Books: Narrative voices

Both books are the direct result of the revolution in Bible study that has occurred in the religious-Zionist community over the last 40 years.

HAREDI MEN pray at the Belz Yeshiva in Jerusalem (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post))
HAREDI MEN pray at the Belz Yeshiva in Jerusalem
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post))
Recently, two new books were published from the beit midrash (study hall) of Yeshivat Har Etzion, which deal with fundamental theological questions relating to the modern Bible study: Fundamental Questions Relating to Bible Teaching by Rabbi Amnon Bazak, a teacher at both Har Etzion and its affiliated institution, Herzog College; and My Constant Delight: Contemporary Religious Zionist Perspectives on Tanach Study edited by Rabbi Dr. Yehoshua Reiss, with contributions from distinguished rabbis and teachers.
Both books are the direct result of the revolution in Bible study that has occurred in the religious-Zionist community over the last 40 years. Traditionally, Bible study has been not part of the basic studies at advanced yeshivot, but Har Etzion pioneered the introduction of the Bible into the curriculum. And with this innovation also came a renewed emphasis on the learning of pshat (simple meaning of the text) using modern literary techniques.
These developments have not been without their critics, and the two books are partially written in response to them.
Bazak’s volume is one of the first books written for a popular religious audience that deals directly with the issues of biblical criticism, modern archeological findings and comparative ancient texts, and how they impact on a believing student of the Bible. In the past, these issues were alluded to but never directly addressed in the religious-Zionist world.
Bazak has done a service in openly discussing them and in collecting the relevant material from a wide variety of sources. The heart of the book (which would have benefited from an index) is the discussion on the contradictions and repetitions in the biblical text, and the documentary hypothesis of multiple human authors of the Torah.
Bazak’s basic approach is based on the work of Rabbi Mordechai Breuer, who postulated the “two aspects” approach to resolving the theological problem of biblical contradictions. Breuer accepted the basic tenets of biblical critics that there are multiple contradictions and repetitions in the Torah, but maintained they were divinely intended – as they reflect different aspects of reality, the complexity of the world and the relationship of God to man. This is, in a sense, a very modern approach, as it recognizes that the same event or story can be interpreted differently, based on one’s perspective.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks developed this idea beautifully in his interpretation of the beginning chapters of Genesis dealing with the creation of the world. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik also used a similar approach in his essay “The Lonely Man of Faith,” in explaining the two contradictory narratives of the creation of man in Chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis. Bazak quotes Breuer as wishing that Soloveitchik had applied this approach to other instances as well. The Bible scholar and teacher Nechama Leibowitz was a critic of Breuer’s, and commented that only someone of Soloveitchik’s stature was allowed to go in that direction.
Breuer’s approach has been criticized because of its implicit assumption of the basic tenets of the documentary hypothesis that are still open to debate, and for the surprising fact that no one before Breuer realized this dual message delivered from God to man. A more recent approach to resolving some of these contradictions has been to use modern literary methodology, with which Bazak is very familiar and uses in the book to explain the contradictions in the story of Judah and Tamar and in Moses’s speech at the beginning of Deuteronomy.
Finally, as Breuer himself explained, the intellectual dispute is at its root a question of faith: “The difference between us is whether one believes in Torah min shemayim [that Torah was given from God to man]. They [biblical critics] maintain that the sources of the Torah were written by man and then were edited by man into one volume, and we believe that the Torah was written and edited by God. The argument between us and the biblical critics is not an intellectual one, and cannot be resolved by rational means.”
Not flinching from modern challenges to the veracity of the Bible, the book continues with a discussion of modern archeological findings, the development of biblical Hebrew and ancient Near East literature and legal codes. The book ends with a section on the importance of learning and creating pshat, and in this context Bazak is fond of quoting the Rashbam: “And also Rabbenu Shlomo [Rashi], my mother’s father, who opened our eyes, explained the Bible according to the simple meaning. I, Shmuel, the son of Rabbi Meir, his son-in-law, argued with him [Rashi], and he confessed to me that if he would have had time, he would have explained differently based on the fact that the simple meaning of the text is consistently renewed.”
The book’s final chapter explores the issue of how a religious person deals with the fact that according to a simple reading of Bible, our greatest spiritual leaders committed grave sins – the classic example being the story of King David and Bathsheba.
THIS, IN fact, is one of the main topics of My Constant Delight: Contemporary Religious Zionist Perspectives on Tanach Study.
The book is a collection of articles written by rabbis affiliated with Har Etzion, and reflects the methodology of Bible study taught at the yeshiva.
The book begins with an article by the intellectual leader of the yeshiva and its head for more than 40 years, Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein. The article is based on a lecture he gave at Stern College for Women in 1962, where he taught English literature, where he argued for the use of modern literary techniques in Bible study. Lichtenstein himself pointed out that this argument is no longer revolutionary, and also noted that he himself did not spend much time doing this – probably due to time constraints and other interests.
In one chapter, Rabbi Dr. Yonatan Grossman, basing himself on the thought of Rabbi Tzadok Hacohen, argues that the Torah has faith in humanity, and every person’s individual reading of the Torah has validity and worth.
In another chapter, Rabbi Ream Hacohen uses kabbalistic terminology and thought to justify using modern literary methodology in Bible study.
The book consistently argues for an approach that recognizes that while our spiritual ancestors were people of unimaginable greatness, they were not angels – and had the capacity to sin and repent. This is in contrast to a more haredi view, which says it is impossible these people sinned, as a simple reading of the text might lead one to believe. This is reminiscent of the haredi approach to history, where the truth is less important than the impact that history might have one’s religious sensibility and growth.
In this last chapter of the book, Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein accepts the contention that one of the primary motivations in Bible study is spiritual growth, but argues that doesn’t necessarily mean to treat our heroes as angels. He maintains that recognizing their human frailty as part of their greatness has the potential to increase rather than lessen one’s appreciation of them. He concludes by suggesting that our approach to our ancestors in Bible study might depend on the intellectual and emotional age of the students. At a younger age, a simpler picture might be presented but at a more mature age, the fuller, more complicated picture should be elucidated.
The book also includes articles by such distinguished rabbis as Breuer, Yoel Ben- Nun, Yaakov Medan and Yuval Cherlow, but would have benefited from the inclusion of the voices of some women scholars and teachers of the Bible. The two books are of great value to anyone interested in the remarkable resurgence of the serious study of the Bible in the religious-Zionist community, and the controversies surrounding the application of modern literary methodology to its study. The writer is director of the Jakobovits Center for Jewish Medical Ethics at Ben-Gurion University, and a senior physician at Soroka University Medical Center.