Hebraic Draughts

Rough drafts of thoughts, following reading, studying and teaching Hebrew and Jewish texts.

When presented before a King

At a friend’s house for a Friday night dinner, I learned of a game of stories of the week. It was a game not because of its playfulness so much as its rules. One of the rules, formulated by and for the sake of a five-year-old, was that questions on the story were allowed only after the storyteller was done. Here a problem arose: are comments equal to questions? The five-year-old very shrewdly decided against comments, noting that comments were about the commentator’s own ideas, not the storyteller’s. This is very true, of course, for biblical commentators throughout the ages, although the finest comment, to my mind, will choose the middle path, tying closer the speaker and the addressee, or the text and the exegete.

Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on the Pentateuch has plenty of Hirsch in it (and early Modern Judentum in general), but his attentiveness to the biblical text and his ability to genuinely apply the ancient text to his times is an exemplar of hermeneutics.

Commenting on the first verses of Gn 40, he notes the shift between שר המשקים and שר האופים (Alter: “chief cupbearer” and “chief baker”) and משקה and אופה (Alter: “cupbearer” and “baker”). For Hirsch this is an astute observation on power and hierarchy: while the public may view these chiefs as a שר (prince), to the king they are servants as any other, lowlier than the street sweeper.

In his commentary on Gn 41:14, he draws lessons of diplomacy from the preparation of Joseph before being presented in court. Whereas the profuse continuum of verbs was explained by others to convey urgency, Hirsch reads moderation:

“We should notice the traits characteristic of Joseph. The courtiers sought to hasten him to the king. For they had a duty to appease the king, and he was nothing but a servant and a denigrated prisoner.  But he was not hastened, but first shaved and changed his clothing… he did not “rush” to Pharaoh, but “came” to him. Fully aware of his personality and calling, and thus, as we saw, he became a sage: in his penetrating gaze, he grasped the particulars of every thing, and every circumstance and relationship.”

[Neither the German nor the English were available to me, and I offer here a translation based on Breuer’s Hebrew translation. Far from ideal for scholarly purposes]

For the peshat it is possible to read those actions as being ordered by the servants. It would be plausible that no person would be presented to the king without prior inspection by courtiers of his appearance. Hirsch’s reading is still valid, based on the verbs and how they are applied, but he could suffice in noting this shift. Instead, he digresses to a brief sermon on the correct behavior, self-respect and self-assurance that should direct an individual’s conduct.

For further insights on Hirsch’s commentary in its German setting (with an intriguing parallel to Mendelssohn’s influence on him), see Alan Levenson’s book, The Making of the Modern Jewish Bible (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 45-63 [on Amazon].

All my life I struggle against kindergarten teachers

“All my life I struggle against the notions instilled by the kindergarten teachers.” Thus said to me the professor who taught me Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, one of my first lessons in critical introductions. It is true. Young Israeli intellectuals, perhaps educated Jews in general, arrive at the university gates with a firm notion of a tradition. Whether they were brought up orthodox or secular, they have some baggage, and it mars their acquaintance with textual facts.

Sometimes I am surprised to find I still carry this baggage with me, so many years after that induction into critical Wissenschaft des Judentums. Lesson 1: Fulghum was wrong. Forget everything you learned in kindergarten.

In a student’s paper, a brief praise for Laban is the surprise of the day. He is the archvillain, because of him our Jacob needs to work extra years for the Rachel he deserves. So it is told in all kindergartens, or elementary schools at the latest. Every year, on Seder night, the Haggadah makes it worse. Could it be we were entirely wrong about him?

I go back to the text. Yes, Laban cheated Jacob, but there are two points that exonerate him: first, in a cosmic karma sense, Laban is only playing a role intended to give Jacob his reward. He cheated his own father, pretending to be the eldest, and when he has to flee, his father in law cheats him on the same matter. What goes around, Jacob, surely comes around, in the form of the wrong wife at your bedside. Second, Jacob would have had to be quite naïve to think he was going to get away with this: marrying the beautiful younger daughter while the elder daughter with the soft eyes remain a maiden. Jacob, as we all know by now, is anything but naïve. Laban may have cheated him, but Jacob was taking a risk to begin with.

And their relationship ends pretty much the same, two swindlers at each other’s throats. Laban will never see his daughters again, and is equally sorry to see all the flock he believed was rightfully his, but Jacob begged to differ. He earned it, it was his to keep. This is not a matter of father-in-laws and sons, it is an old-time struggle between employers and employees. Jacob leaves in flight, in stealth, just as he arrived. Recalling how he arrived, could Laban expect it to be any different? It was a script to be played out, and they each played their role faithfully, bringing it to a tragic end, the only possible end when all are set to cheat each other, and no-one speaks the truth.

This is very much true to life, but the preschool teachers hope to change the world. They raise one generation after another with a story of good and evil, with two sides, and tell the children to grow up righteous, as Jacob was. The kindergarten teachers are Deuteronomists, and thus the verse about the wandering Aramean, whatever its original meaning was, is how we remember Laban, with a little help from the rabbis.

Knowledge and Oblivion

The history of research is also the history of forgetting.

When teaching Deuteronomy tomorrow, I will tell my students’ of de Wette’s dating and how it changed scholarship. It was described as an “Archimedean point” when I was doing my first year of undergraduate studies in Hebrew Bible. In the words of John Collins (that my students will be reading for class, or at least should be):

“In 1805 a young German scholar, W. M. L de Wette, revolutionized scholarship by pointing out the correspondence between Deuteronomy and the ‘book of the law’ that was allegedly found in the temple in 621 BCE, in the reign of King Josiah of Judah.” (JJ Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 162).

But de Wette wasn’t the first to point out the relationship between 2 Ki 22 and Deuteronomy, of course, although this is the ubiquitous wisdom HB professors teach their students. Radak (Rabbi David Kimhi, 1160–1235) writes in his commentary on 2 Ki 22:11:

אמרו כי מצאו הספר נגלל בפרשת תוכחות יולך ה’ אותך ואת מלכך וגו’ כי שם נרמז ענין גלות שומרון וגלות יהודה עם מלך יהודה כמו שבארנו שם

It is said that they found the book (scroll) rolled in the passage of reproof, “The Lord will drive you, and the king you have set over you, etc.” (Deut 28:36), because that alludes to the Exile of Samaria and the Exile of Judea with the King of Judea.

And Gersonides (1288-1344) supports this view:

יתכן שראה התוכחות והנמשך להם שבמשנה תורה כי שם נרמז ענין גלות שומרון וגלו’ יהודה עם מלך יהודה

Perhaps he saw the reproofs and what relates to them in Deuteronomy

Radak and Gersonides are reading this more naively than de Wette, to be sure. They cannot imagine that Deuteronomy was only composed at that time, and that the discovery is merely “alleged” as Collins wrote. This is indeed the novelty of de Wette, but together with it we all too often also ascribe to him noticing the correspondence itself.

Radak, to conclude this point, finds it difficult to accept that Deuteronomy, not to mention the Torah entirely was lost. As support, he says that if Manasseh repented (based on the Chronicler and the midrash), it is impossible that he would not study Torah. The discovery is not of the text itself, but the fact that it was found open on the section of curses of Deut 28. In other words, Radak is implying here an almost divinatory use of the written word as artifact, similar in a way to the rabbinic practice of פסוק לי את פסוקך (asking children to recite a verse), or to opening books haphazardly and using their place as an omen (there’s an excellent discussion of this in Michael Swartz’s new book, The Signifying Creator).

In order to learn, we make room for more knowledge, and forget some of the old. It is impossible to read everything, even less so to retain. The new often bears the quality of revolutionary, but in the course of the revolution the memory of the old is swiped away and discarded as irrelevant. As a result, modern scholarship, in a manner that is not only ideological, but almost dogmatic, tells a story of discovery ex nihilo. It is surprising and refreshing to see and recall things that medievalists noticed and acknowledged, despite the disparate assumptions. Although many fault Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? for its Jerusalem School dating of the documents, I think he does an excellent job in extensively tracing the earliest evidence for authorship criticism, and delineating the full path that led to Wellhausen.

My own tendencies are equally unoriginal: I got into the habit of checking modern claims against traditional ones when I studied Leviticus with Baruch Schwartz as an undergrad. Class preparation required the primary reading from Leviticus with two modern commentaries and two medieval exegetes of our choice. Reading both side by side remains a pleasure of reading and teaching the Hebrew Bible.

Let Us Make Man

There is a challenging futility in teaching ancient texts at the college level. While I encourage students to acquire tools for research, I know that they will not master the ancient language in question during their time in college. Those who take a course or two with me, will continue to rely on my up to the very end for the original. They will ask a question, and if I say in the original the meaning is X, they will have no choice to accept it. Yes, they might doubt it, and ask a second time “is there no other possible interpretation?” but once I’ve repeated my answer, they will not be able to provide a counter-argument about the original. And this, of course, is exactly the opposite of what higher education should strive to inculcate.

So, I take great pleasure in the rare instances when a student applies a methodological principle in theory, even when they have no way to implement it. It shows that they are on the right track, despite the limitations of time and resources the entrap the course.

We read Gen 1:26: “Let Us make Man.” As always, I asked the class why is god speaking in the plural. One student suggested the pluralis maiestatis explanation. A fairly common explanation, but nevertheless impressive to hear it from a student, rather than have me supply this option. Another student protested. It sounded to him European and medieval, and “unless there are more examples of this usage within the Hebrew Bible,” he would be inclined to reject this explanation for Gen 1:26. What a great philological principle!

I asked for further suggestions. Another student asked, somewhat hesitantly, if it might refer to the Trinity. While it cannot, and the possibility should be rejected, as far as the author of Genesis is concerned, it nevertheless opened a whole new world into the course, the one of intertextual relations between the Old and the New Testaments. For the English reader, the disparity of the two in language, time, place and social history are not self-evident. At the same time, I remind myself that such connections are the bread and butter of the Church Fathers. I don’t remember ever hearing this suggestion before, and enjoy seeing that I still have plenty to learn. The prisms by which the text can be illuminated have not been exhausted for me, after so many years of study. What a wonderful realization for the first week of the term.

[Intro to HB, Winter 2014, Lawrence University]

Fiddler on the Abbey (and Abbie)

 I screened Fiddler on the Roof today as a non-obligatory section of my Introduction to Judaism. I offered similar notes of introduction that I did last time I screened it, only this time I also added a parallel to Downton Abbey (the notice I sent out to students made use of this parallel).

Although I’ve seen it many times it’s only when I screen it for students that I notice its faults, cringing as if it’s my own responsibility for sharing them something that is less than perfect (in truth, there are so many excellent films I would like my students to watch, but I haven’t figured a way to link them thematically to the courses I teach). The final scene is unnecessarily prolonged, and minor places where the acting is somewhat “wooden” become more noticeable.

But the thing that gives me most concern is the portrayal of Jews for a non-Jewish audience. This is the flipside of the exact same reason that I screen the movie: it is replete with stock images of Judaica, and I like giving the students in a single viewing see a Shabbat candle service, the wedding canopy, a Torah scroll brought out from the Aron Qodesh, and so forth.

At the same time, its stereotypical portrayal of Jews is problematic. Part of this portrayal derives from the original writings of Sholem Aleichem, who was openly critical of traditional Jewish society, and like Mendele Mocher Sfarim and others taunted their semi-functional societal structure. Another part derives from the transition of inside-jokes into external settings: when Tevye raises the memory of the dispute about an age of a horse, it’s amusing and good-hearted like many other jokes on disputes among Jews. But watching it with non-Jews as part of their introduction to Judaism, I cannot help but doubt myself, and wonder whether I am unwittingly promoting antisemitic stereotypes (of Jews as argumentative, contentious, etc.) to people who don’t have context to assess this. This is a minor degree of the same thing that occurred with the Gospel of Matthew: being the gospel that was written by a Jew, it is the most critical of Jews, and its portrayal of Judas is the most vile among the gospels. It was written by a Jew, perhaps even with a Jewish audience in mind. But over the centuries it was read by Christians who saw it in a completely different light than the author intended it.


Back to the Downton Abbey parallel: Reb Tevye and Lord Grantham both have three daughters and their troubles marrying them reflect the changes that modernity and technology impose on traditionalism. The surprising appearance of the train in Fiddler on the Roof (a first sign of technology in a primarily premodern setting) also reminded me of train shots at Downton Abbey, and the most recent episode included an introduction of a sewing machine, with Mrs. Patmore being apprehensive of the new appliance (unlike Motl the tailor who takes pride in the machine, and the entire shtetl comes to see it).

Both movies convey a universal sense of nostalgia and respect to conservatism in an extremely particular setting. There are hardly more disparate communities and characters than Tevye and Grantham, which makes the parallels between the two narratives all the more striking. It is also instructive to reconsider strictly distinct categories as etiquette and religion as partially overlapping, and both serving similar purposes, and using similar rituals (clothing regulations, strict laws of food, etc.).

It makes me wonder about the cultural circumstances and impetus for producing such nostalgia. In the past, I already considered some socio-political causes for Downton Abbey. This is how I framed it:

I’ve developed a thesis on the cultural representation of American capital as an agent of change and erosion of national values, seen in Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge. The idea is to associate this representation with the aftermath of the Blair-Bush years and the view of the UK as a second fiddle to US Empire. I have neither the time nor resources to write this up properly, so I’m putting it out there, for the benefit of the public.

I can only surmise the events in the background of Fiddler’s production, and proceed with great caution, as it is easy for the historian to point to two events in a proximate period and then draw a line between them. But I suddenly think of the Jewish revolutionaries of the 1960s and the 1970s, and look at Tevye as a counter-response to them. Against Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, Jews in the entertainment industry manufacture a counter-insurgence Jew, one that fears change, and while willing to adapt slowly, is not half the radical as them.

Antiquity and the Body

After reading the Covenant Code, a student commented on the preponderance of capital punishment, at times for what seemed to be minor offenses. I replied with a readily prepared response by Greenberg: Yes, ancient Israel is violent, but in the context of its surroundings they are quite progressive and lenient.

Later I regretted the apologetic aspect of my response. Part of it is true, and needs to be said, but I would prefer to avoid a discussion that somewhere in its background has an undertone of “whose tradition is better” with me presenting Judaism to the local Christians. Surely, that is not what I intend to do in academia.

Rather than placing this in moral terms, in which whoever kills the least is the most moral, it would be better to use it as another peephole to gain insight on how remote we are from the realia of ancient Israel. Death was much more prevalent, but more importantly, it was more visible. The harsh realities of the frailty and even repulsiveness of the body were ever present: people saw sicknesses, deformities, corpses, and healthy, mundane defecation much more than we do. Animal carcasses and animals mating were certainly not a rare sight, and even human copulation was probably not as private as we practice it today.

I heard Jodi Magness once say in a lecture that people of our time and hygiene standards would not survive one day in antiquity. Not only because we are supposedly more refined, but we are also less immune. Ofra likes to quote in this context the saying in Avot 5:5, that one of the ten miracles of the temple was that a woman never miscarried from the odor of the sacrificed meat. So repugnant was the smell, apparently, that only a miracle can explain it.

This brings up much more, far beyond the scope of the student’s question, or any other issue of my class. Longevity and health have increased due to these hygiene practices, but our culture makes most human detached from basic facts of life, denying the realities of the body. The material aspects of popular culture, including an obsessive preoccupation with looks and body image can then be understood not as an actual engagement with the body, but a denial of what the body is, the beautiful and powerful, alongside the limited and blemished. As long as this denial continues, it is hard to imagine a greater acceptance of body image. An image can only reflect on reality.

As I said, this last point is not one that I would introduce to a Hebrew Bible class. I try to stick to the subject matter, and avoid the stance of the preacher or the theologian while in the classroom. And still, there are some thoughts of how I could improve my response for the next time this question comes up.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying, and Love Jewish Mysticism

The study of mysticism can never follow a straight path, it seems. A student seeking to find out the secrets, will be deterred by his masters, directed into all sorts of digressions and red herrings, lest his study is merely instrumental. A student not seeking to find out secrets, will stumble upon them by chance, not realizing they are secrets, or dismissing them.

I became very quickly of the latter sort.

My induction was through secular, Zionist, “Jewish culture” masters. Buber’s Or Haganuz, Pinchas Sadeh’s edition of the Breslaver’s stories. It was a literary curiosity, more than anything else.

I went to university and discovered Maimonides through Leibowitz. I learned of Buber’s mystical side, and wrote a paper on him, realizing more and more that even if he was not observant, he was very much religious. Through the orthodox Leibowitz, I therefore came to disparage Buber for his own religiosity.

Although I did not begin my studies at Hebrew University before the turn of the century (21st), I remained of a very Wissenschaft des Judentums approach, dismissing the mystical and seeking the rational strands of Judaism.

My years in Princeton allowed me to embrace mysticism if not for my own sake, then for scholarship. It was, undeniably, much too important to dismiss, much too present to ignore. Furthermore, the rationalism of the philosophers is never complete. A leap of faith is always required, or even assumed, in order to marry the anthropomorphizing verses in the Hebrew Bible, with Plato, Aristotle, or Kant, depending on the philosopher. As such, the self-contradicting theosophy of the Sefirot or of the Lurianic tsimtsum could seem even to bear more integrity than Philo, Maimonides or Hermann Cohen can offer.

Finally, two quotes I read this week felt just right, and made me realize the long path I’ve walked from admiring Buber, to dismissing him for being engaged with mysticism, to viewing him more nuanced, and Jewish mysticism as even more complex, something that does not hinge on my relation to Buber:

“The fact that an idea which at first sight appears so reasonable as ‘Creation out of Nothing’ should turn out upon inspection to lead to a theosophical mystery shows us how illusory the apparent simplicity of religious fundamentals really is” - Scholem, MTJM 7.4

“The understanding, however, that law and spirit are antithetical has a specific genealogy that goes back to the apostle Paul’s attempt to contrast the Law (that is, the Torah) with the Spirit of God as revealed through Jesus Christ. There is nothing natural or obvious to the dichotomy; it is a culturally constructed one.” – Michael Satlow, Creating Judaism, 231.

It is interesting that even Scholem, who repeatedly criticizes the older, disparaging view of Jewish Mysticism, raises more than a hint of questionability before describing Luria’s theology, claiming, he may have gone too far with his anthropomorphisms (earlier in the same chapter of the above quote). Luria, it seems, was stretching even Scholem’s openness to these aspects of Judaism. But what is so compelling in this quote, is the distance between Genesis 1 and Lurianic Kaballah. There is nothing “reasonable,” in all fairness, in the idea of Creation out of Nothing, but it is presented in the HB as straightforward. The questions raised by the mystics, which yield the development of the En-Sof, tsimtsum, etc. do not stem from a difficulty in the plain meaning of the text, but from a sincere exegetical attempt to reconstruct the history reflected in it. When presented as such, it is not as crazy as it seems at first, and indeed reveals the illusory nature of apparent simplicity, as Scholem writes.

This ties in with Satlow’s sensible comment against the divorce of mysticism and law. The quote is taken from a discussion on Karo, who serves as an excellent embodiment of the point. The theologies of Maimonides and Luria are at irreconcilable odds, as if they belonged in entirely different religions. But Karo’s legal enterprise parallels Maimonides’ work, while his theological beliefs side with Luria.

If Jewish history could make these compatible, I certainly should avoid judging which is more authentic, plausible or laudable. I am nothing but a student of this history, stumbling on the path of its long and winding road, with no gates in sight.


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