Modernity: The Golden Age Of The Jewish Bible
Alan is a Schusterman/Josey Professor at the University of Oklahoma. He is a Wexner Foundation faculty member and the author, most recently, of The Making of the Modern Jewish Bible (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Teaching modern Jewish history for close to thirty years, most of that time to Jewish adults, I have often been confronted by the presumption that we are inferior to our predecessors, what I call the “Anatevka Syndrome.” Basically, this syndrome maintains that, controlling for Cossacks, things used to be better. When I challenge students to consider how much better Jewish professional, residential and legal status are in democratic societies, the fallback position becomes: well, maybe modernity is better for individual Jews, but worse for the Jewish community. I retort that in modern times we succeeded in establishing a state in our homeland and learned to lobby for Jewish causes in countries where we are a minority; created well-organized agencies for philanthropy and self-defense; an international press and other means of communication, and so on. The rejoinder to that is usually: but at least “back then” we were all observant and learned. Without entering into that claim, which does have merit, I take exception to the implication that the modern era has been intellectually sterile. To take one counter-intuitive example, I offer the creation of the modern Jewish Bible.
Most scholars agree that Ancient Israel had no Bible if we mean a ‘Book of Books’ that guided society, provided ethics and halachah, and served as the basic educational text. That status for the Tanach probably developed in the Persian period and later. Moreover, almost as soon the process of canonization gave the Bible that status – it got subordinated in practice, though never in theory, to the ever-expanding library of rabbinic literature, above all, Talmud. In Midrash and in the Middle Ages, Jewish Bible commentary flourished, but rarely occupied the central place in Jewish intellectual life.
With Moses Mendelssohn’s epochal Bible translation the comeback began, fueling dozens of efforts at translation and commentary among German Jews, a community still caricatured as ‘more German than Jewish’. The comeback took a giant leap forward as early Zionist thinkers such as Ahad Haam gave the Bible new life as national history, literature and politics. Israel’s founders, starting with David Ben Gurion, continued this trend. And in America, the so-called ‘impure land’ where Judaism could never thrive? A glance at the Jewish Publication Society catalogue tells the story – American Jews, like Americans in general, appear to be insatiable Bible-buyers. Even Harry Potter runs a distant second.
The role of the Bible in Israeli education has been questioned, but “Tanakh” remains a mandatory subject. The archaeology craze that fuelled the Israeli search for roots in the 1930s-1960s has waned, but a slew of boutique Bible-zoos, Bible-museums, Bible-experiences have taken its place. More truly secular authors than the early Zionists (think Meir Shalev or Yair Lapid) have given biblical narratives a fresh life and thousands tune-in to Dov Elboim on Tanach on TV. Since 1967 the Bible has been especially important within the nationalist Orthodox. The annual Bible learn-in at Alon Shvut attracts more students than ever studied at the Volozhin Yeshiva — and that would be true even if we counted only the males.
Modernity has proven the Bible’s ability to speak to male and female, religious and secular alike. Popular authors have employed the findings of the academy to inform a world of biblically-based novels, modern midrash, and more — think Anita Diamant’s blockbuster The Red Tent. Yet interest flows the other way too —serious academics have tried to explain their craft in books titled How to Read the Bible, or some variation thereof. To me, the creation of modern chumashim and Torah commentaries may be the most illustrative achievement. All three major denominations in America possess distinguished examples of synagogue and/or study Bibles that cater to differing, but legitimate interests, ranging from the evidence of the Ancient Near East to Rashi. These chumashim, all of which include the before and after blessings, vernacular translations alongside the Hebrew text, commentary, are modern books. In Anatevka, “the chumesh on Genesis” (before Hertz chumashim were usually printed book-by-book) was less user-friendly and meant for men, though women had their Yiddish versions. Needless to say, a literary Torah commentary such as Robert Alter’s or a Torah commentary willing to entertain the idea of a text that developed over time such as Richard Eliot’s Friedman’s would have been out of the question – and certainly of no interest to a general press.
The world of unabashedly Jewish ‘Talmud Torah’ and the world of academic, value-neutral scholarship have drawn a delightful Venn diagram, with the Hebrew Bible smack in the middle. Ironic though it seems, we are living in the golden age of Jewish Bible study.