on Earth, called the Shekhinah and conceived of as feminine, was actually the one to conduct the war against Pharaoh. Not only was it Her who used the divine armies to defeat Pharaoh and split the sea, but it was Her who leads all war.
While a feminine divinity responsible for war may not solve the problem of apparent polytheistic tendencies, it does demonstrate to us how flexible the Torah can be. That verse can mean two very different things (and likely more than those two): 1) God is a warrior, 2) God is a husband to War. Perhaps most critically for our anachronistic postmodernism, we never need to settle on which is correct. We have no council, no authority, no pope and no Sage who has the right to decide which reading is the ‘right’ one. Instead, our tradition invites us to creatively re-read the text over and over and over again, each time finding new meaning in it.
For me, as we read Shirat haYam, the reminder of how broad our understanding can reach while still relating to the text in front of us, is an apt message for Beshallach. We all walked through that sea together, reached the other side, and after much tribulation, received the Torah which is in our hands today. Yet when we look back, each of us can see something different in it, each of able to find a new reading, a new interpretation– and through that, continue to renew the Torah itself.