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    Interpreting Judaism – Vayyishlach

    Jacob & the angel, by Gustave Doré, 1855

    The Ashkenazi Haftarah for Vayyishlach (Hosea 11:7-12:12) not only recalls the Jacob story, but interprets it.

    The sidra tells us that Jacob spends all night wrestling with a man (Gen. 32:25). The Torah does not identify the man, but the Haftarah does. It says, “By his strength he strove with a godlike being; he strove with an angel and prevailed” (Hos. 12:4-5).

    What is happening here is the development of Biblical commentary even while the Bible is in process of growth.

    The way Jewish exegesis works is that there is not necessarily just one possible interpretation. The Talmud and Midrash abound with examples. It is the beauty of Judaism that it is not the exclusive preserve of an intellectual elite but the precious possession of the whole people, and all are entitled to a say.

    We can even pit our minds against the great scholars of the generations. We can talk to and even take issue with Rashi, and Rashi with us.

    That is not to say that anybody can come up with an outlandish interpretation arising out of their own personal opinions and prejudices. There is a discipline within the intellectual democracy of Judaism.

    An interpretation must be moulded by the traditions of the past and developed from within the system, not from outside it. Not only in scriptural interpretation, but in every other aspect of Judaism.

    No-one, rabbi or lay person, is entitled to create their own Judaism. That would lead to anarchy and chaos. There is a degree of flexibility, but within the system and determined by its parameters.

    This is why radical reforms have no place within Judaism. To take kashrut out of Judaism, for example, and claim the result is still Judaism is to abandon the system and betray the tradition.

    To abolish the gett, or to define Jewish identity without the matrilineal principle, is to develop something which simply is not Judaism. To reject the principle of life after death or the Mashi’ach is to part company with Jewish theology.

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