PARDES (Exegesis of Scripture)

On this website I’ll have occasion to refer to PARDES — a framework for Jewish exegesis1)exegesis: the critical explanation or interpretation of a text. See this article. of the Torah (and by extension Scripture in general), so it needs a discussion.2)This blog is heavily indebted to this article here. And see this Wikipedia article.

PARDES refers to a park or garden, especially the Garden of Eden. The word appears three times in the Aramaic New Testament (Lk. 23:43; 2 Cor. 12:4 and Rev. 2:7).

PARDES (strictly speaking PRDS3)Generally speaking Hebrew does not have separate characters for the vowels — the vowels are implied. Thus PARDES might more accurately transliterated as PaRDeS, or even PRDS. But that’s a level of precision that is more tiresome than helpful to the English reader, so I use PARDES. ) is an acronym for four levels of understanding Scripture. Each layer is deeper than the prior.

PASHAT (פְּשָׁט‎) “surface” or “straight”: the literal (direct) meaning.
REMEZ (רֶמֶז‎) “hints”: the implied meaning.
DERASH (דְּרַשׁ‎) “inquire” or “seek”: the allegorical, typological or homiletical application of the text.
SOD (סוֹד‎) “secret” or “mystery”: the esoteric or mystical meaning.

PASHAT (פְּשָׁט‎)

PASHAT is the plain, simple meaning of the text, understanding Scripture in its natural, normal sense using the customary meanings of the words being used. While Scripture uses figurative language (e.g. Ps. 36:7), symbolism (e.g. Rom. 5:14), allegory (e.g. Gal. 4:19-31) and hidden meanings (e.g. Rev. 13:18 and 1 Cor. 2:7), the place to start is the literal meaning or PASHAT.

The following rules of thumb can be used to determine if a passage is figurative in its PASHAT:

  • When an inanimate object is used to describe a living being (e.g. Prov. 18:10).
  • When life and action are attributed to an inanimate object (e.g. Prov. 18:10).
  • When an expression is out of character with the thing described (e.g. Ps. 17:8).

PASHAT is the keystone of Scripture understanding. If we discard the PASHAT we lose any real chance of an accurate understanding. We are left with a no-holds-barred game of pure imagination in which we are no longer deriving meaning from the Scriptures (exegesis: ‘ex’ = out), but instead subjectively reading meaning into the Scriptures (eisegesis: ‘eis’ = ‘into’. )

REMEZ (רֶמֶז‎)

The next level of understanding is called REMEZ (‘hint’). This is the implied meaning of the text. An example of implied REMEZ may be found in Ex. 21:26-27 where we are told of our liability regarding eyes and teeth. By REMEZ we know that this liability also applies to other parts of the body.

DERASH (דְּרַשׁ‎)

The next level of understanding is called DERASH ‘search’, the allegorical, typological or homiletical application of the text. Creativity is used to search the text in relation to the rest of the Scriptures, other literature, or life itself in order to develop an allegorical, typological or homiletical application of the text. This process involves exegesis. Yet though something can “be like” something else, it can’t negate its own reality when comparing itself to something else. The context determines the PASHAT, and then and only then can we have a DERASH. We cannot have DERASH without a prior PASHAT.

Perhaps every sermon ever preached functions on the level of DERASH.

Some principles apply:

  • A DERASH understanding can not be used to strip the passage of its PASHAT meaning
  • No DERASH understanding of one passage can contradict the PASHAT meaning of any other Scripture passage.
  • Let Scripture interpret Scripture. The Scriptures themselves define the elements of an allegory.

SOD (סוֹד‎)

The final level of understanding is SOD (pronounced with a long O as in ‘soda’) meaning ‘hidden’. This is the hidden, secret or mystical meaning of a text. If the whole point of religion and spirituality is to know God and become more like Her, then methinks facilitating that Journey (whose goal is SOD) must be the ultimate purpose of Scripture.

If PASHAT, REMEZ and DERASH are the ‘exoteric’ (‘outer’) meaning of the Text, then SOD is the ‘esoteric’ (‘inner’) meaning.

Contrary to the general belief that Dante’s Divine Comedy is a medieval exoteric map of the [Catholic] Cosmos, I’m convinced he intended it as an esoteric map of our Journey:

  • Paradise: This is the level of SOD. This is our goal.
  • Purgatory: According to Dante this is not a realm of punishment, but a realm where the Seeker can become ‘unstuck’ from sins (practices destructive to self and others4)Notice the similarity to a legal criterion for involuntarily incarcerating someone: They pose a danger to themselves or others. that prevent him from progressing to Paradise. I would suggest that DERASH is largely concerned with helping us correct destructive attitudes & practices which hinder our spiritual progress towards SOD/Paradise.
  • Inferno: In Dante’s Comedy, the same sins which appear in Inferno also appear in Purgatory. The difference is that people in Inferno are ‘stuck’— they are incapable of making any progress at all, whereas those in Purgatory are able to ultimately progress past their sins. Arguably PASHAT and REMEZ are very close to each other. I would suggest that those who are stuck in PASHAT/REMEZ, unable to see the DERASH much less the SOD of Scripture (and Life in general) will be stuck in Inferno in terms of making any progress towards SOD at all (see Richard Dawkins).

IMHO, the SOD approach to Scripture is almost unheard of anymore, for the following reasons:

1. As heirs of the so-called Enlightenment, immersed in an Age of Science, we have a strong cultural bias against the ‘mystical’ and the ‘miraculous’. I would go so far to say those concepts are virtually taboo. And, IMHO, Christendom in general has accepted if not embraced these attitudes — and how could we not? When we’re all born and raised in a culture, it is virtually impossible not to adopt its prejudices. (One can learn to progress past them, however.)

2. SOD, mysticism and the miraculous are highly personal and subjective. Thus they do not lend themselves to debate and analysis, and thus they enjoy a second-class ontological status in our culture. But experiences of Love and Beauty are also highly personal and subjective — yet we manage to share them with each other (Beethoven and Van Gogh would be stupendous examples). I have to wonder if a human life devoid of these is even imaginable. After all, what great scientist didn’t pursue Science because of a passionate Love for Knowledge and its Beauty?

3. SOD, mysticism and the miraculous are very hard. Jesus said “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” (Matt 5:8) an implication being that if you don’t have a ‘pure heart’, you won’t. And what is a pure heart? I would suggest it is, in short, one unsullied by Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Lust, Envy, and Hubris— the Seven Deadly Sins. (Note: for example there isn’t anything wrong with eating per se, Gluttony is about being obsessed or ‘stuck’ — like those in Dante’s Inferno).

The book of Ecclesiastes begins “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.” The word for ‘vanity’ here is HEBEL (הֶ֫בֶל) which can also be translated as ’emptiness’. That ‘everything is emptiness’ is also a core teaching of the Buddha. Some have argued that the only way to accomplish SOD is by becoming a monk. They may be right about that. But at the very least there is a broad consensus across spiritual traditions that at least we must learn the truth of ‘everything worldly is ultimately emptiness’ in our own being, that the World and Life are the context for our journey, not the goal.

The cosmos is the bowl, SOD is the wheat. So we need to focus on the wheat — SOD, and stop being obsessed with the bowl. That’s where DERASH comes in — it guides us in the relentless work of purifying our hearts so SOD becomes possible.

References   [ + ]

1. exegesis: the critical explanation or interpretation of a text. See this article.
2. This blog is heavily indebted to this article here. And see this Wikipedia article.
3. Generally speaking Hebrew does not have separate characters for the vowels — the vowels are implied. Thus PARDES might more accurately transliterated as PaRDeS, or even PRDS. But that’s a level of precision that is more tiresome than helpful to the English reader, so I use PARDES.
4. Notice the similarity to a legal criterion for involuntarily incarcerating someone: They pose a danger to themselves or others.

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