Jewish Concepts of Scripture

Jewish Concepts of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction

EDITED BY Benjamin D. Sommer
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 347
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    Jewish Concepts of Scripture
    Book Description:

    What do Jews think scripture is? How do the People of the Book conceive of the Book of Books? In what ways is it authoritative? Who has the right to interpret it? Is it divinely or humanly written? And have Jews always thought about the Bible in the same way? In seventeen cohesive and rigorously researched essays, this volume traces the way some of the most important Jewish thinkers throughout history have addressed these questions from the rabbinic era through the medieval Islamic world to modern Jewish scholarship. They address why different Jewish thinkers, writers, and communities have turned to the Bible - and what they expect to get from it. Ultimately, argues editor Benjamin D. Sommer, in understanding the ways Jews construct scripture, we begin to understand the ways Jews construct themselves.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2479-8
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
    Benjamin D. Sommer
  4. Chapter 1 Introduction: Scriptures in Jewish Tradition, and Traditions as Jewish Scripture
    (pp. 1-14)
    Benjamin D. Sommer

    On one level, there is a simple answer to the question “What is scripture for the Jews?” For roughly the past two thousand years, Jews have had a canon of twenty-four books that form the Jewish Bible,¹ starting with Genesis and ending with Chronicles.² Some Jewish groups up until about two thousand years ago accepted additional books as scripture, but by the end of the first century CE the canon used by Jews today was more or less universally accepted by all Jews. In this respect, Jews differ from Christians, since to this day there are books regarded by Orthodox...

  5. Chapter 2 Concepts of Scripture in the Synagogue Service
    (pp. 15-30)
    Elsie Stern

    For most contemporary Jews, the “Jewish Bible” is a single volume containing the twenty-four books of the Tanakh, which is readily available and accessible through the process of reading. While totally familiar to us, these paired phenomena—the Bible as a book and reading as the primary means of accessing it—are relatively new developments in the history of Jewish encounters with scripture. Until the onset of printing, most Jews would never have encountered a “Bible.” They might have encountered a Torah scroll in the synagogue or scrolls or volumes containing selections from other parts of the canon. However, manuscripts...

  6. Chapter 3 Concepts of Scripture in Rabbinic Judaism: Oral Torah and Written Torah
    (pp. 31-46)
    Steven D. Fraade

    If at the center of Judaism is “the book,” meaning the Hebrew/Jewish Bible (TaNaKh),¹ at the core of the Jewish Bible is the Torah, the Five Books of Moses (Pentateuch/Humash), traditionally thought to have been revealed by God via Moses to the Israelites standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai. However, from the perspective of the ancient rabbis (ca. 70–500 CE, in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia), who came to define, even more than did the Hebrew Bible, the practice and meaning of Judaism in all of its subsequent varieties, Judaism is less based on the written...

  7. Chapter 4 Concepts of Scripture in the Schools of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael
    (pp. 47-63)
    Azzan Yadin-Israel

    Once a year, Israel celebrates “Book Week,” a holiday devoted to the written word, consisting of book fairs in city centers, deep discounts on books, and various interviews and panels of authors, critics, and other literary figures. Alongside the mainstream celebrations, there is also “Torah Book Week,” during which ultraorthodox book vendors sell religious texts and artifacts. Years ago, I was perusing the booths of a “Torah Book Week” exhibitor, looking for rabbinic Torah commentaries, when I spotted a series of illustrated children’s books—age-appropriate retellings of Bible stories for young ultraorthodox readers. Curious, I leafed through the first volume,...

  8. Chapter 5 Concepts of Scriptural Language in Midrash
    (pp. 64-79)
    Benjamin D. Sommer

    Virtually all Jewish conceptions of scripture since late antiquity grow up in the shadow of the rabbinic interpretations known as midrash. Whether by incorporating them, adapting them, or reacting to them, postrabbinic Jewish thinkers who studied the Bible lived in a conceptual world shaped by the midrash. To this day, the interpretations of the weekly biblical reading one hears from adarshan(a rabbi, teacher, or preacher who gives the sermon) in the course of synagogue worship¹ is likely to consist of a paraphrase of a passage from a midrashic anthology that treats the weekly reading; alternatively (if thedarshan...

  9. Chapter 6 Concepts of Scripture among the Jews of the Medieval Islamic World
    (pp. 80-101)
    Meira Polliack

    The medieval Islamic period brought about great intellectual growth and a flowering of literary creativity among the Jews. Arabic language, thought, and literature, as well as Islamic religion and politics, represented a significant challenge for the Jewish communities who came under Islamic rule and whose social and cultural structures had been forged in the classical rabbinic age. During this period, and especially throughout the 10th to 12th centuries, Judaism was consolidated, and many of its central institutions took shape. A principal religious rift also occurred during this period between traditional rabbinic Judaism (or Rabbanism) and Karaism—a new sectarian movement...

  10. Chapter 7 Concepts of Scripture in the School of Rashi
    (pp. 102-122)
    Robert A. Harris

    In considering the definition of a “Jewish conception of Scripture,” it is just so right on many levels to begin with Rashi’s Torah commentary: Jewish children have begun their own studies with this work almost since the very generation in which he wrote it. Rashi, or Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (1040–1105), lived in Troyes, in Champagne country in northern France. Though as a young man he studied in the great centers of rabbinic scholarship in Germany, Rashi’s fame rests on the Bible and Talmud commentaries he wrote after his return to France. These commentaries provide a unique blend of...

  11. Chapter 8 Concepts of Scripture in Maimonides
    (pp. 123-138)
    James A. Diamond

    There is virtually no facet of present-day Judaism that does not bear the imprint of the formidable intellectual legacy of Moses ben Maimon (1138–1204), whether it be in Jewish law (halakha), rabbinics, theology, philosophy, or biblical interpretation. Even the mystical tradition’s (kabbala) inventive re-readings of Scripture can be seen as a negative reaction to his overpowering rationalist approach. He was a first in many respects. No fundamental tenets of Judaism to which Jews must subscribe existed prior to his introduction of thirteen articles of faith, what have since been generally assented to as the Jewish creed. He pioneered the...

  12. Chapter 9 Concepts of Scripture in Nahmanides
    (pp. 139-156)
    Aaron W. Hughes

    R. Moses ben Nahman (1194–1270), customarily referred to as Nahmanides or the Ramban, is one of the towering figures of premodern Judaism. Scholar, commentator, halakhist, communal leader, and spokesperson, his career represents the creative intersection of the three primary trends of medieval Judaism: rationalism, traditionalism, and mysticism. Like the great Maimonides, with whom he is frequently compared and often too neatly juxtaposed, he was a product of the rich Iberian-Jewish intellectual tradition.¹ However, whereas Maimonides is often regarded as the last great representative of the rationalist school associated with the so-called Golden Age of Muslim Spain, Nahmanides was born...

  13. Chapter 10 Concepts of Scripture in Jewish Mysticism
    (pp. 157-178)
    Moshe Idel

    The correlation between any Jewish theology and the conception of scripture that accompanies it is one of the most characteristic features of Jewish thought.¹ All theological systems in Judaism have produced their own conceptions of Torah. These varied conceptions of Torah provide a lens through which one can study the development of Jewish concepts of God.

    Biblical and midrashic theologies, in both legal and narrative texts, reflect a God who gives law and who directs the processes of history. Maimonides’s God is a much more abstract, philosophical deity, and his understanding of the Torah assumes the presence of philosophical concepts....

  14. Chapter 11 Concepts of Scripture in Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig
    (pp. 179-202)
    Jonathan Cohen

    The thought of Martin Buber (1878–1965) and Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929) continues to exert a profound influence not only on theologians and philosophers of religion, both Jewish and Christian, but on biblical scholars as well. Their work has been foundational for readers who want not so much to deny as to move beyond historical and philological approaches that obscure biblical literature’s religious and humanistic vitality. Buber and Rosenzweig bring God back into the picture and thus represent a gesture of return to older modes of biblical interpretation. Still, their approach does not simply restore medieval or midrashic approaches to...

  15. Chapter 12 The Pentateuch as Scripture and the Challenge of Biblical Criticism: Responses among Modern Jewish Thinkers and Scholars
    (pp. 203-229)
    Baruch J. Schwartz

    The study of the Pentateuch among Jews in the two centuries following the appearance of modern Pentateuchal criticism had no choice but to cope with the fact that the systematic study of the Torah had become an academic enterprise carried out exclusively by Christian scholars and that its results were diametrically opposed to the tradition of Jewish learning.¹ Severe challenges to traditional Judaism emerged especially from what ultimately came to be known as the “Higher” Criticism of the Pentateuch. Higher Criticism, recognizing that the Torah contains the work of more than one author and that it achieved its current form...

  16. Chapter 13 Concepts of Scripture in Yehezkel Kaufmann
    (pp. 230-246)
    Job Y. Jindo

    The empirical conception of the Bible fostered during the Enlightenment advanced the notion that “the Bible is not the key to nature but a part of it; it must therefore be considered according to the same rules as hold for any kind of empirical knowledge.”¹ The notion of the Bible as artifact entails a paradigm shift for those who regard it as Scripture—it challenges them to reconsider their own understanding of this foundational text, which gives structure to their very mode of existence.² This conception of the Bible, which purports to be free of traditional, theological presumptions, puts in...

  17. Chapter 14 Concepts of Scripture in Moshe Greenberg
    (pp. 247-266)
    Marc Zvi Brettler

    Moshe Greenberg was born on July 10, 1928, in Philadelphia to Rabbi Simon and Betty (Davis) Greenberg.¹ His parents were observant Jews who spoke Hebrew to their children, and he received private tutoring in Jewish texts in the early mornings, before attending public school. His father was the rabbi of a prominent Conservative synagogue, served as vice chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and was active in some progressive social causes. Greenberg studied as an undergraduate and completed his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. Greenberg’s dissertation, completed in 1954 and published one year later, was on the Ḫab/piru, an...

  18. Chapter 15 Concepts of Scripture in Mordechai Breuer
    (pp. 267-279)
    Shalom Carmy

    To most outsiders who have heard of Rabbi Mordechai Breuer’s “theory of aspects” (torat ha-behinot), Breuer is a dark figure who has devised for his rigorously Orthodox confreres a counterapproach to biblical criticism so potent that they now thrive on the data that should be poisoning their faith, like bacilli that have evolved resistance to antibiotics. Alternatively, he is seen as one who has constructed a halfway house where academically mobile refugees from Orthodoxy can measure themselves for the trappings of biblical criticism on their way up to some form of orthopraxy. Both are correct.

    Like many Orthodox Israeli educators...

  19. Chapter 16 Scripture and Modern Israeli Literature
    (pp. 280-298)
    Yael S. Feldman

    The fascinating autobiography of Max Brod offers a witty insight into the role of the Hebrew Bible in the cultural life of theYishuv, the prestate Jewish community in Palestine. Culled from his long experience (1939–68) as the dramaturge of Habima — Israel’s national theater — Brod’s humorous quip critiques the overabundance of unsolicitedbiblicaldramatic scripts sent to him in the 1940s: “After rejecting five plays named ‘Moses,’ ten ‘King Ahabs,’ and a dozen ‘Ezras,’ I felt like hanging on my door a note explaining that it is preferable to read the Bible in the original rather than getting excited...

  20. Chapter 17 Scripture and Israeli Secular Culture
    (pp. 299-316)
    Yair Zakovitch

    “In the beginning was the word,” was the book—the Hebrew Bible, which provides the foundation of our being. On that foundation Jews built, layer upon layer, the cultural house of the people of Israel: translations of the Bible, the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, Jewish-Hellenistic literature, all the genres of rabbinic literature from all its periods both in aggadah and halacha, ancient liturgical poetry from the land of Israel (piyyut), each layer both feeding from the Bible and returning to illuminate it. Israel’s culture is like a many-branched tree, heavy with fruit, whose trunk is the Bible and whose roots reach...

  21. Glossary
    (pp. 317-320)
  22. About the Contributors
    (pp. 321-324)
  23. Index
    (pp. 325-334)