Hebraic Draughts

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

Philo’s Self-Interpretation


There is no surprise that Philo reads God’s commandment to Abraham in Gn 12 allegorically. As with all allegorical readers, some confusion remains unclarified regarding the status of the peshat, once the instructive allegory has been accomplished: did God speak these words to Abraham at a certain point in history, and intended him to leave his country, homeland and father’s house, or is it only allegorical? These are not the only two options, of course: God may speak, and mean only the allegorical meaning (with no intention of asking Abraham to migrate); or the entire story may be allegorical; or it is a historical event that God designed to serve as an allegory for all, and so on and so forth, but I fear I digressing into an overly Wittgensteinean reading of Philo.

Philo sets down the allegory in a straightforward manner, like a deciphered code:

‘Land’ or ‘Country’ (γῆ) is a symbol of body (σῶμα), ‘kindred’ (συγγένεια) of sense-perception (αἴσθησις), ‘father’s house’ of speech (λόγος). [Migration of Abraham 1]

As is often the case, the oddity of Philo’s translation is based on the LXX rendition of the word. Alter probably translates it best as “birthplace,” and notes that “kinsfolk” would make it synonymous with “father’s house.” In defense of the LXX, one should note it does preserve the connection between מולדת and תולדות – an important theme of Genesis.

Back to Philo: in explaining the third part of this allegorical commandment, that is, why one should leave one’s logos, he says:

Again, quit speech also, ‘your father’s house’ as he [Moses] calls it, for fear you should be beguiled by beauties of mere phrasing, and be cut off from the real beauty, which lies in the matter expressed. Monstrous it is that shadow should be preferred to substance or a copy to originals. And verbal expression is like a shadow or copy, while the essential bearing of the matters conveyed by words resembles substance and originals. [Migration 12]

There is great pleasure in seeing this middle Platonist talking about the weakness of shadows, but the allusion to the Cave is just an extra benefit of this section. This is a remarkable passage, because in Philo’s exposition of Abraham’s migration he includes a justification for his own allegorical method: depart from speech, because words are not substance, and they should always be secondary to substance. This is precisely the reason that he disposes of the literal meaning of the text whenever it fails to meet the platonic substance he cherishes so dearly.

The relationship between “father’s house” to “speech” remains intuitive in his interpretation, and it will take two millennia for Lacan to arrive and explain this parallel, which Philo takes for granted.



A Hierarchy of People, a Hierarchy of Deeds

In the Western mind, Samaritans denote goodness. Thus, the Oxford English Dictionary that the word itself may denote, figuratively, “a kind and helpful person” and adds: “with reference to the ‘good Samaritan’ in Luke x. 33.” This is true, of course, although ironically the parable in Luke seems to present the notion of a “good Samaritan” as almost an oxymoron. Three men pass by the half dead man (ἡμιθανῆ): A priest (ἱερεύς), a Levite (Λευίτης), and a Samaritan (Σαμαρίτης). The folkloristic element of a triad is apparent, as is the gradual degradation. The priest, of all people, would have been expected to behave righteously by the audience of Jesus. The Levite is not as high as a priest, but still belongs to a religious elite. Surprisingly, the story does not continue with a lay Israelite, as this triad is attested in ancient Judaism, but with a non-Jew.

The meaning of the parable, then, can only be uncovered if the Samaritan is understood here as a stereotype for the least likely to have an ethical standing. The parable goes against the prevalent view of Second Temple Judaism that merit derives from descent. Being a righteous Samaritan is better than being an indifferent priest. Favoring deeds over descent is not solely a Christian notion. The “ways that never parted,” as rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity are viewed today, acknowledging the lively dialogue that took place between them, share a path here, too. The rabbis favor deeds over descent or titles in many cases, although they cannot rid themselves of the legacy of descent as easily as Christianity did.

Surprisingly, this parable appears only in the Gospel of Luke, whose author is least acquainted with Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, the clear indication that the parable is grounded in Second Temple literature (and in the attested tension between Jews and Samaritans) is a strong indication of its authenticity.

The parable is followed by an anecdote of Jesus’ stay at Martha and Mary’s house (Luke 10.38-42). Martha toils to serve Jesus and tires, while Mary sat at his feet, drinking every word. When Martha voices a complaint, Jesus favors Mary, who cares for the necessary (χρεία), and therefore will remain with her.

The author or editor who placed this anecdote after the Good Samaritan parable generated an interesting connection between the two, although one is a parable told by Jesus, and one is an event from his life: deeds are favorable to descent, but it is further important to recognize a hierarchy of deeds. Deeds attending to the spirit are higher than deeds attending to the flesh. The message diminishes the righteous act of the Samaritan, to a lesser degree of goodness, although perhaps the implied hierarchy can be constructed in another triad: mundane servitude to the body, attendance to the body in time of distress, attendance to spiritual teachings and development.

Nevertheless, this story portrays an impatient and somewhat ungrateful aspect in Jesus’ character. The recurrence of this motif in various stories in the gospels is somewhat surprising in a literature that is somewhat propagandist, and hence, too, an indication of authenticity of this detail.


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.