Were Ancient Rabbis as Focused on Bible Interpretation as We Think They Were?

March 19 2019

The term midrash refers, loosely, to the style of exegesis practiced by the rabbis of the 1st through 8th centuries CE, a genre that often involves straying far outside the plain or literal meaning of the text. In The Origins of Midrash, Paul Mandel presents a novel theory of how midrash developed and suggests that interpreting the Bible was not the priority of the early talmudic sages. Yitz Landes writes in his review:

Mandel argues [that], for much of antiquity, including during the early rabbinic period, the Semitic root d-r-sh [whence midrash] referred to teaching—textual or otherwise. Mandel thus overturns the [scholarly] consensus that early uses of this root refer to textual interpretation, and that only later was the root’s meaning expanded to encompass teaching more generally.

Mandel’s argument is a philological one, and it starts over a millennium before the rabbis first appeared on the historical stage. . . . In their occurrences in pre-rabbinic texts from the Hebrew Bible and elsewhere, [d-r-sh and related Semitic roots] refer not to activities of textual interpretation but simply to “the disclosure and teaching of the Jewish law.” Similarly, in early rabbinic texts, these words “do not convey a particular mode of textual interpretation and, indeed, are not limited to textual interpretation at all, but rather to public instruction, usually in the realm of laws and custom.” The meaning of d-r-sh changed toward . . . the turn of the 2nd century CE.

While praising the book, Landes suggests that “the distinction between explication of the Torah text and ‘a detailed discussion of the laws based on that text’ is not so clear [as Mandel assumes], particularly given that the discussion of the laws may still have included a recital of the pertinent passages from Scripture.”

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Read more at Ancient Jew Review

More about: Judaism, Midrash, Religion & Holidays, Talmud

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat