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Verses in the Bible traditionally have four different understandings: Pshat (simple meaning), Remez (derived meaning), Drash (investigative meaning), and Sod (esoteric meaning).

It seems at times that these understandings are at odds with one another, such as in the case of Reuben and Bilah (Gen. 35:22). The simple meaning of the verse is quite clear, yet there are opinions, cited by Rashi, that something else happened, that precludes the simple meaning.

When there is a contradiction in intepretation, how does one determine what actually happened?

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Who would care about number 2? That's not Torah. –  Double AA Feb 28 at 4:39
    
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don't have time to write it up right now, but I know someone gave a shiur on it recently: yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/813048/… –  Matt May 30 at 0:06
    
@DoubleAA that seems to be the opinion of Nahmanides! –  Baby Seal Jun 1 at 18:21

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[This summary was written by @BabySeal, not me]

Rabbi Netanel Wiederblank, who teaches Machshava to YU semicha students, gave a lecture that discussed this very topic. His lectures/shiurim are highly recommended

Pertaining to the question, Rabbi Weiderblank finds two stances among the commentaries:

  • Nissim of Girona, Abraham Ibn Ezra, and Don Isaac Abarbanel, Rabbi Wiederblank reasons, take the simple, (pshat), meaning of the text to account for what actually happened. Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel give reasons for their conclusions, arguing that if noteworthy things mentioned in midrashim actually happened, they should in fact be mentioned in-verse.
  • Nahmanides disagrees openly with Ibn Ezra, and seems to Rabbi Wiederblank to be of the opinion that is does not matter what actually happened. Nahmanides oftentimes defends both the simple meaning and the investigative, (drash), and then moves on, making no effort to deliberate further as to what historically happened. This attitude can also be found in the Talmud Yoma 5b, (מאי דהוה הוה‏, what happened happened). Rabbi Wiederblank also mentions Joseph Haim Jerushalmi's book, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, that investigates our nation's historical disinterest in factual history! According to this view, Rabbi Wiederblank concludes that what happened is indeterminate and irrelevant, as far as Torah is concerned. understanding all of Pardes thoroughly , even when it is contradictory, articulates the depth of the concept at hand.
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I'm curious as to Rashi's opinion. In the case I cited in the question, for example, he quite simply brings down the mid rash. This could either be like Nahmanides, or a new opinion, evaluating the text and midrashic sources, case by case. –  Baby Seal Jun 1 at 18:56
    
My impression is that he takes the Ramban's position. He seems totally unconcerned about the fact that he so often quotes more than one opinion and differentiates between peshat and derash –  Matt Jun 1 at 19:01
    
right, but some times he lists pshat first, sometimes drash… there is no way to conclusively determine anything, but I think you could make an argument that Rashi thinks it depends! –  Baby Seal Jun 1 at 19:03
    
see this question: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/6103/is-rashi-really-pshat on Rashi's methodology (though oddly none of the answers there quote from Nechama Leibowitz's article on Rashi's methodology, or any of Avraham Grossman's articles, who both have what I think are very convincing views as to how Rashi wrote his commentary) –  Matt Jun 1 at 20:03

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