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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

The Early‐modern Period

The traumatic expulsion from Spain, and soon thereafter from Portugal, did not extinguish Jewish culture. In the Sephardi diaspora in North Africa, Italy, and the Ottoman Empire, Jewish culture continued to flourish and even experience a Renaissance of sorts. The interpretation of the Tanakh stood at the center of the cultural renewal, although there were two distinctive approaches to the Bible. On the one hand, there was the growing familiarity with Renaissance humanism and a willingness to adopt its historical sensibility to the interpretation of the Bible. The science of history was added to the list of sciences relevant to tease out the true meaning of Scriptures. On the other hand, the historical approach of kabbalah influenced Jewish philosophers who were seeking to fathom the infinite, eternal meanings of the canonical text, which could be penetrated but not exhausted by human reason.

The most innovative interpreter of the Bible in the generation of the expulsion from Spain was Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508), the illustrious diplomat, financier, and royal adviser to the kings of Portugal, Spain, and Naples. Familiar with Renaissance humanism (which had penetrated Iberia in the 1440s and flourished under the patronage of Queen Isabella during the 1480s), Abravanel introduced historical sensibility to the exposition of the Bible, while defending the inviolability of the rabbinic tradition. Abravanel's biblical commentaries are replete with quotations from Greek, Roman, Christian, and Muslim sources along with references to medieval Jewish biblical interpreters such as Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Gersonides, Naḥmanides, and Ibn Kaspi, and philosophers such as Maimonides and Crescas. Paying due respect to his predecessors, Abravanel also criticizes Maimonides for harmonizing the Torah with Aristotelian philosophy, chides Ibn Ezra for speaking in riddles, and rebukes Gersonides for deducing moral lessons from the Bible. The Torah must not be read reductively or allegorically.

Under the influence of contemporary humanists, Abravanel was the first to ponder the historical process that brought about and shaped the making of the biblical texts qua texts. He began his commentaries with extensive introductions in which he discussed the character of the book, the author, the date of composition, the content, and the structure of the book under consideration. Abravanel also noted textual problems such as inconsistencies and discrepancies in a given biblical text or between biblical books. Abravanel's novel literary criticism of the Bible broke new ground in regard to questions about the structure and divisions of the biblical canon as a whole and the interrelationship of its parts. Thus Abravanel attempted to account for divergences between the books of Samuel and Chronicles, suggested that the author of Chronicles was Ezra, paid attention to the human dimension of biblical narratives, assessed the stylistic differences between various prophetic books against the psychologicalmakeup of the prophets as reflecting their particular historical circumstance, discussed biblical geography, investigated chronological quandaries, and examined the actual political circumstances at a given time in order to shed light on the narrative. Abravanel's astute historical observations yielded many insights that anticipated the biblical criticism of Spi‐noza in the mid‐17th century. But unlike Spi‐noza, Abravanel remained deeply committed to the tradition and was aware of the potential danger that critical thinking could pose to Judaism. To address this danger Abravanel developed the construct of the “Torah of Moses” as a “central theological prop” (Eric Lawee, Isaac Abrabanel's Stance toward Tradition: Defense, Dissent, and Dialogue [Albany: SUNY Press, 2001, p. 185 ]), often endorsing views that were even more conservative than those of his medieval predecessors.

Similarly, Abravanel's exposure to humanism did not come at the expense of his familiarity with scholastic philosophy. He quotes directly from Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225– 1274), Albertus Magnus (1206–1280), and Nicholas de Lyra (ca. 1270–1340), and from the Christian scholastics Abravanel derived the distinction between human government and divine government which parallels the scholastic distinction between temporal and spiritual authorities. The scholastic philosophers developed their political theory on the basis of Aristotle's Politics, though most Jewish thinkers did not use it. Abravanel, by contrast, made massive use of the third book of the Politics in his commentary on 1 Sam. ch 8 , although he did not quote the text directly. With Aristotle's analysis of political regimes and his own experience in European courts, Abravanel could read the biblical text as a political document, but without concluding that the Bible as a whole is a human document.

The inquiry into the literary and historical dimensions of Scriptures continued throughout the 16th century, especially in Italy. The Hebrew grammarian Elija Levita (d. 1549) was the first Jew to show that the vocalization of the biblical text and the system of accents were the work of the Masoretes of Tiberias, after the Talmud had been completed in the 6th century. The Masoretes concretized the tradition of how the Bible should be read, how it should be transmitted in writing, and, concommitantly, how the Bible should be understood. Since prior to the Masoretes the biblical text was handed down without vocalization, punctuation, or other signs, the lateness of the Masoretic text indicates that the biblical text itself has a history. Levita's grammatical studies added yet another rationale for studying the Bible as any other ancient, human, literary text.

The best example of the historical awareness of Italian Jewish intellectuals was Azariah di Rossi (1512–1575). Familiar with classical and Renaissance historiography, Azariah composed his Maʾor ʿEinayim (Light of the Eyes) “to advance the legitimacy of objective historical inquiry into the Jewish past by establishing the total adequacy of religious tradition for purposes of moral edification, independent of any outside sources” (Lester A. Segal, Historical Consciousness and Religious Tradition in Azariah de Rossi's Meʾor Einayim [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989], p. 30 ). Committed to the pursuit of truth, which Azariah regarded as “the seal of the truthful God, the quality of the beautiful soul, and it is well that all pursue it” (Segal, p. 32 ), Azariah moved to examine some of the problematic aspects of biblical chronology, such as “the uncertain duration of the First Temple period” (Segal, p. 31 ). Azariah did not intend to challenge the validity of the rabbinic tradition but rather to provide new evidence to prove the uniqueness of the people of Israel and their spiritual superiority in all aspects of human culture. Along with other Jewish apologists who argued for the doctrine of the divine election of Israel by showing that the Jews were the creators of music, di Rossi claimed that Moses was the author of the book of Job and the composer of the first known dialogue. While Azariah (like Abravanel before him) validated the authority of rabbinic tradition, his examination of the rabbinicpast with references to non‐Jewish texts and his observation about the historical origins of Jewish philosophy in the Greco‐Roman world gave rise to a heated public controversy. Other contemporaries of di Rossi, such as Abraham ben David Portaleone (1542–1612), also affirmed the authority of the rabbinic tradition and the ideals of Torah study while at the same time providing rich historical and scientific information about aspects of the biblical text.

Awareness of the history of the biblical text itself was common among Jewish thinkers exposed to Renaissance humanism, especially in Italy. In the Ottoman Empire, however, most Sephardic intellectuals shared the kabbalistic notion that the revealed Torah is the manifestation of a supernal, primordial Torah that has infinite meanings. The task of the Jewish philosopher was to fathom the endless meaning of the Torah, knowing full well that it cannot be exhausted. In the Ottoman Empire, even more than in 15th century Spain, the Bible became the focus of philosophical midrash. Applying the analytic procedures of talmudic scholars to the biblical text, the philosopher‐preachers attempted to penetrate the meaning of Scripture with scientific precision. The homilies of Isaac Karo (1458–1535) illustrate this tendency.

Assuming that his audience was fully familiar with the biblical text, Karo did not provide a running commentary but aimed at explicating Scripture in its complexity. In accord with the medieval assumption that Scripture is a scientific text, Karo held that the role of the commentator is to elucidate the practical and theoretical wisdom in the Bible because such understanding enables the soul of the learner to cling to God and to enjoy the bliss of immortality. Other contemporaries and successors of Karo, such as Joseph Taitatzak (ca. 1477–1545), Moses Almosnino (ca. 1515–1580), Isaac Aderbi (16th century), Isaac Arroyo (16th century), and Moshe Alshekh (d. after 1593) also considered the scrutiny of the Bible a religious activity par excellence leading to the attainment of immortal life. The philosophical exegesis of sacred texts reflects the theological postures that the exiles brought with them from Iberia, namely, that revealed religion perfects natural human reason and that the divinely revealed Torah contains all human wisdom because it is identical with the infinite wisdom of God.

The exegetical unveiling of the infinite meanings of Scripture required linguistic sophistication and rhetorical versatility. The Sephardic philosophers in the Ottoman Empire selectively adopted the Renaissance cult of rhetorica. Though the exiles did not boast a recovery of the ancient sources, living either in the land of Israel itself or merely getting closer to it did inspire the Jewish exegete to present the Bible as a perfect text, aesthetically, morally, and intellectually, measuring or surpassing the achievements of the classics. Thus Moses Almosnino (ca. 1515–1580), for example, presented King Solomon as the embodiment of Renaissance homo universalis and the wisest of all ancient sages, and the religious poetry of King David was favorably compared to Greek and Roman poetry. By the same token, the moral teachings of King David and King Solomon recorded in Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, and interpreted by the rabbinic sages, were claimed to have surpassed the moral wisdom of Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca, along with other ancient moral philosophers.

During the 16th century, then, the historical‐literary investigation of the Bible coexisted with the philosophical‐homiletical approach. If the first approach regarded the Bible as a text like all others, the second approach accentuated the exceptionality of the Bible and its divine perfection. In the mid‐17th century, especially in the Dutch Republic, the tension between the two approaches could not be glossed over, but resulted in open doubts about the divinity, authority, and exceptionality of the Bible. The most consistent and radical critic of the Bible and of the Jewish philosophical exposition of the Bible was Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza (1632–1676). A child of ex‐conversos who received traditionalJewish education, Spinoza was familiar with the biblical commentaries of Abraham Ibn Ezra and Maimonides’ Guide. Spinoza praised Ibn Ezra's linguistic insights, but vehemently rejected the philosophical hermeneutics of Maimonides. It is doubtful that Spinoza was informed of the biblical commentaries of Isaac Abravanel or that he was familiar with Azariah di Rossi's work. Yet Spinoza's challenge appears less radical if it is viewed in light of his Jewish predecessors.

Spinoza argued that the Bible could not be proven to be a divinely revealed text, and even if the Bible was revealed by God, its meaning is accessible only through human interpretation. Spinoza applied the historical‐philological method to demonstrate inconsistencies—logical and temporal—in the Bible. The Bible, according to Spinoza, is a human document that must be studied like any other ancient text, a product of the imagination of its human authors. With a thorough knowledge of the Hebrew language and an understanding of the historical past, the Bible can be seen precisely for what it is: a book that teaches morality and politics rather than philosophy and science.

Rejecting Maimonides’ claim that the Bible contains philosophical truths expressed in figurative language, Spinoza argued that the Bible has nothing to do with philosophy and science because it is a product of prophetic imagination. The prophets were neither scientists nor philosophers; they were people with limited knowledge of nature who were endowed with vivid imaginations, very much like poets. Unlike natural knowledge, prophecy cannot be taught and cannot be imitated; it is a special gift. Prophecy must not be regarded as the “highest degree of men” or the “ultimate term of perfection,” as Maimonides held, for which reason prophecy requires an external “sign” to verify its authenticity. With his critique of prophecy Spinoza not only denied the epistemic superiority of the biblical text, which has been presupposed by all Jewish philosophers since Philo, he also rejected the Maimonidean attempt to interpret the Bible esoterically. Because there is no hidden truth behind the surface of the Bible, Spinoza charged Maimonides and his followers with an attempt to make Scripture present the same teachings as pagan philosophers.

For Spinoza truth is not a property of Scripture, as Jewish philosophers since Philo had maintained, but a characteristic of the method of interpreting Scripture. Differentiating between the meaning of Scripture and its truth, Spinoza asserted that the meaning must be found solely from the usage of language, for which mastery of Hebrew grammar is absolutely necessary. The Bible does not accommodate itself to human limitations; rather, radicalizing earlier ideas found in rabbinic literature, the Bible speaks the only language it can speak, namely, a human language. To the extent that the Bible does have a universal message, it has nothing to do with philosophy or science but with morality, namely, the commandment to love one's neighbor. This message, Spinoza believed, is the reason why the Bible is still politically relevant, even though the political order established by Moses in the Bible no longer exists. The Bible teaches against religious intolerance and persecution, and in this regard the Bible is the basis of universal ethics; yet the Bible is not an exceptional, or privileged text. To treat the Bible as such is itself the result of “prejudice,” a harmful habit of thought that hinders clear thinking. In short, the Bible has no cognitive significance or authority. It rather reflects the ordinary conception of God as imagined by common people of the time, among whom were the prophets.

Spinoza regarded the editorial work of the Bible, which he ascribed to Ezra, as far from perfect, because the text of the Bible was put together at a considerably later time from the events recorded. Through close reading of the text, Spinoza attempted to show that biblical religion developed over time. Spinoza portrayed Moses strictly as a legislator and political leader who single‐handedly ruled a mass of ex‐slaves who were incapable of self‐governance. The law that Moses gave Israelleft no free choice for individuals, and Moses could induce the Israelites to observe the law only by promising material benefits. Spinoza then rehashed some of the Christian arguments about the nature of Mosaic law, which highlighted its earthly nature of biblical rewards and the absence of spiritual rewards. Biblical religion then deals only with temporal matters and has nothing to do with ultimate felicity, even though biblical religion provided a universal, ethical basis to a society.

Spinoza's devastating critique of the Bible undermined the foundation of rabbinic Judaism. Though Spinoza articulated his biblical criticism after he was excommunicated on July 27, 1657, his challenge was correctly assessed by the leaders of the Jewish community who expelled him. Refusing conversion to Christianity, Spinoza socialized with the Collegiants, an offshoot of a radical Calvinist group whose liberal theological and political views had been condemned by official Calvinism early in the century and who were hospitable to people alienated from their own religious communities. Spinoza also rejected a post at the University of Heidelberg in order to maintain his intellectual freedom, preferring to correspond with contemporary scientists such as Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society in London. Spinoza's critique of the Bible became known in England and inspired the English Deists of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Some Deists attacked the Bible for its lack of a doctrine of immortality, whereas for others the dubious moral character of the prophets and other biblical heroes was a sign of the inferior quality of the Bible.

Spinoza's challenge to traditional Judaism would continue to reverberate throughout the modern period as biblical criticism became prevalent, especially among Protestant scholars. That challenge of biblical criticism, on the one hand, and the determination of Jews to integrate into European society, on the other hand, necessitated a reinterpretation of Judaism. The traditional belief in the revealed status of Scripture would have to be rethought with new philosophical tools during the modern period. Modern Jewish philosophy would be articulated on the basis of Judaism's conversation with the Enlightenment, Kantianism, Hegelianism and Romanticism, affecting the approaches to the Bible. In modern times, as in the Middle Ages, the Bible continued to serve as the bridge between the particularistic beliefs of Judaism and non‐Jewish cultures.

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