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The Perfect Torah: Psalm 19 and Ancient Jewish Readers

Sun, December 16, 10:00 to 11:30am, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Cambridge 2

Abstract

Psalm 19:8, which begins, “The Torah of Yahweh is perfect, reviving the soul,” is often taken as an implicit assumption that lies behind various practices of biblical interpretation in antiquity. If the Torah is perfect, the thinking goes, then its irregularities and idiosyncrasies are not simple scribal errors or mistakes: they are deeply meaningful and subtle shifts in the transcript of the text, each laden with theological meaning. This mode of thought is often attributed to the Rabbis, and considered a basic assumption of their interpretive practice.
This paper looks at Psalm 19:8 and its interpretation among Jewish readers to reconsider the validity of this assertion. In a repeated rabbinic tradition, this verse is invoked as a prooftext that smooths over an exegetical difficulty for the rabbis: the shifting grammatical gender of the Hebrew word derekh in Exodus 18:20 and Deuteronomy 28:7. In acknowledging that the text itself contains a problem, the rabbis implicitly hold up the text as fallible. Their solution makes this even more clear: the rabbis claim that the feminine usage of derekh is a placeholder for Torah, citing Ps. 19:8 as their example. The derekh is the perfect Torah--but perfection, in this case, seems to overlap with mutability. This paper examines the various understandings of the “perfect Torah” that stem from this verse, arguing that the Torah’s inviolability is somewhat less of an issue for the rabbis than previously thought.

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