Harmonisation as Theological Hermeneutic:
The Interpretative Methodology of Rabbi Shemuel Bornstein of Sochaczew
This page is devoted to my PhD dissertation, which I completed in May
2011 at Birkbeck, University of London, under the supervision of
Professor David-Hillel Ruben. The dissertation is a study of the
Hassidic classic Shem mi-Shemuel, the masterpiece of Rabbi Shemuel Bornstein (1856-1926) of Sochaczew, a town close to Warsaw.
I have been fascinated with Shem mi-Shemuel (SMS) since the early ‘90s and published a selection of elucidated sections from it in 1998 – see here. More recently, I became intrigued by SMS’s insistence that all Torah sources, even those that appear to directly contradict each other, can be reconciled. I assumed that what I term his ‘project of harmonisation’ was driven by some kind of metaphysical system, which I set out to identify; this dissertation is the product of that research. It can be loosely divided into three sections: a) introduction and background material (chapters 1-2); b) SMS’s highly-unusual interpretative methodology (chapters 3-4); c) metaphysical underpinning to SMS’s methodology (chapters 5-6). This is described in more detail in the 300-word abstract that follows.
This dissertation examines the distinctive Hasidic hermeneutic that characterises Shem mi-Shemuel, the magnum opus of Rabbi Shemuel Bornstein. The leitmotif of Shem mi-Shemuel (SMS) is the harmonisation of conflicting sources, expressed in a hermeneutic that is extraordinary in its approach, range and objectives. I describe SMS’s methodology and hermeneutic, locating his oeuvre within the galaxy of Jewish interpretative approaches by examining his attitude to disagreement within and between sources such as midrash, aggadah and mediaeval philosophy and carefully comparing it with the methodologies of other interpreters. I distinguish SMS from Maharsha, Eẓ Yosef and Maharzu, who make no attempt to harmonise conflicting views, Maharal, who exhibits limited harmonistic tendencies, and Sefat Emet (the closest comparable Hasidic author), who mines conflicting opinions to determine a single contextual theme. In contrast, SMS applies his harmonistic methodology virtually without limits; he fundamentally redefines classic sources often with scant attention to their original meaning, frequently bifurcating them artificially or creating innovative, and, on occasion, implausible, thought-structures to effect his harmonisation; he also organises sources within a single conceptual framework, establishing a complex, usually causative or explanatory, post-harmonisation relationship between them. The radical nature and scope of SMS’s hermeneutic strongly suggests that his harmonistic impulse is neither pragmatism nor aesthetics, but a belief in certain metaphysical principles. By carefully examining certain of SMS’s esoteric discourses, particularly focusing on his revisionist rereading of a midrash discussing the nature of the Torah, it emerges that his hermeneutic is driven by a far-reaching application of the kabbalistic identification of the ‘oneness’ of the Torah with the ‘oneness’ of God, with all of its attendant theological and practical ramifications. As such, the impetus for SMS’s sui generis harmonistic methodology is shown to be his conviction of the theological impossibility of imputing disharmony to the Torah.
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צ.א. בעלאווסקי, גלות לונדון, תמוז תשע"א