Thoughts About Reading and Interpretation


So, lately I’ve been thinking about reading, and also interpretation.  I think the two definitely go together, because when we read (whether it’s a book, another person, or a situation), we automatically interpret – the two go hand in hand.  To read is to interpret.  That’s why I really resonate with the idea that when we are happy, we see a happy world, just as when we are sad, we see a sad world.  I understand that to mean that the world we see is a reflection of how we think.  In other words, when we are happy, the world is happy, because that is the psychological framework from which we are interpreting.  When we are sad, the world is sad, because our interpretation has shifted, and now we are seeing the world that way instead.  This is, I believe, a core idea of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, i.e. there is a massive and strong connection between how we think about ourselves and how we see the world.  If we are peaceful, I think we see a peaceful world, or at least understand the terror of this world to come from a place of fear instead of love.  But if we are not feeling peaceful, our attention zeroes in on situations that are not peaceful, and we interpret them as evidence that the world is full of suffering, say, or that the universe is a hostile and fearful place, instead of a place capable of immense love.

I was thinking about these ideas because I have lately been reading two books related to  Jewish mysticism – Kabbalah by Gershom Scholem, and The Pritzker Zohar translated by Daniel Matt – and reading these books has me thinking about how powerful interpretation really is.  For the Jewish mystics approached the Hebrew Bible (the Five Books of Moses, Prophets and Writings) from a totally different perspective from conventional religion.  The mystics believed that the Hebrew Bible contained secrets about the universe, the self, the creation of the universe, and/but these secrets were only available to a particular form or mode of interpretation.  Another way of saying this is that the Hebrew Bible reflected back to its readers what the readers brought to it.  If the reader came to the Bible in search of compelling narratives about people that still applies today, that’s what they would find.  If they wanted to find literal answers in a fundamentalist vein, that’s what they’d find.  And if they interpreted the text anagogically, then they would find spiritual truths that were universal and applicable in many ages.

I think this is why I love reading so much.  Reading is in many ways a training of, an apprenticeship to, new ways of interpretation.  When we wrestle with a text, when we expand our vocabulary, when we open our mind to new interpretations, then we are really, in the words of the literary critic Harold Bloom, “augmenting our self.”  We are then growing, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, because we are acknowledging that we don’t know everything, that it is possible that the next day might just bring a book that will change our lives forever.  I think that’s how the mystics read the Hebrew Bible – as a text that was so utterly rich and alive and fascinating, booming and shaking with meaning, that each letter in the Hebrew Bible carries an immense weight of meaning.  They read it as essentially a perfect book that breathed new life into its reader.  This is, like most things, a way of reading and interpreting that is new to me, and I think it is worth taking seriously.

The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Vol. 1


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