Daniel Boyarin (Sparks of the Logos, Brill, 2003, pp. 22-23) gives the following definition for rabbinic hermeneutics: “Hermeneutics is a practice of the recovery of vision. That is, it is ideally a practice in which the original moments of the unmediated vision of God’s presence can be recovered.”
He then goes on and illustrates this model of hermeneutics with the following delightful story from the midrash on the Song of Songs:
Ben-Azzai was sitting and interpreting [making midrash], and fire was all around him. They went and told Rabbi Akiva, “Rabbi, Ben-Azzai is sitting and interpreting, and fire is burning all around him.” He went to him and said to him, “I heard that you were interpreting, and the fire burning all around you.” He said, “Indeed.” He said, “Perhaps you were engaged in the inner rooms of the Chariot [theosophical speculation].” He said, “No, I was sitting and stringing the words of the Torah [to each other], and the Torah to the Prophets and the Prophets to the Writings, and the words were as radiant/joyful as when they were given from Sinai, and they were as sweet as their original giving. Were they not originally given in fire, as it is written, ‘And the mountain was burning with fire’ (Deut. 4:11)?”
In this text, allusions to the Song of Songs are deployed very skillfully in order to describe the experience of midrashic reading. The Rabbi was interpreting Torah in accordance with the methods of midrash, and while doing this he and his listeners had a visual experience indicating communion with God.
It is not the forbidden/dangerous theosophical speculation (referred to in this text as “being engaged in the inner-rooms of the Chariot” and based on Song of Songs 1:4 – The King brought me into His chambers) that brought Ben-Azzai into communion with God, but rather the application of another verse from SoS (1:10) – Your cheeks are lovely with jewels, your neck with beads.
Since the word for beads means “that which is strung together into chains,” Ben-Azzai’s “defense” is that he was engaged in “linking words of the Torah to the words of the Holy Writings” as Rabbi Akiva linked the words of Exodus to the Song of Songs.
“In order to recover the erotic [?] visual communion that obtained between God and Israel at Mount Sinai, Ben-Azzai engages not in mystical practice but in a hermeneutic one, the practice of midrash. The essential moment of midrash is the stringing together of parts of the language of Torah, the Prophets, and the Holy Writings, forming new linguistic strings out of the old, and thereby recovering the originary moment of revelation itself.” This practice is accompanied by the visual experience also beheld at the giving of the Torah and particularly by the appearance of FIRE!!!”
I really like this interpretation and description of midrashic and rabbinic hermeneutics: a stringing together of passages from all over the Bible that leads to a recovery of the originary moment of revelation accompanied by FIRE!!!
Interestingly enough – this reminds me in a way of both the Puritans and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. The Puritans certainly knew how to string together ‘verses’ and passages from all over the Bible (of course including the NT), and Lloyd emphasized very much the “logic on fire” concept.
In my opinion a good hermeneutic can take place only when the student is well immersed in the whole Scripture (both the Church fathers and the Puritans were well versed in the Scriptures) and when the fire of the Holy Spirit kindles/illuminates them.
I really like this imagery, and I wish that in our studies and in our exegesis classes we would have part of this experience so that people would come out and say: “TTGST students are sitting and interpreting, and fire is burning all around them!” AMEN!