Off the Pulpit: Is that clear?


Every intellectual or academic discipline has its apostles of obscurity. There are novels which cannot be read without a teacher or a guidebook. Much modern poetry defeats the most resolute attempt to unravel its enigmas. And even when pundits try to make things clear, we often feel them the way Byron did when commenting on the poet Coleridge’s account of German philosophy: “Explaining metaphysics to the nation/ I wish he would explain his explanation.”

A great deal of Jewish commentary is devoted to explaining the explanation. The Talmud explains the Mishna. Rashi explains the Talmud. Later commentators explain Rashi. Judaism is often called a tradition of interpretation but it might be called a tradition of explaining the explanation.

Of course some things are intrinsically hard to understand. But clarity is not less intelligent than mystification, and brevity is not necessarily less satisfying than length. The Gettysburg address was 272 words, the Ten Commandments even fewer. We may not live up to them but we do understand them. Is that clear?

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