One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?
The State of Contemporary Orthodox Bible Study
by Francis Nataf
It will soon mark a decade since I began my Redeeming Relevance series. When I started, I bemoaned the decline of traditional Jewish Bible commentary in the twentieth century. I complained that what was being written was either too scholarly or too flighty. There were far too few works that showed the classical combination of sophistication and accessibility, and the proof of the pudding was the lack of twentieth-century works on our bookshelves.
At the same time, I noted that there were encouraging new lights on the horizon and that I was certainly not coming to a deserted enterprise. And if there was reason for encouragement at that time, this is all the more true today. There is no question that the last decade has been a productive one in the world of traditional Bible study. Primarily thanks to what has become known as the “Gush school,” also referred to simply as the “new school,” novel and sensitive literary readings are becoming better known and more widely diffused. Some of the new stars in the field include Rabbis Elchanan Samet, Amnon Bazak and Yonatan Grossman, but there are many others. Though this school is primarily Israeli, its work has become more familiar to the English-speaking world through the efforts of various American-born teachers such as Rabbis Menachem Liebtag, Yitzchak Etshalom and Hayyim Angel. In no small measure, these efforts dovetail the academic pursuit of Bible as literature that has taken its rightful place in many major universities in the last fifty years.
More recently, Rabbi Joshua Berman and others have attempted to take a different approach to contemporary Orthodox interpretation. Though sensitive to literary methodology as well, their focus is more on the historical, archeological and linguistic evidence culled from the world of Ancient Near East Studies. For himself, Berman speaks about drawing his inspiration from the work of Umberto Cassuto, the late Hebrew University Bible scholar who challenged many of the assumptions in the field. Like Cassutto, Berman uses tradition to inform his reading of the text but only in view of the existing data for what was actually going on at the time of the Bible’s writing.
While the new approaches are felt as a breath of fresh air in some circles, they have not been universally welcome. One reason is these approaches’ tendency to discount Talmudic and Midrashic interpretations. Of course, disagreement with rabbinic interpretation is as old as the interpretive endeavor itself.1 What is new is the place of rabbinic interpretation in the endeavor. When classical commentators differed with rabbinic explanations, they did so only after first examining earlier works of the tradition to which they belonged. They did this believing that they would usually find the most valid meaning by poring over these works. Only afterward, when they did not find what they were looking for, did they feel free to disagree and/or proffer new interpretations. But it was not only to save themselves extra work that classical commentators referred back to the past. Familiarity and interaction with rabbinic works provided an interpretive context within which to work.
The importance of the latter should not be underestimated. Stanley Fish is known for most clearly arguing that which is patently true — that a text necessarily comes with a context. (It is true that Fish goes farther than we would like, suggesting that a text’s content is only limited by their interpretive context, but we don’t have to go that far in order to appreciate his insight.) This means that if Jews have traditionally had their preconceptions about the Bible, so does any interpretive community to any text.2 Such a community creates the context, spelling out the basic assumptions, the ground rules and the accepted “facts” about the text. It follows that arguing how to interpret a text across traditions is a near absurdity — the rules of the game are simply different. This is the point Alasdair MacIntyre makes so forcefully in his famous book, After Virtue: two people cannot even argue if the don’t first agree on the definition of the terms (e.g., virtue) that they are arguing about.3 Different approaches may share some of the same assumptions or otherwise include insights that can be useful to each other, but this can never be taken for granted.
To cut to the quick, one of the main questions about the new approaches is to what extent they are true to the classical Jewish interpretive community. Even if we look at the new school’s more traditional exponents, this is an issue. For example, no one can doubt the credentials of Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, often considered the father of both the literary as well as the traditional-historical Orthodox approaches. He is an outstanding and creative teacher of impeccable character. The question can only be about his approach. What made it “new” is finding his inspiration in many of the raw materials of the text: etymology, archeology and language structure. Accordingly, despite Bin-Nun’s comprehensive knowledge of rabbinic interpretations, it is often not clear what their place is in his reading of Biblical texts.
Essentially, Bin-Nun tries to synthesize the traditional Jewish interpretive tradition with the tools of modern, academic Biblical scholarship. When successful, this synthesis can be very powerful. Nonetheless, it is no simple feat to accomplish, especially if the rabbinic reading was intentionally ahistorical and unconcerned with the types of information that Bin-Nun is trying to integrate. In other words, the two approaches that Bin-Nun seeks to integrate may be working at cross purposes. If that is the case, tapping into academic scholarship in any significant way would undermine one’s rootedness in the traditional Jewish approach. This is essentially what Nechama Leibowitz was arguing when she chose to bypass most of the information that Bin-Nun found so valuable. Not surprisingly then, these two magnificent teachers were at loggerheads regarding how to study the Biblical text, and consequently how it should be taught in Israeli schools.4
A great admirer of Meir Weiss, who, like her, was influenced by the “New Criticism,” Leibowitz argued that a text had a life independent of its cultural context. Weiss gives the example of the contemporary readers of Shakespeare and Goethe missing the main point by getting overly caught up in the cultural trends and local realia that served as the background for these great writers. He writes that “contemporary readers of a work, subject to the spirit of the age and its problems tend to see a literary creation as tendentious and polemical, meant for its time, whereas we later readers, free form the confines of that period, can sometimes see it more accurately, see it as it really is super-temporally.”5
Yet Weiss also points out that ignorance in this context is not bliss, and that if studying Near Eastern languages will shed light on the meaning of a word, such study should not be ignored. At the same time, however, though knowledge of the ancient world can add to our understanding, it is not meant to cast a shadow over the text’s meaning, which within the Jewish community has been primarily didactic. It would consequently be difficult to say that Jewish commentaries have ever tried to reconstruct the historical Avraham or David. When the rabbis spoke about Ya’akov studying Torah in a yeshiva, they knew that he did no such thing, but rather that his actions and consciousness could be translated into their own zeitgeist by characterizing them as such. Knowing the actual biography of Biblical figures would have only been of secondary interest, since these men have been seen as literary characters, described by the Biblical text in ways that would provide different meanings at different times.
This is how I understand Ramban’s famous notion of ma’asei avot siman lebanim, that the actions of the [Biblical] fathers are a sign for their progeny. Subsequent generations will understand the life of Avraham differently from their Biblical ancestors and will accordingly derive new lessons from him. To study the life of the actual Avraham would provide constraints to these efforts and so actually be counter-productive. While this may sound unintuitive to many, I would suggest that this was not only the traditional Jewish approach, it was also the mechanism by which the Torah would be able to transcend its temporal limits.
This is not, of course, to say, like Fish, that there are no constants, but rather that the text’s subtle nuances permit different generations to see different things, alongside the Torah’s major and obvious teachings that are accessible and relevant for all time.
The bottom line is that it will be difficult for new approaches to Orthodox Bible study to follow a more universal medium of discourse without dropping many of the assumptions and methodologies of rabbinic interpretation. In some cases, one can see this quite vividly. For example, while the new school makes much out of words that appear with great frequency in specific sections (the leitwort), it has all but abandoned the rabbinic notion of extraneous language (lashon yitur) as a tool through which to understand the text. Almost universally accepted by classical commentators, the likely reason for the latter’s unpopularity among proponents of the new school is this tool’s assumption of a perfect and uncorrupted text, something unacceptable to the academic circles with which the new school attempts to conduct a dialogue.6
At other times, however, new school writers will ignore the assumptions of academia. Classic ethical assumptions have, appropriately, not disappeared. Most of the new school writers still find Ya’akov’s statement, “I am Esav your firstborn,”7 problematic. Yet adhering to these types of assumptions undermines the universality of their work, since academics need not accept Ya’akov’s deception as a problem for Ya’akov or for any other hero living at that time. Hence the price paid for what is ultimately a hybrid approach is far from negligible. In an attempt to bridge worlds, there comes the risk of pleasing no one.
But there is also room for a different critique. Relevance is not measured only by content but also by form. One of the beautiful features of traditional Jewish commentaries is the easy access it provides for sophisticated topics and methodology. Too many of the new studies get bogged down in long-winded explanations of structure and the like, often losing all but the most dedicated student in the process. This is not to criticize the need for depth and systematic explanation when it is required; if an in-depth, structural examination of a certain section of the Bible is needed to understand it better, it should be pursued. Yet what scholars who undertake such studies need to realize is that this will often prevent their work from easily finding a place in the tradition, as their complexity places them in its margins.
Ultimately, a book that is not read does not contribute. And from a historical perspective, a book that does not continue being read will not make a historical contribution.
Truly, new knowledge and approaches have always been integrated by Jewish interpreters, but always from within the consciousness of the classical Jewish interpretive tradition. This means that we can greatly benefit from the work of the new school, but in order for it to find its place in the Jewish corpus it must conform to the broader contours of traditional parshanut. Otherwise, the truly valuable contributions it is making will fail to catch the interest of the Jewish people in the long term.
This essay is based on part of the introduction to Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Numbers: Explorations in Text and Meaning, due out in April 2014. Earlier volumes in the series can be found here: Genesis, Exodus.
- See Ibn Ezra’s famous comments on the rabbinic understanding of Yitzchak’s age at the time of his being brought up as a sacrifice: “If this is a tradition, we accept it, but by way of reason it is incorrect” (Bereshit 22:4). In these few words, Ibn Ezra succinctly identifies the rules of the classical interpretive endeavor — whatever information is passed down as authoritative tradition must be accepted; whatever is the rabbis’ own educated inference from the text, however, is open to question. Moreover, by saying that he doesn’t know whether the age of Yitzchak falls into the former or the latter and then preceding to interpret the verse according to the latter, Ibn Ezra implies that since we almost never know what is actually tradition, we must generally analyze the text as if the words of the rabbis are not based on it. ↩
- See Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982). Indeed, Nechama Leibowitz was predictably fascinated by his work; see Yael Unterman’s Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2009), p. 470. ↩
- After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981). ↩
- Unterman, Nehama Leibowitz, pp. 556–561. ↩
- Meir Weiss, The Bible from Within (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1984), pp. 13–18. ↩
- “Attempts,” since there has been very little interest in the work of the new school in academia. ↩
- Bereshit 27:19. ↩