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

Method of Interpretation: Derash Claiming to Be Peshat

Accompanying the return to the Bible was an enthusiastic devotion to peshat (contextual and philological interpretation). Peshat alone would reveal the text's authentic meaning, extricating it from talmudic midrash (homiletics) and medieval commentaries, and from the confining authority of the Rabbis. Part of the magic of peshat was that it extended the secular hegemony (already effective in society, politics, and culture) to the realm of Bible commentary, freeing it from religious tradition. David Ben‐Gurion does not say this explicitly in his article, “The Bible Shines with Its Own Light” (Iyyunim ba‐Tanakh, Tel Aviv, 1969, pp. 41–45 ) but conveys it indirectly by three examples of the superiority of peshat: “an eye for an eye” cannot possibly refer to payment of damages, as taught by the Rabbis; the biblical David was no scholar, poring night after night over the oral law, but an intrepid warrior‐king, capable of committing grave sins; and “the truth obliges us” to recognize that “The Song of Songs is (in its plain meaning, as a love song) one thing, while the midrash of the Song of Songs is another.” But then Ben‐Gurion declares, “The books of the Bible declare the glory of Israel. As to the glory of God—that is declared by the heavens, and the ‘heavens’ belong not to our nation only, not even to humankind, but to infinity.…The Bible is our own creation.…The Holy One, blessed be He, does not need an identity card.” With that he abandons a contextual, philological reading of innumerable passages that speak in God's name or magnify and glorify Him; through radical midrash, he ignores the active, clearly manifest deity, and replaces Him by the spirit of the nation or the soul of the universe.

Indeed, although Zionism promoted understanding of the Bible (through biblical realia and analogy between the two periods), it also obstructed understanding (since the modern Return responded to a national, not divine, imperative). The secular generation, eager to find its reflection in the text and guide itself by its light, could ardently embrace such verses as “doing work with one hand while the other held a weapon” (Neh. 4.11 ), but was puzzled and repelled by “you shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 19.2 ). To bridge the gap, they had to resort to quasi‐midrashic interpretation, which sanctified biblical values while rejecting the plain meaning of divine revelation. “Thus says the LORD“ and “I the LORD am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exod. 20.1 ), were metaphorical, archaic expressions that actually represented a psychological reality: an ethical imperativeemerging from the depths of the soul, or the national spirit inspiring the liberators. But since midrash was considered invalid, contrary to peshat, and identified with the disparaged pilpul (hair‐splitting, legalistic reasoning), such naïve explanations had to obscure their remoteness from peshat.

By using one of the most characteristic tools of midrash, metaphor, the authors of the Declaration of Independence of Israel could substitute for the transcendent “God of Israel” the national “Rock of Israel” (this too purged of its plain religious meaning, as in 2 Sam. 23.3 : “The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said…”). Similarly, midrashic license divorced the words “the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps” from their context in Ps. 121 (where the name of God occurs five times), interpreting “guardian of Israel” not as the omnipotent heavenly guardian but as the brave human guards on earth. One popular Hanukkah song used the quite radical technique of al tikre (substitution of one word for another) to transform “Who can tell the mighty acts of the LORD“ (Ps. 106.2 ) into “Who can tell the mighty acts of Israel.” A song for the fifteenth day of Shevat (the New Year for trees) took the first phrase of the verse “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden…” (Lev. 19.23 ) and made of it a separate commandment by cutting the verse in half, the syntax in Hebrew allowing the remaining words to be understood as: “When you enter the land, you shall plant every tree.…” The song then added a rhyme in biblical Hebrew: “…/And the tree shall give its fruit and the land its yield.” Even the injunction to donate money to the Jewish National Fund was traced to the Torah by a kind of modern halakhic midrash, so convincing that everyone was sure that the words “redemption shall be granted to the land” (Lev. 25.24 ) are an imperative to purchase Gentile land by peaceful means; the context of the phrase, however, calls for restoring a family's ancestral holdings, sold to strangers because of poverty, to the family's ownership. Similarly, the emblem of the Reali School in Haifa urged its students, “Walk modestly,” dropping the words, “with your God” (Mic. 6.8 ); and the words “Let My people go” were likewise taken from the ritual context “that they may worship Me in the wilderness” (Exod. 7.16 ), thereby severing them from context, detaching them from their history, and obscuring the identity of the divine speaker. Anyone could thus claim that the rousing challenge to a tyrannical government had sprung from the nation's spirit, uttered by its heroic fighters.

One might think that this Zionist midrash had no place in academia, which is committed to philological and historical study of the biblical text. Nevertheless, despite the detachment of the academy from the social world and its resistance to any ideological manipulation of the Bible, scholars also have reinforced the Zionist‐worldly conception of the Bible. Engagement in critical study of the Bible in itself is an expression of the Zionist ambition to normalize all aspects of our life and resume our place in the family of nations. Owing to these efforts, the Bible is studied in Israel, too, in light of scientific criteria developed in the last few centuries, mainly by Protestant scholars, thus breaking free of the Jewish study tradition (which subordinates the written law to the oral). Bible research in Israel has become an active partner in international Bible study, as noted with pride by the editors of the Hebrew‐language Encyclopedia Biblica (preface, Vol. I, 1950): “The nation that created the Bible is gradually taking its rightful place in the study of its eternal book” (p. 9). The critical study of Scripture, with no prior assumption of sanctity or overt superiority, makes its own contribution to the national midrash, undermines the perfection of Scripture, and considerably dims its brilliance; but it also provides a scientific‐rationalistic justification for the secular view of the Bible as a human, national creation. Moreover, the academic definition of Bible studies agreed with the spirit of the times, treating the oral law as irrelevant to understanding the Bible. In the early 1950s, when Iwas pursuing my studies in the Hebrew University's Bible Department, one could not study midrashic exegesis there, as it ran counter to peshat. Nor was any course devoted even to those of the medieval commentaries that were based on peshat, as they were not sufficiently critical (the situation has since changed quite radically). The spirit of the times also molded the scientific principles guiding the Encyclopedia Biblica; it, too, reinforced the secular‐material view. The encyclopedia was indeed committed to “the original meaning of the texts, in accordance with the intentions of the authors, as they were understood at the time of writing and by the audiences for whom they were originally written” (preface, p. 11). But the editors’ understanding of peshat was so one‐sided that the ancient authors would probably have been amazed at the extraordinary emphasis on realia, archeology, and the world of the ancient Near East, and the utter neglect of theological, ideological, and literary aspects (as evident, for example, in the almost complete disregard for the writings of the Israeli scholars Yehezkel Kaufmann and Martin Buber). As the times changed, this distortion, too, was somewhat mitigated in the last volumes; but the encyclopedia still lacks entries on memory, labor, property, peace, and remnant, on the one hand, and speech, humor, satire, and narrative, on the other. In sum: Bible scholars, high in their ivory towers, who had no part in the creation of the national midrash, were influenced by it unawares and indirectly helped to buttress it.

The secularizing national midrash also gave schoolchildren a social motive to study the Bible: it prepared them for “life,” because minimal knowledge of the Bible was necessary for participation in the collective discourse. The Bible was not only one of the founts of Israel's literary and artistic creation, its inventory of associations (as it still is to some extent), but also the key to the values and ideas current in society. Incoming immigration is referred to in Hebrew, contrary to geography, as ʿaliyah, “coming up,” while outgoing emigration is yeridah, “going down,” to take one example; and native‐born Israelis, looking down upon the so‐called primitive culture of the new immigrants, could invoke the term “desert generation” to justify their attitudes (and their budgetary priorities). A person who did not study the Bible was a stranger in Israeli society.

Religious Zionism, too, was an integral part of this collective discourse. Children in religious schools also “granted redemption to the land” with their mothers’ pennies; they marched on the fifteenth of Shevat, holding saplings and singing “When you enter the land”; and at Hanukkah parties they sang “Who can tell the mighty acts of Israel,” entertaining no doubts that the words had religious validity. Clearly, despite religious Zionism's efforts to contend with the predominantly secular bent of Zionism, it, too, was charmed by the national midrash. Perhaps this was because of the remarkable ability of that midrash, on the one hand, to provide biblical confirmation for the truth of Zionism, and, on the other, to guarantee on behalf of Zionism that the Bible would continue to occupy a central position in Jewish society. Thus, a fierce controversy raged as to the religious sanctity of the Bible, but at the same time no one denied that it belonged to the entire nation—a shared, unifying, and inspiring possession.

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