Monday, October 4, 2010

Life Hermeneutics

School started last week, and this quarter both of my classes are scripture classes. They are also both technically electives, and so it feels like I'm spoiling myself. But I had good reason to go off the rails from the core classes. Each class is a study on a particular book, both classes are taught by women, and both are classes that are especially aware of the lenses we use whenever we human beings attempt to interpret something - whether that thing be an ad for a home cleaning product, the thing our spouse or partner just said, our own life experiences, or a piece of text that has been deemed Scripture by a particular religious community.

One of my classes is on the book of Exodus and seeks to examine Exodus particularly through the lens of Jewish culture, tradition, and religious interpretation. The other class is on the book of John and the professor, in her doctoral dissertation and her classes, approaches the text from a post-colonial perspective. Both are good reminders to me that regardless of the subscriptions I make to this or that hermeneutic (which is a technical term for a particular interpretive tradition, perspective, or technique) I am also bringing my own life to any text I interact with. After all, that's the magic with literature - it becomes part of my experience, which is then brought back to it, or to a different text, or to more life experience.

Last week in the Exodus class I learned about the Jewish interpretive tradition of Pardes, or Torah-as-Garden. Basically, in Hebrew the word Pardes(which means garden) is spelled using four letters and those letters make up an acronym for four different ways in which any given scriptural text can be interpreted. They are as follows:
  • Pshat, the simple interpretation. This is the most obvious and least complicated interpretation.
  • Remez, reading between the lines. This is the meaning that is hidden. In hebrew it might be looking at the numerology, all that stuff in the DaVinci code and whatnot. Or it might be looking for less obvious symbols, hints at a secret meaning.
  • Drash, the drawn out meaning. This is the meaning that becomes a sermon, that takes the text beyond the simple interpretation and draws out actual implications for the reader, or for life in general.
  • Sod, the mystical meaning. This is the interpretation that exposes the mystery in the text, something that isn't easily explained or turned into a lesson for life but takes contemplation. This is the interpretation that is beyond explanation but worth holding nonetheless.
Of course as soon as the professor put up the powerpoint slide and began to explain Pardes I thought of how we interpret, explain, and interact with our own stories. How human beings are constantly building the story of our own lives, telling it and interpreting it to other people and to ourselves. Even looking back in this blog, which has focused mostly on the adoption and family building part of my story, I can see how I walk these paths all the time. There are parts of my story that I am content to leave as they are, simple. Other times when I search for hidden meaning, for symmetry that transcends the simple details of what transpired. I myself am particularly fond of the drash - of re-interpreting my life in ways that speak to broader principles for living it in the future, or teach life lessons. My own mother was very good at re-interpreting her own life to me in this manner and I'm sure I'll revisit her stories and my own as little homilies for J when she gets older.

The tough part, for me, is sod. I am not so good at letting mystery be mystery. But this is precisely what is called for in much of what I am living - parenthood alone, even without the complications of race and adoption that are in my mix - is full of moments that deserve contemplation without closure, small mysteries that need to be honored without being explained.

I find myself wondering how to help J learn about the hermeneutical aspects of life. I want to give her the interpretive tools to read and write her life story through multiple lenses. I want to be a family that is able to tell our story many ways, both simple and mysterious, full of hidden and obvious and inscrutable meaning.

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