I am writing this article because I’m a Jew. I was asked to write about what having a Jewish president of the United States might mean to me, and in the course of both writing and researching the piece, I was reminded of how my ancestors broke down the texts they loved, how they sifted through the letters for meaning. To write about Bernie Sanders, I had to go to the fourth and the thirteenth centuries before reaching the twenty-first. I found it impossible to understand something so large and strange as the thought of a Jewish president—much less the meaning of a man, his already considerable life, his towering ambition, and all that might come to fruition if his presidency occurs—without turning to older tools.
There are four principal methods by which Jewish scholars parse our sacred texts. Rabbis have always loved acronyms, and collectively these four main types of exegesis are known as פרדס, Pardes. Pardes is a Hebrew word in its own right—it means “orchard”—but as an acronym it encompasses four approaches to commentary: Peshat, the obvious, surface-level meaning of a verse or fragment of sacred text; Remez, the study of hints and allegories, seeking the symbolism beneath the surface; Drash, a form of exegesis that uses intertextual connections; and Sód, the reading of secret things, finding, in the holy letters, mystical resonances and shards of the divine.
The orchard as a metaphor dates to a parable in the Talmud, composed around the fourth century, of four sages who entered the Pardes, the orchard of knowledge of the Torah. One saw the face of God and died a righteous death; one saw the face of God and went mad; one, the famous heretic of the Talmud, began cutting down the saplings; and the wisest and strongest came away without harm. From this cautionary tale, the rabbis of the mystically oriented, kabbalistically inclined tradition of thirteenth-century Spain created an entire system of study. They loved most and best of all the perilous play of secret knowledge.
There is a joke that comes from this time: Without Sód, Pardes becomes merely Pered, the Hebrew word for mule. In other words, without secrets life is burden-work and business, furrow, yoke, plow—sterile and fruitless. So to fully analyze the living text that is a man, it must be done four ways. By Peshat, Remez, Drash, and finally by Sód—with that secret and inmost heart that looks at what the world can bear and be. If this is a heretical project, well, my subject is familiar with heresy. Sometimes to build, you must cut down what’s grown and start again from the bare earth.