Charitable Reading

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Texts do not stand on their own. Because no written work can ever be entirely clear, and the ones that come close are of an extremely burdensome length, texts require interpretation. A reader must work on understanding a text and resolving any difficulties that arise. Some written works are incorrect. Other times, however, the writer was simply unclear or left out important statements for various reasons that we may never know. Assuming that the author was a master scholar with full command of logic and all relevant texts, and working based on this assumption to decipher the author’s full theory, is called giving the text a “Charitable Reading.”*

The question then arises, how much effort must a reader make before concluding that the text is in error? (An additional question is, how far beyond the writer’s frame of reference may a reader journey in trying to resolve difficulties? But that is for a separate discussion.)

There is no simple answer to this question. Within learning Torah, there are different schools that have different approaches to this. Some give special reverence to pre-modern works and only expend effort to resolve difficulties in works from that time period. If an aharon writes something that seems wrong, just ignore it and work with the building blocks of the Talmud and rishonim. Many do not even bother to look at aharonim.

Others choose the most prominent aharonim and give them, also, a “charitable reading.” If some less prominent aharon writes something that seems difficult, students will simply skip that section rather then spending time trying to resolve it.

There is one yeshivah that, in principle and in practice, gives every text a “charitable reading.” This inevitably leads to hours – sometimes days and weeks – attempting to resolve the knottiest of problems so as to reconcile aharonim with various texts and theoretical constructs. The intellectual feats that these students perform is truly amazing, although to someone outside of their school, like this writer, it seems somewhat wasteful. I would not call it intellectually dishonest, though, because they are attempting to give the texts a “charitable reading” and understand the true intent of the author.

Various critics of the Talmud, halakhah or even modern Feminist innovations find easy fodder by refraining from giving texts a “charitable reading” and, instead, assuming that the authors made basic errors. I hope that I have not done this but it is sometimes difficult to evaluate one’s own work.



* I first heard the term “charitable reading” used in this context by Dr. Haym Soloveitchik. However, I doubt that it was a particularly innovative application. In case it was, I am hereby noting my source.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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