Through the Prism

Light dispersion illustration.Earlier this week, I came across an article by Rabbi Michael Bernstein, called “Seeing the World Through Torah’s Rainbow“.  It is an article essentially about the way in which Scripture (in this case, the heart of the Hebrew Bible) is amenable to a multitude of interpretations, rather than simply one interpretation (I must say that I regret that he uses mega-church pastor John Hagee as his example of Christianity, but that does not undermine his essential point).   Rabbi Bernstein writes, “When I look to the Torah, I do not see a static set of injunctions, directives, stories and blessings. Instead, I see the window into the countless generations of interpretations and conversations that have produced a framework not only for meaning, but for inspiring new creativity.”

I am deeply appreciative of the rabbi’s suggestion that scripture should inspire creativity, which is surely a God-given gift to humanity.  In an age when so many Christians seek to find only one everlasting meaning in any given biblical text and cement it in place for all time with theological superglue, it is refreshing to be reminded that such a quest for the “one, true meaning” actually works against the very nature of the biblical texts themselves.  Rabbi Bernstein likens the Torah to a prism:

Just like a prism that refracts white (really invisible) light into seven colors, the Torah itself refracts the unknowable and invisible truth into a rainbow of possibilities. It is this rainbow lens that I see when I look into the . . . Five Books of Moses . . . .

And this, I think, is not only the way in which the Torah works, but the way in which the whole of the Bible works.  The texts do not invite us to one interpretation, but instead invite us into an exploration — a spiritual journey — that requires us to synthesize in a creative way the texts, our cultural context, our inherited tradition, and our personal experiences into a fresh appreciation of divine truth.  How that synthesis happens depends just as much on who we are and what we bring as it does on the text itself.  We trust that the Spirit weaves its way into that process, but we cannot be entirely certain about where the Spirit is showing up and where our limitedness as human beings is showing up.  Just as physicists have discovered that the observer of a phenomenon is also a participant in it and can influence what is observed, so are those who delve into the Bible not merely readers but participants in that which is being read — and that participation influences which color or colors of the rainbow of possibilities the reader will see.

Very many people carry with them the rather romantic idea that it would be just wonderful to find the one, true meaning of the Bible and be done with it.  But the reality is that this is a relatively recent notion when it comes to the reading of sacred texts.  Earlier generations of humans recognized something that we often miss, which is that stories work best when they are allowed to carry a variety of meanings, including those that no one has yet thought of.   The stories of the Bible were written very much from this perspective, and, indeed, the versions we now have of those stories have been edited considerably from their original forms.  We now forbid the editing of these texts, but for centuries, there was no such taboo.  And, as such, stories were recast to encourage certain meanings to recede and others to come forward.

While we may no longer be editing the biblical stories, we should be engaging them with the same creativity as those ancient editors did, for this is how the texts truly come alive and function as the Word of God:  when they are brought into a lively dialogue with the God we have come to know in our hearts, with the selves that have been formed in our particular time and place.   For only through such a creative engagement can we truly move along in our spiritual journeys.

As the theologian James Alison points out, there is no such thing as timeless truth, because there is no such thing as timeless people.  We live embedded in time, God is revealed to us in time, and, thus, as time moves, so does our orientation to the biblical prism, and this allows us — requires us! — to discover colors in the texts that we never realized were there before.

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