When I read the ancient rabbis’ discussions of scripture, it makes me think of how we Americans talk about sports. For the rabbis, it is not so much about who in the discussion is right or rigorously scientific, but more about the conversation itself.
Sports talk is the same way. Only so many games are played. Only so many points are scored. Only one team wins it all. But the talk—it goes on forever! Sports talk radio is still going on and on about a football season that ended with the Superbowl almost two weeks ago—and no NFL team will play another game until August! It is almost as if the games and points and players and champions are not really what matters, but the conversation itself. The same issues are brought up over and over. The same players and situations are examined repeatedly looking for an explanation as to why this team did well or didn’t do well. The conversation never ends, it is an end in itself. Old stories that haven’t been talked about in years are brought up again for comparison’s sake. Sports talkers mull over player injuries, especially ones that have not been officially announced yet, and they try to use this (dis)information to gauge the team’s chances of success in its next competition. They argue points from multiple sides, taking on various views to see how they fit and to make the conversation continue. The rabbis are the same way.
The rabbis talk about a Scripture passage over and over. Yes, they have their opinions. But one rabbi is allowed to have more than one opinion. The point is not who is right, but that the Scripture should be talked about in such detail. The conversation is the point. Americans often look for what in a Scripture passage is the essential, scientifically defined “point” of the text. What in it must be obeyed? But the rabbis are not looking merely for a dictum to be obeyed. They’re simply admiring the beauty of the word by talking about all the various possibilities of meaning without really settling on only one meaning. Scripture is more than something that has rules to be obeyed. It is the Word of God and therefore infinitely beautiful. It is meant to be viewed, examined, admired, talked about and appreciated.
Listening to the rabbis’ conversations about Scripture is like overhearing two art critics discussing a painting at an exhibition. They don’t merely give a thumbs up or thumbs down, they talk through the artist’s technique, his subject matter, his choice of materials, his choice of colors, his subtlety with the brush, the influences on his style, his intentions as far as they can be worked out. They are not looking to establish a “message” for the painting, but rather, they are admiring the work of the artist by talking about what he has accomplished in all its details with a panoply of bunny-trails for the imagination to run down. Beauty is not something that can be circumscribed by a definition, but something that must be infinitely appreciated, admired, upheld, pondered and cherished. Hence the unending nature of the conversation.