Our story was originally oral, and made fresh with each telling. Storytelling is intrinsically anarchic, creative, and liberating. Print is fixed, and when an oral story becomes trapped in print it often falls under the control of authorities—often terrifying, demanding, and life–smothering authorities. To keep this from happening to our story we Jews invented the art of deliberately misreading our story: filtering the text through our imagination to help the story speak to us in new ways. While it is important to recognize that over the millennia our story did fall victim to authorities who demanded our allegiance, it is also important to remember that the early rabbis were masters of misreading, skilled at fuelling the creative disruption at the heart of spiritual imagination.
They refused to be intimidated by print, and invented ways around the fixed page. They read words backwards and inside out. They replaced one set of vowels for another to cull new meanings from ancient letters. They replaced letters with numbers and saw numerical patterns in alphabetical form. They claimed that God taught them how to do this; that God and God’s Word could not be forced into the narrow confines of human grammar and linear text. They taught us that God wanted us not only to read Torah, but to misread Torah, and misread her boldly.
For too many Jews today Torah is a fetish, an object to be worshipped, but for the ancients it was a Rorschach blot to be turned and turned and turned until their imaginations were on fire with new possibilities of understanding and new ways of living well and wisely. This wild and deliberate misreading of our story is what it is to be a Jew. We are the People of a Book that disappears and reappears new with each reading.