A person is center frame of the image, seated in a full SVARA bet midrash. They are shown from the back and have dark brown hair tied back loose and low beneath a colorful knit kippah. They are wearing a colorfully printed fleece jacket with shades of purple, blue, green, red, and yellow. Others in the image are out of focus and in the background, but people can be seen holding papers and at the front of the room is a colorful mural that the teacher is standing in front of.

Once upon a time, there was a Queen who had two servants. She loved them completely and totally. She gave each of them a measure of wheat and a bundle of flax. 

What did the wise servant do? They took the flax and wove it into a tablecloth. They took the wheat and made it into the finest flour. They sifted it, ground it, kneaded it, and baked it [into bread]. Then they arranged it on the table and spread the tablecloth over it. They left it until the time the Queen should return. 

The foolish servant did nothing at all.

In time, the Queen came home and said, “My children, bring me what I gave to you.” 

One brought out the bread on the table covered with tablecloth. 

The other brought out the wheat in a box with the bundle of flax on top. 

When the Holy Blessed One gave the Torah to Israel, She gave it to them as wheat from which to produce fine bread, and as flax from which to produce cloth. (1)

No, this isn’t a SVARA original tale; it’s a parable found in Seder Eliyahu Zuta, a 10th-century midrashic collection. This parable is one of my favorites. When I first learned it, my understanding of the rabbinic project was transformed. The story uses an analogy comparing our relationship to Torah to raw materials, exploring what it means for us to be given the Torah as something to steward and protect.

Like the “foolish servant,” I have thought, in moments, that to protect and steward the Torah is to keep it as it is, to maintain it in its original and extant forms. Instead, the story tells us, our task is to be like the “wise servant,” to transform the raw materials of the Torah to create beautiful things. If we put the Torah in a box and allow it to remain as it is, we disrespect it, and we disrespect those who have entrusted us as proper stewards. To protect and guard Torah is to use it, to create something out of it that is more complex, more useful, more powerful than what was given to us. The Rabbis knew this, and authored this mashal (parable) to remind us of our role in the Torah’s creative expansion.

The Rabbis exemplify this transformative role through midrash—interpreting Torah verses. Through midrash, they understand and communicate that creative readings and radical interpretations of texts are always more compelling than literal readings.

Menachem Elon, a legal scholar and all-around SVARA hero, explains that within the rabbinic system of interpretation, there are two forms of biblical interpretation: (1) “creative interpretation,” which is when one does the creative work to source their law, norm, or claim in a biblical verse, and (2) “integrative interpretation,” which is when one finds a verse in the Torah that happens to align with a pre-existing law, norm, or claim. What Menachem Elon calls “creative interpretation” holds a higher status (de-oraita, of Torah-itic origin) in rabbinic interpretation, while “integrative interpretation” holds a lower status (de-rabanan, of rabbinic origin).

Several years ago, in a Fall 2020 SVARA shiur we learned Bava Batra 9a. In this sugya, we encountered the emerging rabbinic toolkit and how we might use our svara, our intuition and creativity, to guide us on the big moral questions of life. It was in this sugya that I witnessed the Rabbis’ commitment to the principle of de-oraita as the highest form of interpretation first-hand:

תנו רבנן אין מחשבין בצדקה עם גבאי צדקה ולא בהקדש עם הגזברין ואע”פ שאין ראיה לדבר זכר לדבר שנאמר (מלכים ב יב, טז) ולא יחשבו את האנשים אשר יתנו את הכסף על ידם לתת לעושי המלאכה כי באמונה הם עושים

Our Rabbis taught: We do not calculate sums with tzedakah collectors [to confirm how much they have received or distributed], nor do we calculate sums with the Temple treasurers regarding the property consecrated to the temple. And even though there is no [biblical] proof for the matter, there is an allusion to the matter, as it is written: “And they did not calculate with the men into whose hand they delivered the money to pay out to the workmen; for they dealt in good faith” (II Kings 12:16).

The Sages teach us not to audit tzedakah collectors and Temple treasurers, trusting them to do their work faithfully and truthfully. Even though there is no proof, the Sages tell us, there is an allusion. In other words, even though this law is not sourced in Tanakh, we can find an instance in the Tanakh on which we can lean the idea that we do not audit tzedakah collectors and Temple treasurers. 

This example seems straightforward—a one-to-one correlation between the actions in the verse and the prescribed actions. The verse uses the same word as the first section of the baraita (מחשבין in the baraita, and  יחשבו in the verse). Here the example is seemingly clear and simple; there is a one-to-one correlation between the actions of the verse and the actions being prescribed by the text at hand. What could be more ideal?! This should be a biblical-proof jackpot! But that’s not where the Rabbis take us. Instead, the verse is introduced by a statement af al pi she’ein ra’aya ledavar, zekher ledavar (“and even though there is no [biblical] proof for the matter, there is an allusion to the matter”). So how is this not proof? How can it be that we found an exact correlating case and the occurrence of the exact same case in the Torah would not serve as proof?!

Perhaps counterintuitively—but all too aligned with the radical queer readings that bubble up in the SVARA bet midrash—for the Rabbis, “proof” is about more than simply finding an example in the Torah of what you’re looking for. Proof is not about a precise match, nor is it about being able to make a claim and then point to a biblical text for confirmation. In the rabbinic imagination, a biblical proof requires more work and creativity. If you look into the Torah and find the precise case you’re looking for, that’s not proof, that’s a zekher, a “hint,” a “mention.” 

This concept is known as an asmachta / אסמכתא, literally “something to lean on,” or what’s commonly referred to as a “supportive device.” An asmachta distinguishes between a law developed through interpretation and one derived from other sources, with interpretation merely providing a link to a Scriptural verse (2).

The next part of our sugya shows the power of creative and subversive readings. The Rabbis used the verse in spectacular ways to support their claim: changing verb conjugations, adding words, and even altering a letter in the verse (later commentators call this a “great mystery”). Four years after learning this in shiur, I am still amazed by the Rabbis’ ability to call this interpretive work “proof,” while considering the exact scenario in the Torah a “mere hint.” It is a truly audacious and outrageous move!

Reading these examples together against the backdrop of Elon and our parable about the Queen and her servants, it is clear: it is midrash, the subversive creativity, that elevates something to a de-oraita status. If you can find a simple one-to-one correlation between what’s written in the Torah and the claim you’re trying to make, you’re left with a mere support, an asmachta

In learning this text, and discovering the true role of an asmachta within the rabbinic midrashic system, I found myself in the parable. I realized how I had been relating to the Torah as the “foolish servant,” expecting that what I’d find in the Torah is precisely what was written. But as we uncover the layers of creativity shouting at us through every word in shiur, I have learned over and again it is creativity that drives the whole system.

What is truly considered proof, what is elevated to the highest status of law and truth for the Rabbis, is the creativity of midrash. It becomes proof when we use the Torah as the wise servant did; when we weave it, build it, bake it, refine it, grow it, and tend to it to transform it.

The Rabbis do not want us to find what we’re looking for in the Torah. They want us to create what we need from the Torah. At every step, they caution us from becoming literalists, from reading out of the Torah rather than reading in. Lest we think that the closer to the original context something is the more power it is given, they introduce us to this midrashic hierarchy in which the more audacious and outrageous reading wins.

 

(1) Seder Eliyahu Zutah, Chapter 2. This is not an inside translation, y’all

(2) Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles, Vol. 2, p. 305

Read More