Is the Hebrew Bible a Jewish Book?

What does the underread text of the ancient Hebrews have to do with the Jews of today?

Photo by Josh Evnin/Flickr.

Photo by Josh Evnin/Flickr.

Observation
Feb. 12 2015
About the author

Alan Rubenstein, director of university programs at the Tikvah Fund, teaches a great-books seminar, “Windows on the Good Life,” at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.


Is the Hebrew Bible—the Tanakh—a Jewish book? At first glance, the question is absurd. The Bible is written in the language of the Jews, sections of it are read aloud, year in and year out, in synagogues and prayer groups, its words and thoughts permeate the Jewish liturgy, and its laws and commandments, its festivals and holy days, form the axis of the traditional Jewish way of life. So it has been for millennia.

But there are large parts of the Hebrew Bible that do not get read in the synagogue or in religious schools. Are these parts “less Jewish”? And more than this: does the Hebrew Bible, as a whole, play a role in shaping the character and formative ideas of the living, breathing Jews of today, their ambitions, their loves, their notions of the good? Or is it simply a gift to humanity from the ancient Hebrews, and in that sense no different from the gifts bequeathed by the ancient Greeks?

 

This question became important to me because of some accidents of my own history. I was raised in a Jewish home but not afforded much of an education in Jewish sources. I did not really pay attention to the Bible until I encountered it as one of the “great books” of the Western tradition that I and my fellow students read diligently, not to say reverently, at St. John’s College in Maryland. There, it took its place in the syllabus after we’d already encountered Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and Tacitus, and before we moved on to Augustine, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Kant, Hegel, and the rest.

Reading the Bible in this context meant, in one sense, treating it with profound respect: it was wisdom-rich literature of the highest order, every bit the equal of Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, and Kant. But this also meant regarding the Bible as something much less exalted than its “religious” readers took it to be: for us, after all, it was a creation of human genius—and nothing more. True, at St. John’s we were spared the vices of historicist and deconstructionist approaches—we took the Bible seriously and as an artistic whole, with important things to say about enduring issues of human life. But we were given no clue about the people who wrote it—or, as they would have said, received it—and what it meant to them. And we certainly never asked the question that would later become extremely important to me: what did those ancient people and their text have to do with the Jews of today, and to me as one of them?

Later on, I had the opportunity to acquaint myself somewhat more fully with the Jewish textual tradition and to learn the basic contours of Jewish history. Here I discovered something commonplace for learned Jews but remarkable to me. The “people of the book” are really the people of the bookshelf—the shelf in question being primarily the vast corpus of rabbinic writings, primarily the Talmud and its many later commentaries and supercommentaries devoted mainly to issues of halakhah, or Jewish law. Other works on the shelf belong to the category of midrash—homiletical narratives explicating or elaborating upon the biblical text; still others may be philosophical or mystical in nature; and works of biblical exegesis abound. All look instinctively to the Tanakh and cite it as the ultimate source of authority. But seldom is a Jew encouraged to encounter the Bible as we were encouraged to encounter all great books at St. John’s: in a spirit of unmediated, literary-philosophical inquiry.

And so I was still left seeking an answer to my question: is the Hebrew Bible a Jewish book—and therefore my book as a Jew?

 

Last December, I took this question with me to a seminar I led in Jerusalem on the theme of “The Hebrew Bible and Jewish Excellence.” The seminar’s faculty, all of them Israelis, included Micah Goodman, a highly acclaimed public intellectual who has written books on Maimonides, Yehuda Halevi, and, most recently, the book of Deuteronomy. The other faculty members were also of the first order: Asael Abelman, head of the history department at Herzog College; Aryeh Tepper, author of a recent study of Leo Strauss and Maimonides; and Rabbi Chaim Navon, a prolific writer on Jewish law, philosophy, and related topics.

With Goodman as chief exegete, we spent roughly half our time looking closely at episodes from the Bible that touch on God, human nature, politics, and the self-understanding of the Jewish people. The other half was spent looking at the works of some of the great men of 20th-century Jewish history, especially David Ben-Gurion, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Ahad Ha’am, the poet Saul Tchernichovsky, and Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Joseph Soloveitchik. Where we could, we asked how each of these men read the Bible, how that reading may have informed their personal excellence, and how that influence contributed to their distinctive impact on Jewish history.

Looking at the lineup, one quickly notes a pattern. With the exception of Soloveitchik, the story of these men forms part of the story of Zionism. And with the exceptions of Soloveitchik and Kook, all are (broadly speaking) secular figures. The focus on Zionism was heightened by the fact that, although the participants were a mix of Americans and Israelis, and the seminar was conducted in English, there we were, sitting in ancient/modern Jerusalem, studying with an Israeli faculty. And here, in the real Jerusalem, I learned to read the Bible like a Zionist.

Now that the state of Israel has been around for over six decades, it is easy to forget what a radical and revolutionary movement Zionism was. A part of this revolution entailed a revolutionary way of reading the Bible. In the eyes of men like Ben-Gurion, Tchernichovsky, Ahad Ha’am, Jabotinsky, and, perhaps most significantly, Kook, the Zionist approach to the biblical and indeed the entire Jewish past, and to its proper interpretation, represented a revolution of life against text. Consider this passage from a 1950 letter written by Ben-Gurion:

Not one biblical exegete, Jew or gentile, medieval or modern, could have interpreted the [biblical] book of Joshua as it was done by the deeds of the Israel Defense Forces during this past year.

The paradox is striking: Ben-Gurion is here rejecting the tradition of Jewish biblical interpretation even while claiming that interpretation itself remains the key to Jewish existence. But interpretation now takes a new form: not the accretion of additional text but the performance of exegetically-inspired deeds. The actions of the IDF, of the halutzim (Zionist pioneers), and of the other builders of the new Jewish commonwealth are themselves to be understood as interpretations of the Bible—though a Bible that had been lost and was in need of being recovered and experienced afresh within its reclaimed geographical and historical environment.

In an essay entitled “The Bible is Illuminated by Its Own Light,” Ben-Gurion makes this explicit:

I do not understand the denigration of the natural history and geography of the Bible. [The Hebrew literary critic and poet A.Y.] Kariv . . .  wants to know about King David only what is written about him in Psalms, chapter 89: “I have discovered David My servant; I have anointed him with My holy oil.” From this we see that “David was a discovery of God.” But this isn’t the only verse written about David in the Bible. The end of 1 Samuel, all of 2 Samuel, and the beginning of 1 Kings deal with the life of David and his actions, and they say what they say, and no midrash of yours or Kariv will expunge these words. The authors of the Bible wanted us to know the entire truth; let us, too, be respectful of that truth.

The “truth” about David that Ben-Gurion is alluding to is that he was more of a Mafia don, albeit a deeply humane one, than a talmid hakham, or Torah scholar. (And one might note in passing that the “entire truth” about David is that the Bible is also severely censorious of him, and not just of him alone.) Yet Ben-Gurion was right: raw and unadorned encounters with the Bible of the kind he was advocating—and in particular with the “historical” books like Samuel—had been, with certain scintillating exceptions, a rarity in the Jewish textual tradition. For the young revolutionaries of the Zionist movement, here were Jewish tales of men engaged in the rough and dirty business of life itself—the same business, many felt, that Zionists had to deal with every day while building and defending the new Jewish community in the land of Israel. The Bible was, effectively, a treasure hidden in plain sight.

In our week’s study in Jerusalem, the life-versus-text distinction, in its Zionist iteration, was a recurring theme. I’ll describe just one other instance because it comes from Rav Kook, a man with a radically different set of “first principles” from the politically-minded and theologically agnostic Ben-Gurion. Could any Orthodox rabbi have endorsed the idea that a renewed Jewish national life could involve a return to the Bible without a return to Jewish observance, and without rabbinic intermediation? Well, no. But Rav Kook came close.

In an essay entitled “The Road to Renewal,” written in his customary philosophical-mystical mode, Kook criticizes “the excessive focus on the study of texts” that had become necessary once the truly healthy conduit to the divine light—namely, the influential personality of the ancient prophet—became obstructed. After walking his readers through a dialectical history of the Jewish people, Kook reaches his own time:

The psyche of the nation is showing signs of renewal. At first she tends to be drawn to the external trappings of the nation’s life, without embracing the inner essence of the nation, her divine soul. At first she is content with the revival of the language, the land, the knowledge of history, and an undefined nostalgia for the past. But without a divine light shining, the soul will grow troubled.

This is Kook’s complicated take on the secular settlers whose vitality and attachment to the nation he admired and lauded publicly to the point of seeming a heretic to other religious leaders. The way these pioneers embraced life over texts made them, at this historical juncture, true agents of Jewish spiritual renewal, even if at some point they would have to see the error in their rejection of Jewish law and “the divine light.” As Kook put it, “The inspiration of an active spiritual influence”—that is, the spirit of Zionism—“exerts its effect on practical life more than the method of studying texts.” In the end, though, “the functioning of spiritual inspiration will restore to the nation its ancient honor by restoring the patriarchal dignity of Israel’s princes, who were distinguished by a personal spiritual quality of a higher order.”

If secular Zionists like Ben Gurion saw the ultimate goal as a return to the vital humanism that one finds exhibited in the historical narratives of the Bible, Kook saw the ultimate goal as a return of biblical Israel’s prophetic leadership. But, for all their differences, the two were united in their embrace of Israel’s national destiny as conveyed in passages of still-urgent immediacy in the Tanakh.

 

Here, then, we have an emphatically Jewish way of reading the Bible: that is, a way emphatically committed to seeing the text as a lever that can change the course of Jewish history—of Jewish life. When we began planning the seminar, we did not envision its main theme to become the Zionist revolution in reading the Bible. By the end, though, I couldn’t help wondering what it might be like to stage a similar seminar except this time with Diaspora figures in the foreground. How can the Bible be read for the sake of the life of non-Israeli Jews, and Jewish communities, that (to borrow from Rabbi Soloveitchik) seek to transform their fate into their destiny? What are the innate potencies of Judaism, of the Jewish spirit, that can become actualized as historical circumstances require? What does Judaism have “in it,” so to speak?

Admittedly, the Zionist case is easier. Who would have known, 100 or 1,000 years ago, that Judaism had within it the resources to create so vivid, dynamic, humane, and modern a Jewish state? Micah Goodman’s lectures were particularly inspiring in this respect, showing how only now, in the context of a modern Jewish state, several ideas in the Bible have revealed themselves as live options for an actual polity. Thus, the central thesis of his forthcoming book on Deuteronomy is that Moses’ final oration offers, in the form of a midrash-like retelling of the Exodus and wilderness story, a significant source of ideas for the managing, and moderating, of religious and political power in a Jewish state.

This would not be the sort of “Jewish excellence” one would expect to discover by creatively reading the Bible for the sake of Jewish life in America. But might not some visionary thinkers find alternatives equally inspiriting? If one is sold on the idea that Jewish history is really happening today only in Israel—as many men and women of learning and intelligence believe—then the quest is by definition futile. Still, a number of non-Israeli thinkers have in fact devoted themselves to studying and explicating the Bible as moderns and with the dilemmas of modern Jewish life in mind. One thinks, for example, of Leon Kass, Robert Sacks, Leo Strauss, Robert Alter, Aviva Zornberg, and rabbinic leaders like Joseph Soloveitchik and Jonathan Sacks. Can their and others’ investigations point to some program for Jewish life that might complement and even enrich the transformation accomplished by Zionism?

That, as I say, is a matter for another seminar.

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More about: Hebrew Bible, Liberal arts, Micah Goodman, Religion & Holidays