Is Derush Part of Torah?

Note: I’m unsure how to even translate the word “derush”. Words like “research” or “investigation” come close, but the way it’s used in Torah literature has a clear overtone suggesting greater authority. And then, as we’ll see, there are two distinct ways the word is used even within the context of Torah.

What exactly is “Torah”? Are there limits to the kinds of explanations and interpretations that can reasonably be included and, by extension, connected with the Mt. Sinai revelation? It goes without saying that modern efforts to understand how Torah law (halacha) should be applied to our lives are legitimate parts of the process, as are ethical works (mussar) that are designed to inspire us to properly observe halacha. But is any derush-based interpretation automatically included? What about commentaries that claim to fill gaps in the Biblical historical record? Are they “Torah”? By what mechanism could they be included?

Let me apply my question to two kinds of derush: interpretation and historical analysis. Many interpreters of Torah principles like Rabbi S. R. Hirsch and Malbim don’t claim to have a direct connection to Mt. Sinai but, instead, offer their intelligent sense of the meanings behind various Torah passages. They show us the methodology they used and leave their readers free to either agree or disagree with their conclusions. This class of derush presents no practical difficulties: its limits are clear.

Figuring out how to understand historical analysis, on the other hand, can be a challenge. Exactly what status do such commentators (“darshanim”) claim for their explanations? Do they feel that the actual thoughts and calculations motivating the events of each Biblical story are accurately and definitively reflected in their comments? Do the darshanim claim that they’re simply repeating what they’ve heard as part of an unbroken chain of tradition going back to Mt. Sinai itself? Do they claim to be inspired by some Divine guidance? And if, on the other hand, it’s all just assumptions, can that be reasonably called “Torah” rather than the educated musings of (very smart) human beings? 

Now you might ask what difference it really makes one way or the other. I would suggest that the distinction should impact the emotional and doctrinal energy we invest in the material. Does it, in other words, become part of the way we define ourselves as Jews. And, from a purely practical perspective, this should define the way we organize our learning time. If a commentator can’t really be called “Torah” in terms of either authentic historical tradition or by being part of the process, then we should devote less time to its study in favor of alternatives.

Here’s an example. Rabbi Moshe Sofer (known as the Chasam Sofer), in his work Toras Moshe, quotes a couple of midrashic sources relating to the violence considered by Joseph’s brothers in Gen. 37:18-19. He writes that the brothers considered encouraging their dogs to kill Yosef, but rejected the possibility, worried that an angel named “ba’al hachalomos” (“Master of Dreams”) would be free to tell their father about it despite their previous mutual agreement preventing them all from talking. Since the dogs all technically belonged to Yakov, however, the agreement would not restrict the angel from disclosing everything. 

While the discussion incorporates a number of midrashic and halachic sources and tries to fit them together in a quasi-halachic style, it’s most likely the result of a creative process. Would R’ Sofer expect us to believe that the way he portrayed the brothers’ plans and concerns was the objective historical reality lying behind the Torah’s verses? Does he claim to have inside information on the events? I strongly doubt it. 

How, after all, could R’ Sofer – and others like him – have acquired that knowledge? Was a kind of prophetic inspiration?

To my knowledge, no mainstream Torah commentator (previous to 16th Century members of the “Tzfat school” associated with the Ari and those who worked under their influence) ever claimed that explicit Divine inspiration lay behind their writings. Furthermore, I personally find it difficult to fathom what God could gain by delivering such inspiration: the Torah we received from Mt. Sinai is perfect and needs no additions. And Torah scholars (“chachamim”) are great because of their wisdom (“chachma”), not because of what they effortlessly overheard.

It’s also worth noting that, by the way they so sharply criticized each other, Medieval scholars can all be safely said to have lived under no illusions about the human origins of the Torah they wrote. This is certainly true of the famously sharp comments of ibn Ezra and others, but it’s even noticeable from the way the more conservative Nachmanides (Ramban) would write about Rashi and Maimonides (Rambam). These three examples hardly fit the way you would expect a man of that stature to describe words of Divine inspiration:

Ramban to Gen. 3:16 – לשון רש”י ואיננו נכון (“…those are the words of Rashi, but they are not appropriate.”)

Ramban to Lev. 1:16 – אבל לשון נוצה לא ימצא כדברי הרב (“…But the word ‘notza’ will never be found [in a way that fits] the words of the Rav.”)

Ramban to Gen. 18:1 – ואלה דברים סותרים הכתוב, אסור לשומעם אף כי להאמין בהם (“And these words contradict the Torah [itself]. It is forbidden to hear them or even to believe them.”)

I also find it very difficult to believe that R’ Sofer was in possession of a direct – and secret – oral tradition originating with Moshe or even Yakov himself. It’s highly unlikely that any such ancient tradition could have survived through so many centuries without being either forgotten or become widely known. 

Just what, then, is the status of such commentaries? Examples like this one from R’ Sofer don’t seem to be meant to inspire readers to repentance – R’ Sofer had no trouble writing in that style when he wanted to – and it’s not an addition to the historical record (whatever value there might be in such an exercise). So what benefit did great sages like R’ Sofer see in having us spend precious time learning their commentaries?

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