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November 4, 2021

Great D’var Torah! But What Are Your Sources?

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

So here’s a note that I received recently from one of our loyal Parsha viewers. I thought I would share it with you and take a moment to respond:

“Rabbi Fohrman’s Parsah thoughts are brilliant & insightful. I just wonder are there any sources for his theories and if yes why do you not quote them?

Thank you so much…”

(name withheld)

So here’s my response: I do work with other sources – and I do mention them when I work with them; it is how I synthesize those sources that is original. So, for example, in our video on Parshat Vayechi, I refer to Rashi and to comments made by the Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah. But how I synthesize those sources with the text – yes, that is original. Unless I state otherwise on any particular video, how it all comes together is nothing more or less than my way of seeing it. I am sharing with you, a reader of Chumash, how things seem to me, as a fellow reader of Chumash. We are two readers, trying to make sense of the text that stands before us. We are trying to understand “pshat” [the simple meaning of the text]. Any commentator we encounter – from Rashi, to the Ramban, to Seforno, to Hirsch and the Haamek Davar – is writing to you based on the assumption that you have already made an attempt to understand “pshat.” If you have not tried to do so yet, you are not ready to read the commentator – for indeed, you have not yet read the text that he or she is commenting upon.

Let me backtrack, for a moment, to a possible source of some confusion on this matter.

Many of us have spent a great deal of time studying Gemara, over the years. When we study the Gemara, we are trained from a young age, in yeshiva, to defer to the opinions of sages greater than us, who have written on these matters many years before. To some extent, that deference owes itself to a recognition of the greatness, acumen, honesty, and spiritual loftiness of such earlier commentators. But it also owes itself to the idea of legal precedent. Studying Gemara is not just an intellectual pursuit, and it is not just a spiritual one. It is also a legal pursuit. The Gemara is concerned with settling questions of law – and in questions of law, precedent matters. It matters in Jewish law, and it matters in American law. It matters in almost every system of law that one could imagine.

When legal matters – halachah – is not at stake, Jewish tradition has always recognized the right of all readers, in every generation, to look at the text themselves and to try to decide, to the best of their abilities, what it is that they think the text means. It is always up to individuals to read “pshat”, to try to discern for themselves what they think the simplest, most true meaning of any text is. One simply cannot read a text and fail to make these decisions; to do so is just to read words without attempting any sense of comprehension, and it is an abdication of one’s basic responsibility as a reader. The very idea of “reading comprehension” implies an attempt to comprehend – to synthesize – the words, sentences and paragraphs that lie before you and in some sort of way, ask yourself what they all add up to. This is what we all do when we read. And it is what I do, when I read, too. This is what I am sharing with you in these videos: My best attempts to make sense of what the pieces add up to.

If it is Really New, it is Wrong

I should really say another thing though, about “originality” in my work. When I say that, typically, the ideas that I put forth on the videos are “original”, which is to say, they originate with me – that’s true in one sense, and it’s not true in another. The sense in which it is not true, is that I’m not trying to dream things up; I’m not really the point of origin for the ideas. The text is. That is, I’m trying to share with you something that I think the text is saying. Ultimately, if I am right, it is the text that is speaking to you more than I am. I’m just a guide, not an originator. If, in truth, I am really originating something – if it comes from me and not from the text – then I have failed. Then, I am actually wrong. In order for theory that I put out there to be correct, it has to, in retrospect, seem “obvious.” If it does not seem obvious, or at least compelling on the merits of the text – that it should be rejected.

The Role of Midrash

The above take on things is somewhat oversimplified, because the truth is, much of what I do is, in fact, involves commentary quite heavily. I am often attempting to synthesize a kind of commentary – Midrashic commentary – with the Biblical text. (Our video on Parshat Vayechi is a good example of this.) Midrash is typically difficult to understand, and it tends to speak in riddles. But if one can piece together its meaning, I believe that one finds, more often than not, that Midrash provides an astoundingly insightful way of synthesizing the larger meaning of Biblical text. For those of you interested in a more detailed look at Midrash and how it can be read successfully, I refer you to Simi Peters excellent book, “Understanding Midrash” – and, to a lesser extent, to our upcoming video on Parshat Shemot. In the meantime, I wish you great success in your attempts, along with me, to discern the larger themes inherent in biblical text – to discern the beauty of each leaf, to understand how each is part of a tree, and to intuit the shape of the forest. To do, in short, what it is what the Almighty requires of us in reading His book.

Happy reading,

Rabbi David Fohrman