The Modern Period
Writing in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, published in 1670, Spinoza virtually defines the approach of modern historical criticism of the Bible:
The history of Scripture should consist of three aspects: 1. an analysis of the Hebrew language; 2. the compilation and classification of the expressions of each of the books of the Bible; 3. research as to the origins of the biblical writings as far as they can still be ascertained i.e. concerning the life, the conduct and the pursuits of the author of each book, who he was, what was the occasion and the epoch of his writing, whom did he write for, and in what language. Further it should inquire into the fate of each book: how it was first received, into whose hands it fell, how many different versions there were of it, by whose advice was it received into the Canon, and lastly, how all the books now universally accepted as sacred, were united into a single whole.
If Spinoza was to have a direct influence on the subsequent development of biblical criticism, his excommunication by the rabbinic authorities of Amsterdam cut him off from any immediate impact on the Jewish community. Instead, it was Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86) a century later in Germany who was to open up to the Jewish world the new realm of biblical scholarship. As part of an attempt to encourage the Jewish community to reject Yiddish and learn German, he set about translating the Bible into German, transliterating the text into Hebrew characters, and adding a commentary, the Biur. Though it too received massive condemnation from Orthodox authorities, it helped open the way for many Jews to enter German society and explore the delicate balance between the two components of their identity.
Whereas Mendelssohn's Bible commentary remains within the traditional framework, it is Shmuel David Luzzato (1800–65), known by the acronym Shadal, who is the first to debate with the modern Bible critics in his commentaries on the Pentateuch and Isaiah. He was lecturer in Bible at the rabbinical seminary in Padua, established in 1829. Though traditional in his own views of the Bible, alongside Rashi and the other medieval commentators, he quotes the opinions of contemporary scholars ranging from Isaac Newton to Gesenius.
His contemporary, Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–88) reflects instead just how the divide was beginning to emerge in the Jewish world, and how it was reflected in the approach to Scripture. The foremost exponent of Orthodoxy in the nineteenth century, throughout his life he was in a struggle with the newly emerging Reform movement. He served as Rabbi in Frankfurt for thirty-seven years, where he developed his concept of modern Orthodoxy, torah im derekh eretz, strict adherence to traditional Judaism combined with playing a full role in contemporary life. He translated the Pentateuch and the book of Psalms into German, trying to keep as close as possible to the Hebrew original, and as such was to influence the translation of Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber a century later. The accompanying commentary, which shows his mastery of rabbinic sources and his creative use of philology, remains a source book for the modern Orthodox community.
Of a quite different order, however, are the writings of Benno Jacob (1862–1945). Also the product of an Orthodox education, the rabbinical seminary, and the University of Breslau, he served as an Orthodox rabbi before retiring in 1929 to devote himself to exegesis. Though not a fundamentalist, he came to a denial of modern Bible criticism because of flaws he found in its methodology and assumptions. He found the textual emendations of Higher Criticism to be arbitrary and unscientific, since their only purpose was to validate the prior assumptions of the scholars. He also saw in the school of Higher Criticism anti-Semitic trends and prejudice against Judaism. Tragically, his major work, Das Erste Buch der Torah: Genesis, übersetzt und erklärt, was published in 1934 and was burnt by the Nazis. Thus his thought, until very recently, never entered into the scholarly debate within Germany about the Documentary Hypothesis.
Along the same trajectory from rabbinic training to scholarly engagement with the text of the Bible stands Umberto Cassuto (1883–1951). Born in Florence, he served briefly there as a rabbi before devoting himself to scholarship, first in the field of the history of the Jews of Italy, but later as a Bible scholar, where his studies in Ugaritic were of great significance. In place of the Graf–Wellhausen theory, which he subjected to a devastating critique in his book The Documentary Hypothesis (1961b), he found evidence of an oral tradition and a number of poetic epics. But he was particularly sensitive to the literary construction of the texts of the Pentateuch, noting especially the use of number symbolism and the repetition of key words. He is thus one of the bridging figures to the contemporary literary examination of the biblical texts.
Two figures stand out in the Orthodox circles of Eastern Europe who uniquely focused on biblical commentary: Rabbi Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael, the Malbim (1809–79) (Poland and Russia), in his own struggle against the Reformers, sought to show that the Oral and Written Torah were inseparable; and Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv (1817–93) (Poland), the beloved head of the yeshivah of Volozhin, the spiritual centre of Russian Jewry, sought to explain how the Talmudic comments on the Bible clarified its plain meaning. These approaches express two contrasting emphases within Orthodoxy. To oversimplify somewhat, the one seeks to explain Scripture in terms of the tradition, the other to explain the tradition in terms of Scripture.
The nineteenth-century movement for the Wissenschaft des Judentums, the scientific study of Judaism, was part of a programmatic attempt to bring Jews into their full place within Western society. Moreover, Judaism was to enter the same respectable academic framework as other disciplines, through applying the contemporary values of reason, scholarly objectivity, and historical perspective to the traditions and values of the past. Leopold Zunz, who is considered the father of this new movement, did pioneering work on Rashi, collecting and comparing the different manuscripts of Rashi's Bible commentaries, and from them deriving historical information on the man himself, his family, his studies, the languages he knew, and the sources available to him. Zunz's writings and the methodology he applied influenced an entire generation of Jewish scholars, in Western and Eastern Europe. They in turn began to explore the classic Jewish writings and figures, thus transforming the study of the Bible, the midrashic tradition of commentary, and the medieval Jewish exegetes, making them accessible and significant in a new way, geared to the needs of post-emancipation Jewish society.
The Wissenschaft movement found a home in the newly created rabbinic seminaries, but also in the lectureships and chairs in Jewish Studies that began to be established in universities. In this latter context, however, a different emphasis prevailed to that of the seminaries: the secular, even anti-religious, one of academia. Jewish scholars in such departments, apart from their thorough knowledge of post-biblical rabbinic sources and mastery of Hebrew, were often indistinguishable in their work from their academic counterparts who were often religiously uncommitted Christians. Thus we have a real problem in attempting to define what, if anything, can be claimed as being particularly Jewish in their work. It may be that in their private life such Jewish scholars had a religious commitment of some sort, but this was not allowed to colour the supposed objectivity of their scholarly labours.
Yet the end of the twentieth century has seen a renewal of Jewish scholarly interest in the Hebrew Bible, particularly in the area of literary studies. The biblical articles of Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber, in conjunction with their monumental German translation of the Bible, introduced an attempt at a ‘close reading of the text’. This synchronic approach, while acknowledging the value of the historical critical and other schools, starts with the final form of the biblical text that presents itself to the reader. Through studying individual passages, examining the use of language, the inner structure, the conventions of narrative composition and rhetoric, these newer approaches to the biblical text have triggered a revolution in biblical exegesis, particularly evident over the last decades of the twentieth century. What is fascinating in this context is the extent to which Jewish scholars have made major contributions in this field, and comparison with the commitment to ‘close reading’ and the quest for meaning of the composers of Midrash and the medieval Jewish scholars is inevitable. The following is a list of some of the better-known scholars in this ever-growing field: Robert Alter, Yaira Amit, Shimon Bar-Efrat, Adele Berlin, Chanan Brichto, Michael Fishbane, Edward L. Greenstein, Gabriel Josipovici, Jonathan Magonet, Samuel Sandmel, Jack Sasson, George W. Savran, Meir Steinberg, Meir Weiss, and Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, in the field of narrative, and Robert Alter, Adele Berlin, Marcia Falk, Robert Gordis, Harold Fisch, in the field of poetry.
Individual Jews have contributed to areas in which biblical ideas are being challenged or reassessed. Martin Walzer's Exodus and Revolution (1985) makes an important contribution to the development of liberation theology. Moshe Greenberg (1995) has explored in particular biblical law. Judith Plaskow's Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective addresses a number of biblical issues, as do the writings of Athalya Brenner, Tamara C. Eskenazi, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Llana Pardes, and Rachel Adler. Classics in the relatively small field of Jewish theology are two studies of biblical prophecy: A. J. Heschel's The Prophets and Andre Neher's The Prophetic Existence. No survey can exclude the many biblical writings of Martin Buber and those of his collaborator in translating the Bible, Franz Rosenzweig. Erich Fromm explores the struggle with idolatry in You Shall be as Gods (1966). Arthur Waskow rereads biblical narratives and festivals in terms of contemporary issues in his challenging book Godwrestling (1978).
A radical approach is taken by the philosopher and theologian Emil L. Fackenheim (1990). In criticizing the apparently seamless continuity of theological thinking, in the Christian and Jewish worlds alike, despite the enormity of the Shoah, he calls for a radical rereading of the Bible. Thus he can no longer share the stance of the biblical narrator who criticizes the Israelites for complaining in the wilderness about the lack of water for their children. In the light of Auschwitz and the murder of the children, a different view is needed: ‘The narrator takes sides with Moses, with God, and castigates the murmurers while, for their part, these murmurers invoke the children. As this is read by Jews of this generation, they perceive just how radically their religious situation has changed; they have no choice but to take sides with the mothers of the children, against the narrator, against Moses and, if necessary, against God Himself’ (Fackenheim 1990: 32).
Fackenheim also proposes that a book like Esther, that has long been assigned to the rear of theological concerns, should now take centre stage, with its realistic picture of the violence of the world and the seeming absence of God. In today's post-Shoah world God's silence is no longer acceptable.
Jewish societies today are caught up in the general secular values of the West, which sets relatively little store by Scripture, or else receives it in some kind of pre-packaged and pre-digested form. Jews are also subject to the same social movements, like the return to fundamentalism, that drive some people back to their Bibles, but so as to read them in a highly selective, and often politicized, way. Jewish tradition, on the other hand, demands an engagement with the text that leaves it open to constant rediscovery and reinterpretation, and the reader open to an unlimited growth in understanding. A Jewish community that does not read and reread the Hebrew Bible is seriously impoverished. Today, however, it is well furnished with materials, classical and modern, academic and spiritual, that can open the many dimensions of the text of the Hebrew Bible to itself and others.