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100 SHOFAR Spring 1994 Vol. 12, No.3 FOCUS ON TEACHING We welcome responses, dialogue, and discussions of experience in this regular column. Jewish Responses to Modern Biblical Criticism: Some Reflections and a Course Proposal Alan Levenson Assistant Professor Cleveland College ofJewish Studies Teaching a survey of the Hebrew Scriptures to undergraduates for the first time at a distinguished Southern college, I was confronted with an interesting dichotomy. Students who had received a traditional religious background felt threatened by a critical approach to the Bible, often reacting in a defensive, fundamentalist vein. Highly secular students, on the other hand, having no commitment to religious community but only to some vague notion of historical facticity, had trouble imagining the function of a sacred text in a living religious community, or the Bible as something more than a repository for "the facts."l The following reflections, and the syllabus appended at their conclusion, emerged out of a quest for a useful heuristic to tackle this problem. Surveying some of the Jewish responses to modern biblical criticism offered a way to demonstrate that an intellectually rigorous confrontation with Scripture does not necessitate a literalist starting point, and that our respective upbringings influence the ways in which we approach biblical texts. ' The two critical terms in my course title are "modern" and "Jewish," and both require explication. I begin by looking at some classic Christian and Judaic interpretations of the expulsion from Eden. Both Christian and Jewish students were surprised that Paul's and Milton's reading ofThe Fall lNorthrop Frye deals with the second ofthese two issues from the perspective ofcultural literacy. Frye, The Great Code (San Diego-New York-London, 1983), pp. xi-xxiii. I would like to thank my colleague Dr. Roger C. Klein for his comments on an early draft of this essay. Focus on Teaching 101 as the critical event in human history did not predominate in rabbinic exegesis. Few realized that Jewish exegetes gave greater prominence to the murder ofAbel by Cain, and thatJewish polemicists dismissed the doctrine of Original Sin as a misreading.2 In addition to announcing my leitmotif that the Christian and Jewish interpretive traditions differed considerably, I introduce and discuss both the existence of pre-modern biblical exegesis and criticism and the problematic of arriving at the plain meaning (p'shat) of the Bible. Having delineated some of the characteristics of pre-modern Bible reading, I turn to Spinoza's Theological-Political Tractate (1670). Without intending to disparage the other pioneers in modern biblical criticism,3 this pedagogic choice allowed me to highlight the differences between. the adumbrations of modern criticism in the midrashim and in medieval commentaries and Spinoza's fundamentally modern willingness . to explicitly challenge the antiquity, authorship, and authority of Scripture .4 The reception accorded Spinoza's Tractate also demonstrates the resistance to the Higher Criticism, a resistance which continued into the nineteenth century and, in some quarters, until today. Within the Jewish community, "traditional" Jewish methods of exegesis currently flourish not only in the yeshiva world, but also in the popular Artscroll Series chumash, in which the p'shat almost always follows Rashi's d'rash. 5 In contradistinction to the scholars discussed below, the Artscroll approach minimizes the possibility of pluriform readings of a given text (after all, even Rashi's grandson frequently disagreed on what the text really said), and negates intergenerational dialogue as a means of discovering meaning. Modern Orthodoxy, to the extent that it ignores the findings of source criticism, form criticism, archaeology, and comparative linguistics, prefers a "traditional" interpre2See Nachmanides' comments in Charles Chavel, ed., The Disputation at Barcelona (New York, 1983), pp. 2-42. 3Any such list of pioneers would have to include Thomas Hobbes, Bishop LOWlh, Richard Simon, Jean Astruc, and Johann Gabler. 'Spinoza was aware of these medieval anticipations and refers quite often to Ibn Ezra's commentary on the Pentateuch. See also Nahum Sarna, "The Modern Study of the Bible in the Framework of Jewish Studies" and the relevant citations, in Proceedings of the Eighth World Congress ofJewish Studies, Vol. 1 Oerusalem, 1983), pp. 19-27. 5It may be argued that a series that attempts to market rabbinic commentary to a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 100-114
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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