One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

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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.

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  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).
  4. Unterman, Nehama Leibowitz, pp. 556–561.
  5. Meir Weiss, The Bible from Within (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1984), pp. 13–18.
  6. “Attempts,” since there has been very little interest in the work of the new school in academia.
  7. Bereshit 27:19.

About Francis Nataf

Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker. This essay is excerpted from Rabbi Nataf's forthcoming Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Leviticus (get more information here). Earlier volumes in the series can be found here: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.

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  1. Where are the examples? How do the different contemporary schools approach specific psukim or sections? How are their conclusions similar, and how are they different?

  2. Thank you to Rabbi Nataf for this eloquent and penetrating assessment of the contemporary state of orthodox biblical scholarship. Rabbi Nataf hits upon an important point: teachers and writers need to make choices, and when adopting the “Gush” or “new” school approach, they are likely to adopt a stance that puts them at odds with some of the basic tools of classical rabbinic exegesis. His example of the use of leitwort is an excellent case. Such practitioners will be able to extract new and beautiful meanings from the text, but at a cost: the classical midrashic tool of the yitur will now seem extraneous. Such teachers and their students will now find themselves estranged from the center of the flow of the tradition.

    Respectfully, though, I would like to challenge two of Rabbi Nataf’s basic assumptions. The first concerns the definition of the “classical Jewish interpretive community.” I would like to think that by all accounts, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Abarbanel ,a mong many other pashtanim are members of good standing within this community. And yet it is rare to see any of them engage in the process Rabbi Nataf says they do:

    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.

    Rather, the pashtanim were consciously engaging in a mode of exegesis that had different aims and ground rules than those of classical midrashic interpretation. The tent of Torah is a broad one, and has within it many chambers. The “newer” approaches may not conform to the poetics of midrashic interpretation, but they certainly do conform with many respected voices within “the classical Jewish interpretive community.”

    I would challenge a second basic assumption of this fine essay, and that concerns the implicit model of education that employs. Implicit in the esaay is the understanding that teachers can choose to mold their students as they wish. We can choose to mold their sensitivities in a way that is more in line with the midrashic tradition, or we can choose to mold those sensitivities in line with newer methodologies at the cost of our allegiance and affinity for the midrashic tradition. Our audiences whom we teach and who read our writings are ke-chomer be-yad ha-yotzer, as material that we mechanchim are free to choose to mold as we best see fit.

    Respectfully, I would submit that this model does not adequately describe the challenges we face. We are like firemen who arrive on the scene of a blaze and must find the tools to best douse the flames. Historically, parshanim have turned toward various pshat methodologies when interpretation of the Torah has been challenged from the outside. When Karaites and Muslims challenged the authenticity of the rabbinic tradition of interpretation, R. Saadya Gaon and his followers turned to pshat. When Christian interpreters challenged our traditional interpretations, Rashbam turned to pshat. We live in a similar age today. The sanctity of the Torah is being challenged by a potent mix of Enlightenment assumptions. Many people in the orthodox community find the approaches of the “new” school inspiring in a way that midrashic interpretation no longer provides for them. One can bemoan this situation. One can demonstrate the beauty and relevance of this mode of interpretation—indeed as Rabbi Nataf’s work does—but this situation is a reality. By adopting newer modes of interpretation, we are following in the best tradition of Rashbam and Rasa”g and others as I mentioned before. Indeed, it is only through these newer methods that we are holding on to many people so that they can still engage constructively with the midrashic interpretive tradition.

    Will these approaches make “an historical contribution”? That question, I would submit, is irrelevant. The point is that they are making an enormous contribution today; that they are keeping a great many people engaged in learning and focused on their growth in ahavat ha-Torah and yirat shamayim.

  3. I am honored by the response of my esteemed colleague Rabbi Josh Berman and will only be able to partially address the important points that he raises.
    I am a student of Nechama Leibowitz who shed a different light on rabbinic exegesis than that which Rabbi Berman propounds. Primarily via the position that Rashi was also a pashtan (if radically different from the more obvious pashtanim cited), she showed us that much of what has been dismissed as “mere midrash” (before midrash came back into style) was actually a careful literary analysis, ultimately not so divorced from what exponents of the new school (and I as well) are doing today. Hence, I would suggest that the division of the pashtanim and midrashists is actually a continuum of one interpretive community and not two as Rabbi Berman seems to suggest.
    Moreover, I believe that the writers that he cites are constantly interacting with the words of Chazal, even as they often reject them. Abarbanel, for one, almost always brings rabbinic opinions, and my quote from Ibn Ezra in footnote 1, I believe, speaks much more eloquently than I could ever do about how the classical pahstanim position themselves vis-a-vis rabbinic interpretation.
    As to the issue of exegesis as being reactive to a zeitgeist, Rabbi Berman is certainly correct that there is a great deal of polemics in classic commentators that are consciously or unconsciously responding to other ideologies or foreign modes of interpretation. And it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that there will always be many Jews who have a need for such polemics to feel better about their own tradition. Nonetheless, polemics is a dangerous game that often has to be played with the ground rules of one’s opponents and that is part of my point.
    Although I admire Rabbi Berman’s own work, I question whether working within the Enlightenment assumptions that he mentions will ultimately have the day. Orthodox Jews who have worked within academic Bible study such as Hoffman and Cassutto ultimately had very little influence on the field.
    In my opinion, much more powerful is to show cogently and coherently why we disagree with these assumptions and then to continue to interpret the text on our own terms.
    Luckily, we will not be the only ones today questioning Enlightenment assumptions (I mentioned MacIntyre who does so very powerfully.) But even if we were, I humbly submit that doing so is the key to reasserting ourselves as a self-confident and truly productive culture once again.

  4. Rabbi Nataf: Thanks for this essay. I would love to hear why you see such a tension/contradiction between interpretations that make use of leitworter (or ‘mila mancha’)and the “rabbinic notion of lashon yitur”? They seem both to be based on the same underlying premise– i.e., that the Torah is noticeably deviating from a more straightforward presentation (either by repeatedly using a key word/phrase to mark the presence of a theme where it might otherwise not be recognized, or by adding a seemingly extraneous word/phrase to mark the presence of an element that would otherwise remain unnoticed). Moreover, both literary devices are consistent with the idea of a “perfect and uncorrupted text”– or at least one that is designed with deep wisdom such that apparent rhetorical quirks are actually part of a grand design. (The same would be true for the presence of literary structures like chiasmuses). I’m confused why you think there is any contradiction here.

    And note that many of the new pashtanim are also very interested in midrash, and see these pshat-based tools as underlying midrashic interpretations. An excellent example is in this shiur of R. Forhman (http://www.alephbeta.org/course/lecture/vayeitzei). His compelling interpretation of the midrash pivots on its recognition that [a] the Torah is belaboring something it could have skipped or described more tersely (Vayisa et kolo vayevk); and [b] that this is a leitwort that connects with previous events in a meaningful way. I can’t think of a better example of the fact that there is no need to choose between the ‘new school’ and the ‘old school’; that they can– and do– work together beautifully.

  5. I am grateful to EWZS for pointing out a possible misunderstanding of my essay that I let pass but that troubled me. Rabbi Berman gives the impression that I see leitwort and lashon yitur as being an example of a tradeoff and that if one goes with the former when needs to leave the latter. That was not at all my intention and I would have thought that a careful reading of my essay would not have led anyone to that conclusion. But it appears that I was not clear enough.
    I was simply mentioning leitwort as a new tool which is popular since it doesn’t have the “drawbacks” of lashon yitur, meaning that the latter can easily be dismissed by academics as mistakes creeping into the text whereas the former shows much clearer intentionality, even if someone like James Kugel is quite dismissive of it as well. One can coherently choose to use both, as I do myself, and I encourage my students to do as well.
    When proponents of the new school are engaged with Chazal and follow the general contours of interpretation that the rabbis developed, there is nothing wrong with using new literary tools. My point was that this is not always the case and that when it is not, there is a, sometimes even unconscious, move to absorb assumptions that are at odds with those of the traditional interpretive community.

    • Thanks for the clarification. But given that, I’m not sure why you are so pessimistic about the ‘new’ school such that you are worried that it might be net-negative (1 step forward minus 2 steps backwards= 1 step backwards). As you say, if the ‘new’ school has aligned itself with any mode of ‘bible scholarship,’ it is with the literary school, which itself at odds with the source-critics and their tendency to see everything as signs of corruption in the text. So… as did the first commentator ‘Li Reader’, I am curious if you have an example in mind where a practitioner of the new school problematically “absorb[ed] assumptions that are at odds with those of the traditional interpretive community.”

  6. Thanks for the follow up. I should apologize to LI for not acknowledging his question earlier. I think that examples, in this particular case, would lead us in the wrong direction. I am looking at the larger picture and it would be difficult, perhaps even impossible to find a knock-out obvious case which would suddenly clarify everything. Let me go back to my example of yitur, but the same could be said of verb-noun agreement, tense agreement, etc. My point was that if one goes through most new school authors, one will find almost no mention of these type of tools. And I think that is significant and deserves analysis, the type of which I was trying to provide.
    As for the title of my essay and EWZS’s question in the last response, there was a question mark at the end of my title, meaning that it is not yet clear what the impact of the new school will be. I am not pessimistic but rather making the call for careful deliberation in order to assure the new school’s positive contribution. This is my hope but I believe that this is still an open question, even if I also often enjoy and benefit from much of what I see there.

    To conclude, perhaps it would have been helpful in this regard to include the next paragraph in my introduction that follows the section that was the basis for this essay. I will excerpt it now: It is not only the new school that presents weaknesses to the contemporary Jewish reader. The old school is not without its own issues. For one, classical methodology is sometimes unable to address questions that can be answered more readily by systematic literary analysis or by knowledge of the ancient Near East. The sophisticated, contemporary reader is often aware that solutions to certain issues lie in these directions and, as such, is frustrated by the limits of the classical approach to the text. The upshot is that both schools have their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Consequently, it behooves us to try to gain from both approaches to the text as comprehensively as possible.

    I hope this clarifies matters and I want to thank all the members of this discussion for their insightful observations and interest.

    Francis Nataf

    • Got it. Thanks so much for the clarification.

    • “I should apologize to LI [Reader] for not acknowledging his question earlier. I think that examples, in this particular case, would lead us in the wrong direction. I am looking at the larger picture and it would be difficult, perhaps even impossible to find a knock-out obvious case which would suddenly clarify everything.”

      I appreciate your sensitivity to my questions, but I’m not looking for “knock-out obvious” examples. All I’d like are a few simple examples to illustrate what you and the others here are talking about. In tomorrow’s sedra (to ask what might be a trivial question), for example, why does Moshe’s genealogy appear where it does and not previously? Do the different approaches suggest different answers? Or do the different approaches involve macro rather than micro issues? Like what? Just a few simple examples, please, because in their absence most of the material here is too close to jargon-filled pronouncements that only academicians use. Thank you.

  7. I was hoping to end with the last post but would feel remiss not to respond to LI after his pleas for help one more time: I will give you and others interested one quick example and then some suggestions for further investigation of the topic.
    In Bereshit 3:8, the verse opens with “And Kain said to Hevel” without completing the idea, meaning we are never told what he said. The Karaite version is different and has Kain inviting Hevel to join him in the field, a version preferred by academics. Midrashim and classical commentators address both what he might have said and why it was left out (Nechama Leibowitz has an article on this in her Parsha studies). While it is not impossible for new school practitioners to address this issue as well, it is much less likely that they would, since it is not one of the things that they are looking for.
    A very good survey of the new school approach can be found at the Virtual Beit Midrash at the following link be http://vbm-torah.org/biblit.html
    Compare that to the tools that were used by Rashi as per Nechama Leibowitz. (You can find this in the book, To Study and to Teach by Shmuel Peerless.)
    If anyone would like to discuss this further, I invite you to my website http://www.francisnataf.com and to find my contact information there.
    Finally, readers may be interested in two other essays on my website that deal with related topics at
    http://www.francisnataf.com/ideas-57.html and at http://www.francisnataf.com/ideas-62.html

  8. Rabbi Nataf: With all due respect, I think you are being too pessimistic with regard to the ‘new school.’ There is no better example of the new school than R. Menachem Leibtag and I can think of several examples where he focuses on just such an ambiguity of the text. One example is in his introductory shiur to Sefer Dvarim (see http://www.tanach.org/dvarim/dvarint.doc; make sure to read the Word doc– for some reason, the html shiur is different!), and specifically the subsection called “Back to Parshat Devarim”. I’ll quote R. Leibtag’s question and leave it to the reader to look into his (brilliant) answer. The point here is just that questions like the one that R. Nataf’s are asked by the ‘new school’ (though it’s worth noting that R. Leibtag’s shiur is also replete with references to classical commentators):

    “‘These are the devarim that Moshe spoke to Bnei Yisrael in Transjordan, in the desert, in the Arava, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Di Zahav’ (1:1).

    First of all, what does the word devarim refer to:
    the entire book? – the first speech? – all the speeches?
    It’s not clear. Secondly, what is the meaning of this long list of places?
    The location of ‘ever ha-yarden’ [Transjordan] makes sense, for Bnei Yisrael are now encamped there (see 1:5); but the remaining list of places – ba-midbar, ba-arava, mul suf, bein paran u-tofel etc. – seems to be totally disjoint from the first half of this pasuk.
    Are these many places, or just one place? What happened at all of these places? Again, it is not clear.
    The next pasuk is even more enigmatic!
    ‘Eleven days from Chorev, via Mount Se’ir, until Kadesh Barnea’ (1:2).
    This pasuk doesn’t even form a complete sentence. What does it describe? What does it have to do with the previous pasuk?
    Nonetheless, the next pasuk appears to be quite ‘normal’, and could easily have been the opening verse of the book:
    ‘And it came to pass in the fortieth year on the first day of the eleventh month, Moshe spoke to Bnei Yisrael in accordance with the instructions that God had given him for them [after he had defeated Sichon…]’ (1:3-4).
    This third pasuk seems to form an introduction to Moshe’s speech. But this only strengthens our questions on the first two psukim. Why doesn’t the Sefer just begin with the third pasuk?”

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