At the Cardozo Academy's 2004 winter seminar, I spoke about the decline of traditional Jewish Bible commentary in the last century.** What follows is a discussion of why this is problematic and is largely an excerpt from this lecture.
Parshanut (traditional commentary) may well be the closest thing we have to the Divine voice itself. As such, it serves a critical function:
All historical communities have their own specific issues that need to be addressed. By the finite nature of its words, however, the Torah cannot, and, perhaps does not want to, explicitly address every individual Jewish culture. Throughout most of Jewish history, it has been the role of the Torah commentator to try to understand the Torah's implications for his own times. The premise of the Torah's Divine authorship has allowed the commentator to assume that the Torah contains new pre-packaged messages, meant to relate to his own time period.
Indeed, consciously or not, Torah commentators throughout the generations have discussed novel ideas they found implicit in the Torah, that spoke to their cultural contexts. From the Ramban’s discussion of persecutions to the Abarbanel’s discussion of statesmanship to Rabbi S. R. Hirsch's discussions about freedom and the dignity of man, their immediate readers were surely grateful to find their own concerns addressed in the Torah.
Parshanut, has thus allowed the Torah's terse writing on the one hand, and myriad implications on the other, to provide a framework by which to judge ourselves and to chart a course for the future. This open-ended dynamism has provided the Jewish people with the ability to connect with the Divine will, throughout the long march of history.
Our commentators can only reflect the Divine voice, however, as long as they respect the holy integrity of the text. In the words of Nechama Leibowitz, the primary demand of parshanut is that it responds to the spirit, tone and intentionof the narrative. This, because the rules of traditional parshanut create a vital set of checks and balances that forces us to root our own thought in the Divine will. Even while the Torahs message is refracted through the mind and culture of the human commentator, neither is the commentator free to say whatever he or she wants and then claim that it is rooted in Torah. By imposing rules of interpretation, we have parameters beyond which there is no room for error. These parameters create a necessary restriction to the individual creativity of the human mind.
I have mentioned on more than one occasion that the Jewish genius has expressed itself by working within the tension of intellectual rigor on one side and individual creativity on the other: A major Jewish work has to tap into the creative juices of the author, while still conforming to the demands that result from respecting the integrity of the text. This may be the key to the greatness of Jewish writings the author's ability to create beautiful innovative worlds, while keeping both feet planted firmly on the ground.
Thus, if there has been a serious decline in parshanut, it is tantamount to cutting off the Divine voice in our times. It is an abdication of our responsibility to listen to that voice and hear what it it saying specifically to us. In modern times, which has brought up so many issues in general, and regarding the new state of Israel, in particular, I cannot think of a more important time to seek the Divine guidance, waiting to be revealed by a proper reading of the Torah for our time.
This is likely part of a greater problem: An intellectual and religious fear has beset us for fear of saying something wrong, we say nothing new at all. It is somewhat ironic that one of the clearest insights I have been able to understand from a careful yet contemporary reading of the Torah (see Ideas 39) is precisely this point that choosing not to act is not an answer.
* Pirkei Avot 6:2
**The tape and full transcript is available by writing to email@example.com