Now, having more carefully and slowly read, Michael Fishbane’s discussion in his Sacred Attunement of the four modes of interpretation, I can attempt to explain more concretely.
He refers to Genesis 28:10 ff., the Jacob’s ladder story, in regard to each mode of interpretation.
When you read this according to peshat, looking for the plain meaning, you see that it starts out with an itinerary. Jacob is going from Beer-Sheba to Haran, but he stops for the night at a certain place There he has the dream about the ladder. So even on the plain reading you see that there is a switch from a horizontal journey from Beer-Sheba to Haran to some kind of vertical pilgrimage involving heaven and earth.
When you read this text according to derash, you have one eye on this particular text and one eye on the whole of scripture. You are making comparisons. So some rabbis took Jacob’s ladder to refer to the ramp in the Temple. Others took it to refer to climbing Mt. Sinai. Some noticed that the words “he came to” a certain place in other texts refer to a personal encounter. So this story became a story about seeking God in prayer. Like Jacob, the devout Jew seeks a place of encounter with God.
Another mode of reading is remez. The word means something like hint. So you come to scripture with an understanding of truth from some other realm and you look for hints pointing to the larger truth within scripture. Thus there were Jews who adopted a philosophical system from neo-Platonism. Jacob’s ladder suggested to them cosmic truths. So it refered to a realm of angels at the top, a hierarchy of spheres (the steps on the ladder) below, and finally this material world on the ground. Maimonides interpreted the angels ascending and descending on the ladder as human philosophers or adepts who brought truth from a higher realm.
Fishbane is well aware of the problem with this–that various philosophies will just project their world-view on scripture. Today we see this all the time with process thinkers, marxists, feminists, social conservatives, and so on. He says the key to using remez is to never close off the meaning of scripture. The value of this approach is that it holds that truth is one and that scripture connects up with whatever truth we know from other realms.
The final mode by which you could read the text is sod. Here, in Fishbane, we see something come to the forefront that is there all the time. There is a distinction he gets from Kant by way of Hermann Cohen between the phenomenal world that is projected on our senses and the real world that lies unknowable beyond our senses. The world really is like the Matrix and there is no pill we can take to arrive at reality.
Yet sod is a little like the red pill; although without the idea that the real world is harsh and the fabricated, blue-pill world is a comforting illusion. Sod is a way to indirectly overcome the barrier between the phenomenal world and reality. Thus, the Bible presents itself to us as a national record that points to the historical origins of Israel’s religious institutions and teachings. But these are only the surface, the outer garment. These things are just figures through which we glimpse the supernal, ultimate reality of God.
Jacob’s journey to Haran is actually a quest for wholeness and actualization. We move quickly beyond the earthly geography. In his dream, Jacob grasps the two aspects of reality, the material and the spiritual. The ladder constitutes the harmonic scales of Being that point to the unity and interconnection of all things. Jacob’s language about the house of God and the gateway of Heaven means that at any point in this world we have contact with the divine. We can live in the world with God-consciousness.
I am struggling with this because the language seems New Age, Jungian, or Pantheist. And I think my problem with all that stems from my having read the Hebrew Bible. Yet I do not think Fishbane is necessarily any of those things. He is just bringing a perspective from a more mystical Judaism than what I have been familiar with.
Anyway, he says that these four modes of interpretation are not mutually exclusive. He promises to build on these modes of interpretation in a modern way.