Sunday, August 17, 2008

Two rabbis, two paths

In previous postings I have drawn attention to the resistance pervading most Jewish religious circles as to receiving the findings of the Higher Criticism, as well as to the persistence of allegorical readings of the scriptures that stem from the Middle Ages. This resistance is rooted in the uniquely Jewish concept of the Oral Torah, an entity that ranks with the Written Torah (that is, the Hebrew Bible as we have it) as an equal partner.

The Higher Criticism, otherwise known as the historical-critical approach, emerged full blown in mid-nineteenth century Germany. It is in that time and place that we would expect to find the formative stages of the Jewish confrontation with these findings of modern biblical criticism.

In this context two figures were of exemplary importance: Abraham Geiger and Samson Raphael Hirsch, both rabbis.

Abraham Geiger (1810–1874) is credited with laying the foundations of Reform Judaism. He sought to remove all nationalistic elements (particularly the "Chosen People" doctrine) from Judaism, stressing it as an evolving and changing religion. His studies of classical philology and oriental languages at the Universities of Heidelberg, Bonn, and Marburg eroded his faith in the traditional Judaism in which he had been raised. This experience induced a simmering crisis, leading eventually to his conversion to reformist ideas.

Geiger’s doctoral dissertation concerned the incorporation of Jewish elements in the Koran. In this way he heralded the enterprise of examining the interaction of the foundational documents of the three Abrahamic religions. I honor his example, because in my own way I have sought to pursue this comparativist path.

As a rabbi in Wiesbaden, Geiger began his program of religious reforms, chiefly in the synagogue liturgy. For example, he abolished the prayers of mourning for the Temple, believing that, as German citizens, such prayers would appear to be disloyal to the ruling power and could possibly spark Anti-Semitism. Rather than create a new religious orientation, Geiger’s goal was to change Judaism from within. His work found reinforcement in the work of other reformers, such as Samuel Holdheim, Israel Jacobson, and Leopold Zunz.

Geiger also took up the study of the New Testament, maintaining that Jesus was a Pharisee teaching Judaism. While this particular view is no longer tenable, he nonetheless ranks as “the first Jew to subject Christian texts to detailed historical analysis from an explicitly Jewish perspective” (Susannah Heschel, “Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus,” 1994, p. 2). The Wiesbaden rabbi was a forerunner of today’s Jewish scholars who have offered their own interpretation of the New Testament (see my posting “Jesus the Jew”).

In keeping with the dominant trend of nineteenth-century historiography, Geiger emphasized the narrative of Judaism as an unfolding reality--as a story of progress in short. Yet his investigations of Jesus and his times led him to conclude that Judaism reached a kind of perfection towards the end of the Second Temple period, that is, in the time of Jesus. This seems contradictory.

The liberal Jewish scholar held that the rabbinical writings found in the Mishna and the two Talmuds represent a kind of ossification, one partly shaped by Christian pressure. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, these writings were not an ornament to Judaism. By and large, most later rabbinical scholarship has not followed him in this denigration, for it continues to regard those early rabbinical collections as the foundation for the Oral Torah, and thus on a plane with (if not superior to) the Written Torah.

We turn now to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888). When they were university students Hirsch was a friend of Geiger’s. Later they diverged sharply.

In 1830 Hirsch was elected chief rabbi of the principality of Oldenburg. During this period he wrote his "Neunzehn Briefe über Judenthum" (Nineteen Letters on Judaism), which were published in 1836. This work made a strong impression in German Jewish circles because it was a forthright defense of Orthodox Judaism in classic German, supporting all its traditional institutions and ordinances. Other publications critiqued the nascent Reform trend.

Hirsch’s approach to the hermeneutics of Jewish religious documents is of particular interest. In contrast to the historical-critical approach, he emphasized the symbolic interpretation of many Torah commandments and passages. Hirsch sought to defend the traditional understanding of the Written and Oral Law against the rising tide of historicist criticism (see his Commentary on the Pentateuch, 1867-78). He held that the Oral Law was revealed before the Written Law and is not dependent on it; the Written Law (the Bible as we know it) is merely a summary of the Oral Law--a kind of set of Cliff’s Notes, as it were. In Hirsch’s view, there can be no true understanding of the essence of Judaism without marshaling the full resources of the Oral Law. Its looming presence must always be acknowledged in any interpretation of Scripture.

In his extreme view, Hirsch held that the origins of the Oral Torah preceded the Written Torah in time, so that it takes logical precedence. This exaltation of the Oral Torah (which is in fact a purely human contrivance assembled for the most part from Mishna and Talmud) finds many echoes in Orthodox circles today. Even those who do not accept the primacy of the Oral Law tend to accept the component material as essential. That is, they reject Abraham Geiger’s critical view that these texts are secondary and in some respects distorting. Rather they view the Oral Law, as embodied in Mishna and Talmud, as the indispensable corollary and perfection of the Judaism of the Tanakh. That is, after all, what being a Talmudic scholar means.

It is a truism that Judaism is a text-based religion. But which texts? I have never attended classes at a Jewish theological seminary, but clearly Mishna and Talmud--the basic ingredients of the Oral Torah--would figure prominently in the curriculum. Many, perhaps most instructors in these schools of rabbinical training would hesitate to adopt the extreme view of Rabbi Hirsch that the Oral Torah precedes and therefore controls the Tanakh. By the same token, however, few would seek to reduce Mishna and Talmud to the role of mere commentaries.

For a moderate view of the role of these post-Biblical texts, one may turn to the book of a Jewish layman MIchael S. Berger, “Rabbinic Authority” (New York, 1998). Setting aside, as he does, the “totalitarian” claims for Talmudic authority., Berger asks why one should still follow the rabbis of the first several centuries after the destruction of the Temple. The reason is, he argues, because rabbinic authority has become central to Jews' way of life--a way of life that "can provide a sense of overall purpose to one's activities; it can create or deeper feelings of community with other Jews; it can offer guidelines for behavior and a relative certitude with respect to moral and other sorts of dilemmas; and it can supply a person with a connection or rootedness in a millennia-long tradition." One writer has pointed out that Berger's conception is analogous to the legal argument for the principle of stare decisis (that is, that a judicial decision or set of such decisions has become so ingrained in the legal system that it should not be overturned).

Michael S. Berger acknowledges that rabbinic authority means different things for different communities. For most traditionally observant Jews, rabbinic authority entails complete obedience to the halachic tradition first put in writing by the Sages of Mishna and Talmud. Yet even the least traditional Jews defer to rabbinic authority to some extent, for otherwise Reform Jews would not honor rabbinically ordained holidays such as Hanukah and Purim.

Hanukkah, from the Hebrew word for "dedication" or "consecration," marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the forces of Antiochus IV in 167 BCE and commemorates the "miracle of the container of oil." These events lie outside the canon of the Hebrew Bible, and in consequence the festival cannot be derived from that text. Hanukkah is mentioned in the deuterocanonical books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. It was the Talmud, however, that established the special significance of Hanukkah, laying the foundations for the modern commemoration.

Purim commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people of the Persian Empire from Haman’s plot to annihilate them. While the events are recorded in the book of Esther, which is recognized by Jews as a canonical book, the celebration of the festival is not noted in the Hebrew Bible itself. As with Hanukkah, Purim owes its status to the interpretations of the rabbis, as Berger points out.

Thus even for Reform Jews there is no easy way of renouncing the injunctions of the Sages in the Mishna and the two Talmuds. Over time the textual basis of Judaism has come to embrace these documents. Moreover, once one acknowledges this incorporation, as most authorities within Judaism do, there is no way of avoiding some descent down the slippery slope. At the base of that slope awaits the Leviathan of the Oral Torah.

Contrast the case with Christians who are, many of them at least, free to say “Forget about Augustine and Thomas Aquinas; forget about Luther and Calvin. I will go by the words of Holy Scripture alone.” To be sure, this is not an option that is universally exercised. It is mainly Protestants who do so, while Catholics are still bound by papal authority. The point is that recourse to the Sola Scriptura principle is possible for many Christians. By contrast, for observant Jews such a focus (the Sola Scriptura model) is not available. It is not an option because the inspired words of the Sages are not simply commentary in the sense honored by classical and Christian hermeneutics. Instead, Mishna and Talmud are in fact Scripture. The exalted status these writings have attained makes it functionally impossible, within the bounds of Jewish tradition, to separate the Bible from the accretions that have attached themselves to it. This means that subscribing to these principles precludes an independent and unprejudiced effort to try to discover what the Hebrew Bible really means. The reason is that one always has the Sages looking over one’s shoulder. It may seem paradoxical, but for some centuries now significant progress in understanding the Hebrew Bible has been made chiefly by non-Jews. Since the Protestant Reformation it is been possible to isolate the Scriptures from their accretions and (eventually) to examine them according to the principles of the Higher Criticism. These achievements, accomplished essentially by Protestants, are Christian resources that observant Jews have found it difficult to emulate.

Seeking to protect the integrity of the Jewish tradition, Samson Raphael Hirsch and the rabbis who allied themselves with him heralded the rejectionism maintained today by many rabbis. They believe that the adoption of the historical-critical method would erode the historical foundations of Judaism--possibly leading to its destruction.

To be sure, prominent lay Jewish scholars, such as Richard Elliott Friedman and Hershel Shanks, fully recognize the findings of modern scholarship. By and large, though, the same is not true of rabbis, who even if they privately accept some of the findings of the historical-critical school are not eager to share these views with their congregations. Some even speak mockingly of the “alphabet soup” of the J,E,D, and P analysis of the Pentateuch. Theirs is a serious case of denial.

Unfortunately, these antiquated views circulate today not only among the Orthodox, but also among Conservative and Reform rabbis. To all intents and purposes, the continued flourishing of the Hirsch approach to hermeneutics works to isolate official Judaism from modern currents of biblical scholarship, which are proceeding apace in other quarters. This outdated view also serves as a barrier to the acceptance of modern findings regarding the actual history and faith of the people who wrote the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible. Finally, the approach hinders the attempt to understand the interaction of all three sets of Abrahamic texts, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim--the task that underlies these postings.




Blogger Stephen said...

Can you edit these things? This has sections repeated and repeated.

9:50 AM  
Anonymous Ricky said...

Great writing. Very helpful for understanding this dichotomy. Thanks :)

5:53 PM  

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