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  • Wellhausen and the Hasidim
  • Jerome Gellman (bio)

Hasidism would seem to be a most unlikely place to find a hook on which to hang a contemporary Jewish theology that takes into account biblical criticism. Yet that is exactly where I am going to go in what follows, to present what I take to be a position that preserves the holiness of the Torah in the face of the historical-critical approach as to its authorship and composition. The use of Hasidism for this purpose has been tried before. I refer especially to Benjamin Sommer's use of a novel interpretation of the giving of the Decalogue, by Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropshitz (d. 1815), in the name of his teacher, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rymanov (d. 1815), as a source for Sommer's own theology of biblical criticism, a view he calls "Torah as Midrash."1 I believe, however, that the comment of the "Ropshitzer" on the Sinai revelation does not do the trick. Nonetheless, we do get from the Ropshitzer a trajectory, which if only followed uncompromisingly to the end would hit gold. I find gold—or more precisely a golden hook—in an aspect of the teachings of Reb Nachman of Breslov (1772–1810).

First, I must issue a caveat. The view I will be presenting relies on an austere sense of God's utter unknowableness, albeit a known unknowableness. This is, however, only one of various contemporary philosophical understandings of God. To mention a few examples, there is the Neo-Thomistic "analogical view," in which God's attributes are not univocal with human ones, only because they are held in a different, infinite "mode" than human attributes are. So there is an analogy between God and humans.2 There is also the contemporary theology of William Alston, who recognizes only a "functional" identity between God and humans.3 In functionalism, mental predicates refer to states—whatever they are—apt for bringing about specified results. What these states are in any given medium is not part of the predicate's meaning. So, to say, for example, that God wills X is to say, roughly, that God is in a state apt for bringing about X. This state need not be anything like the states that exist in humans that are apt for humans to bring about X. There are also various degrees of anthropomorphic understandings of God, including versions of feminist theology and an influential Jewish contemporary theology of anthropopathism, by R. Abraham Joshua Heschel.4 The [End Page 193] theology of God's unknowableness is hardly a mainstream or standard theology. It will perhaps appeal to the more mystical minded and to those who have despaired of a God who engages with the world. But it will not appeal to others. I am not even sure to what degree it appeals to me.

So here is my plan in what follows. First I will be presenting Sommer's "Torah as Midrash" view with his claim to have discovered a source for it in R. Naftali Tzvi of Ropshitz. Then I will explain why I think Sommer does not succeed in pinning his own view onto the Ropshitzer. Next I will turn to Reb Nachman, to what I take to be a possible resource for a contemporary Jewish theology of biblical criticism, suggesting how Reb Nachman goes farther down the Ropshitzer's path than the latter seems to have gone.


The story about the Rabbi of Ropshitz begins with Gershom Scholem, who writes that in the view of Rabbi Mendel of Rymanov, the teacher whom the Ropshitzer credits for his interpretation, when the Ten Commandments were given at Sinai

all that Israel heard was the aleph with which in the Hebrew text the first Commandment begins. This strikes me as a highly remarkable statement, providing much food for thought. For in Hebrew the consonant aleph represents nothing more than the position taken by the larynx when a word begins with a vowel. . . . Thus, with his daring statement that the actual revelation to Israel consisted only of the aleph, Rabbi Mendel transformed the revelation on Mount Sinai into a mystical revelation, pregnant with infinite meaning, but without...


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