How is it that people can, if they are knowledgeable about the Bible, find such rich depth in nearly every single verse? In reading the letters of the Apostle Paul, one can see that he was familiar with the Bible in such a way that is daunting to many readers, and the fact that his writings have been misinterpreted by those who did not respect his method, and have led to a great deal of false doctrine related to the importance of God’s laws and the ethical demands of Christianity has only made it more important to understand what he was really trying to say. Even for those readers who are not fond of the Bible itself are, by virtue of reading this particular blog, clearly fond of reading deeply layered and difficult writing. Some may aspire to be art critics or book reviewers and may wonder how it is that some people have such a depth of information in speaking about something. Is it all just being spitballed, being formed out of thin air, or is there actually something substantial that we can use to better understand someone’s work and be able to convey genuine insight to other people? The fact that I am writing at length about it would suggest, and that implication is correct, that the second is the case, and that we would be wise to develop the skills to better read and convey insight about what we read.
It is at this point that it would be good to explain the unusual title of this entry, which I almost gave the hipster display as PaRDeS. Unlike, say, the specific form of band names like fun. or DAUGHTRY (both of whom make music I personally like), PaRDeS actually refers to four layers of interpretation practiced by rabbis on texts in order to understand the many layers of biblical text (or other text worth drawing multiple layers of meaning from) simultaneously, seeing all as true, if distinct, at the same time . The four layers of interpretation go as follows: Peshat stands for the “straight” or literal meaning. This may seem a bit simplistic, but it is vital in seeking to understand a text that we give credit to its literal meaning, before we jump off in search of deeper esoteric meanings. Keeping a grasp of literal meaning, and recognizing its truth allows us to frame what interpretations are valid of a given text. Of course, recognizing that a text is sarcastic or ironic also helps us understand what a text means, as that is part of the “literal” meaning. Simply because one wants to understand the surface meaning of a text does not mean that we ignore that the author may not be playing it entirely straight, but seeking to understand what a text means includes recognizing its tone, genre, and meaning, even if that meaning is clearly ironic or sarcastic.
I have discussed the second layer of meaning at length elsewhere , so I will not belabor the point here. The second layer of understanding is Remez, which means “hint.” Many writers are particularly allusive, and they may refer to texts without wishing to explain them in detail. What is included may illustrate a deeper reality and a shared context between the writer and the reader that is meant to suggest something that is not stated outright. This layer of interpretation is like being in on an inside joke, something which may appear entirely innocuous to many readers who are simply not in on the reference, but which is extremely funny, or perhaps, as is the case with many of my own personal inside jokes, particularly awkward or uncomfortable, where the text itself is hidden in plain sight. Whatever secrets and conspiracies people are able to form generally depends on this layer of understanding, where some people understand what is being alluded to in what appears on the surface to be ordinary language, while the surface layer itself is sufficiently meaningful and appropriate that others are not prompted to search for hidden meanings by something being too obviously out of place.
The third layer of rabbinical interpretation is Daresh (“seek”) or Din (“law”), which, depending on how it is viewed, is either a comparative midrashic interpretation of a text based on the use of similar words of numbers or a reflection of the implications of the passage on God’s laws. For example, when we look at the book of Ruth and see that it references the laws of gleaning referred to relating to Pentecost in Leviticus 23 as well as the laws of levirate marriage, we can easily connect the book to the time of year . Likewise, we may see a phrase like “works of law,” and we may be led to see how this word is used everywhere in the Bible in order to understand what point an author is making by using such an expression. In this case, the point is not so much to draw a hint from a single work, as to place a passage in its whole biblical context by seeing what passages are connected by the word choice, and what can be understood as a result of knowing the word choice. At times, as in Hebrews 4:9, an author may use a text that appears only there in the Bible, but where we might understand Sabbath rest, in its context, as clearly referring to the observance of the biblical Sabbath as opposed to a man-made counterfeit lacking divine sanction.
These three layers provide all the insight that is needed to properly understand and interpret a text. If we can understand what a text is trying to say on the surface, can pick up on its hints and allusions, and we can place the text in a whole biblical context and understand what implications it has for our understanding of the Bible itself and of our own obligations, then we are able to think and speak intelligently on any text we study. We can, if we master these techniques, also understand a great deal of the art and literature we come across. We can, by understanding expressions like “child of fortune,” examine the writings of Jane Austen and come to understanding what she meant by that ambiguous term. We can look at the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci and explore his fondness for the number 72, or any other number of areas. By understanding these three layers, whether in biblical exegesis, or textual criticism of any other kind, we can gain a great appreciation for writing that is elegant and thoughtful and allusive, and we are made richer for seeing something in depth.
Given this, it is with some trepidation that I feel it necessary to speak of the fourth layer of the PaRDeS interpretation, and that is Sod, or “secret” layers of meaning that are mystical and esoteric. There are some people who are attracted to this layer of meaning–it is evident in the popularity of occult studies and in the mystical language of those who seek to plumb the mystery of the ages to understand the incredible human potential or the seven laws of success. I must admit, personally, to find some appeal in knowing that is esoteric and what is beyond the capacity of most people to understand. I also recognize that this is a vulnerability because a lot of really bad ideas can seem a lot more appealing when they are marketed as that which is secret or hidden. Witness, for example, the popularity of the Dan Brown novels with their preposterous idea of the holy grail being a bloodline between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. Most of the appeal of the gnostic gospels consists of the mistaken opinion that they were hidden because of some sort of oppression from early Christianity, rather than being hidden because they would have appeared as ridiculous as they were when brought into the light of day. Sometimes, though, text does have secret and esoteric meaning, and even if we are not comfortable with all that calls itself secret and hidden, we should recognize that some people and some texts deal with such matters.
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