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Two Jews, Three Synagogues: A Jewish View of Historical Criticism

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 64, Number 1, Fall 2012
pp. 3-13 | 10.1353/coj.2012.0031

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In his famous apology on behalf of literal interpretation,1 the twelfth-century commentator Samuel b. Meir (Rashbam) relates part of an anecdote about the fourth-century Babylonian sage Rav Kahana that is reported in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 63a. An argument over a detail of Sabbath law depends in part on whether a verse in Psalms should be interpreted literally or metaphorically. Mar the son of Rav Huna opts for the literal, declaring: ein mikra yotzei midei p’shuto, “A verse does not depart from its simple meaning.” Coming down firmly on the side of a metaphorical reading, Rav Kahana replies mockingly, “I was eighteen years old and I had studied the entire Talmud, yet I never realized that a verse does not depart from its simple meaning.” Of course Rav Kahana knew the saying ein mikra yotzei midei p’shuto, but it never occurred to him that its intention was restrictive, limiting the interpreter to p’shat exclusively.

The rabbinic apothegm and its medieval afterlife are fascinating, particularly the way Rashbam and other medieval literalists appropriate it in support of their exegetical activity. For present purposes, however, I am interested only in updating the surface narrative to 1971, my first year of doctoral study: I was then twenty-one years old and I had studied the Torah with traditional commentaries, yet I never realized that the text could be interpreted only as a composition assembled from multiple sources.

Perhaps that statement is a bit of an exaggeration, but it is fair to say that although I was dimly aware of historical criticism, its methods and conclusions struck me as ancillary to or irrelevant for the understanding of Scripture.2 Even more bothersome was the notion that historical criticism represented the only legitimate kind of academic biblical scholarship, a necessary counterweight to the “pre-critical” or “non-critical” modes of reading prevalent among traditional commentators and the general Bible-reading public. Those feelings of discomfiture lingered even after I had gained some mastery of historical-critical methods. In my doctoral dissertation, completed in 1976, I eschewed them altogether in favor of a synchronic approach derived from structural linguistics. A decade later, in an article entitled “On Reading the Bible Critically and Otherwise,” I wrote:

I do not deny the validity of historical-critical claims. . . . But I am troubled by virtually all the historical-critical presuppositions about what the Bible is and about how and why it ought to be read. At the very least, I do not find them interesting.3

Rereading those rash words today, I recognize not only how intemperate they were, but also how much their peremptory tone reflected an internalized set of traditionalist Jewish values that had predetermined and defined my negative attitude.

In using the term “Jewish values,” I refer primarily to a core value that asserts that Torah (in a more or less expansive sense of the term) is sacred, authoritative, and constitutive of Judaism and the Jewish community. I recognize that the adjectives in that sentence (sacred, authoritative, and constitutive) are malleable and adaptable to a broad range of Jewish beliefs and practices, but they also establish the principle that Scripture is something other than—or more than—simply a literary or historical artifact.

That core value, in turn, lies at the heart of dogmatic Jewish opposition to historical criticism, which entails both ontological and hermeneutical aspects. The polemical statement from 1987 that I just quoted encompassed (perhaps unwittingly) both the ontological (“what the Bible is”) and the hermeneutical (“how . . . it ought to be read”). The essential issues can be summarized in the form of two perennial questions. First: can the Bible be sacred and authoritative for Jews if it is a product of human history and culture? And second: to what extent is the Jewish interpreter constrained by or answerable to the authority of prior interpretation? Jewish involvement with or avoidance of historical criticism has been dependent in large measure on the answers to those questions, coupled with additional sociological and substantive factors to which I now turn.

The rise of historical criticism in Europe took place at a time of upheaval in the Jewish community. The combined wallop of the...

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