Interfaith Retreat

by Norman Fischer | April 11, 2006 at 7:27 PM

From a talk given at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, an an interfaith retreat, April, 2006:

...there are many levels of reading Torah. That is of course true of any text but more true of Torah. One could do justice to many texts by reading only on the level of "plain meaning." While it's always possible something might be overlooked by this approach, probably not much will be. With Torah though to read only on the level of plain meaning is to drastically misread the text. Traditionally it's said there are four levels on which Torah must be read: Pashat, Remez, Drosh, and Sod. Pashat is "plain meaning," simply what the text is saying plainly on the surface, the narrative, the plot, the facts; Remez is a mystical level, bringing our heart of practice to bear on the text, finding in it the meaning that uniquely flows from our own experience and life journey, going generally elsewise from the plain meaning, sometimes even opposed to it; Drosh is a reading that includes various textual operations that might enhance and alter the plain meaning: word play, etymology, references or allusions to other parts of the text, rabbinic legends, apocryphal material; Sod is another mystical level of reading Torah, but this one is a more traditional mysticism, perhaps coming from kaballah or other secret traditions that have derived new strategies of meaning hidden to all but the initiated. 

The four letters standing for these four levels are P, R, D, S, which in Hebrew spells Pardes, Paradise. The Torah, finally, is said to be beyond the Torah, a text beyond the text, the letters fly off the page and into space. In the end, the whole world, inside and out, is Torah, is, when all the levels of meaning are finally brought together, Paradise.

Here is a poem of mine called Pardes:


The trees bear fruit, the book Binds Like water brimming in the pitcher's Poured out steady till no drop remains By a firm hand, a strong arm The book bears them on through the storm Tree tops twisting, stripped debris shattered In the violent nights Though the fruit's sweet lingers on the tongue Like melody: That's the plain meaning

Beyond that and embedded in it Like seeds in a winter earth (Officially only a thick layer Atop a hard dark mystery below Exactly as deep as the plow turns) The fingers of connection reach forth Like hairy roots laterally Entangling other letters, heterodox meanings, bits and strands

(The third level now) Of lives, songs, opinions, certainties Wild stories, rewordings, revisions Attempts to harmonize or humanize Upheaval, sickness, fierce mistaken force The worm in the infinite, how sky Reflects the turmoil of the sea The soul's own sequential poisoning In its reversing desire to crawl out Of its own skin, like the famous snake That spoke for it in the orchard That had no hands to reach out, to hold

Then the inner turning The quiet of snow falling on grass and leaf With a hush beyond speculation and thought A meaning pressed only into breathing Or illuminated by the speechless waters That suck underground Into the capillary spaces that open beneath the feet In the winding uncharted journey of footsteps From one point of darkness to the next


Norman Fischer