Fighting Over the Bible: Jewish Interpretation, Sectarianism and Polemic from Temple to Talmud and Beyond

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By Isaac Kalimi

The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament stands as an important sacred text for all branches of the Abrahamic faiths, although these maintain fundamentally different attitudes towards it. Nonetheless, far from unifying Jews, Christians and Muslims, the biblical texts divided them, and have regularly been used as weapons to condemn opponents – insiders and outsiders – rather than as tokens of unification and reconciliation.

Fighting Over the Bible, explores the roots of those interpretive conflicts, especially as they are reflected in pre-modern Jewish literature. It addresses the place of the Bible in Judaism, and the rich Jewish interpretative and theological methods that grew out of internal and external controversies in the Land of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. It illustrates how the study of the Scriptures filled the vacuum left by the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (70 CE), and became the foundation for Jewish life and existence at all times and places.

The focus, however, is on Jewish texts from the late Second Temple, talmudic and medieval periods, that is from ca. the 2nd century BCE to the 16th century CE. The creative intellectual and spiritual activities of the Jews – including their Scriptures – are explored within the historical, political, social, economic, religious and academic circumstances of the societies among whom they lived.

The volume comprises two essential parts. The first offers a broad overview and detailed discussion of the role of the Bible and the nature of its interpretation especially in pre-modern Jewish religion, literature, and culture. The wide-ranging discussion of “The Place of the Bible in Jewish Religion and Culture: Written and Oral Torah” notes the paradox that while the Hebrew Bible is repeatedly commended as the source of Jewish religion, thought, culture, and literature, it has in reality often been neglected, while Jews have occupied themselves almost exclusively with the Oral Torah.

There were two key reasons why Jews came to focus so much more attention on the Oral Torah than on the simple meaning of the Written Torah. First, in the context of exile and dispersion, they clung to the practical aspects of their religion, the Halachot, as means of maintaining their distinct religious and cultural identity and heritage in all their communities. Second, because their situations were ever-changing, the halachic traditions also had to remain flexible, and were continually debated.

Yet no matter how far they developed away from the Written Torah, it remained the essential basis for the Oral Torah; Sages were careful not to question or critique it. Textual and content difficulties were harmonized or explained away, leading to ever-expanding interpretive traditions, while only a few medieval Jewish commentators concerned themselves with the literal/simple meaning of the biblical text. Even the latter generally still upheld the traditional Jewish principles and the classical interpretations of the mitzvot/Halachot.

Nevertheless, despite their outspoken insistence that the Torah is inviolable and eternal, and that the simple meaning of a biblical text is always to be maintained, the Rabbis sometimes offered interpretations that appear to contradict it. “Rabbinic Exegesis in Contradiction to the Simple Meaning of Biblical Texts” addresses the reinterpretation of lex talionis (the law of retaliation), which the Rabbis pointedly replaced with a principle of monetary compensation. Additional examples of such contradictory interpretations are also discussed.

Next, “Theologies and Methodologies in Classical Jewish Interpretation: A Study on Midrash Psalms and Its View of God,” exemplifies the importance of the midrashic and aggadic literature for the study of rabbinic theologies, ethics, thoughts, and ideas. Some theological and methodological features of this literature are discussed with specific reference to the Midrash Psalms, while focusing on the diverse perspectives juxtaposed in the Midrash, and their polemical aspects.

“Encounters and Polemics between Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Medieval Jewish Exegesis” shows how medieval period Jewish biblical exegesis flourished in the varied Jewish Diaspora, and often led to interactions with Christianity and Islam. This resulted in internal and external disputes, which saved Judaism from becoming fossilized. New horizons were opened for understanding specific biblical passages, theological themes, and exegetical methods, and many Jewish scholars were encouraged to study the Bible for its own merit and search for its simple meaning in its original context. These new methods were profoundly different than those employed in the talmudic and midrashic literature.

Yet the common use of the Bible by Jews, Christians and Muslims was not only unable to bring about any agreement, but rather sharpened the conflicts between them. Jewish scholars polemicized against Christian Christological and allegorical interpretations, and rejected their tendency to use biblical verses against the Jews. Similarly, though they applied Islamic interpretive methods to the Hebrew Bible, they also disputed with Muslims, especially the belief in Mohammad as God’s messenger. Thus, in addition to self-defense, many Jewish scholars boldly criticized key articles of Christian and Islamic belief, often in the face of extreme persecutions. Thinking and writing offered medieval Jewish scholars a means of escape, and even amidst intense oppression they were remarkably prolific, writing not only biblical commentaries but works of Halachah, theology, philosophy, philology, and poetry.

In light of this history of conflict and oppression, has the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament indeed formed “A Bridge or a Barrier?” between Jews and Christians? Unfortunately, the interpretation of these shared scriptures usually has not bound Jews and Christians together. Both between Jews and Christians generally, and between particular Jewish and Christian groups, the shared text has been read in dramatically conflicting ways. Further, even the common assumption that the HB and the OT are essentially equivalent is deeply problematic, ignoring dramatic differences in contents and arrangement between the canons of various Christian and Jewish communities. Nevertheless, the HB and OT retain an essential commonality with the potential for mutual understanding and engagement. Moreover, both Jews and Christians depend on one another’s canons to ascertain aspects of their own traditions and histories. They must therefore intensify their search for better understanding and respectful acceptance, in spite of their many differences and unique interpretations and conceptualizations of common texts and issues.

The second half of the volume, “Interpretation, Sectarianism, and Disputes” focuses on key biblical texts or themes as reflected in late Second Temple period and rabbinic literature. It opens with a discussion of one of the masterpieces of the ancient Israelites’ literary heritage, the dramatic biblical story in Genesis 22 concerning the binding of Isaac, and how this was interpreted in late Second Temple and rabbinic exegesis and thought. In particular, it focuses on the diverse ways in which the characters and actions of Abraham, Isaac and Sarah are portrayed in the Jewish literature, and the theological and interpretive principles that drive these differences.

Binding of Isaac, Bet Alpha synagogue, 6th century CE.
(Journal of Textual Reasoning)

“The Day of Atonement in the Late Second Temple Period: Disputes between Sadducees, Pharisees, and Qumranites” demonstrates the uniqueness of Yom Kippur against its ancient Near Eastern background. Its central place in the Torah and consequently in the Jewish religion, may have been attained already during of the First Temple period, but definitely by the Second Temple. This chapter explores the differences between the Sadducees and Pharisees regarding the rite of Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16), especially regarding how to carry out the burning of the incense in the Holy of Holies. Another example of priestly conflict over Yom Kippur in the Second Temple period is reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls, where a number of texts imply that the Qumranites celebrated Yom Kippur on a different day than mainstream Jewish communities. Such conflicts over the proper implementation of the Yom Kippur rituals resulted in surprisingly bitter polemic, and attest to the central importance of this holiday within Jewish life in the Second Temple period, and beyond.

Maurycy Gottlieb, Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, 1878. Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Aerial view of the Qumran settlement. (World Destiny)

“The Hiding of the Temple Vessels in Jewish and Samaritan Literature” addresses the preservation and restoration of the Temple vessels during and after the Babylonian exile. This is stressed in Ezra and Chronicles, in contrast with later traditions in which the Temple vessels remained hidden even during the Second Temple period. The latter sought, first and foremost, to explain the disappearance of the Ark of Covenant. Yet they maintained that not only the Ark, but also other sacred vessels were hidden in the earth, where they were to remain until a future eschatological time when the cultic service would be restored.

James Tissot, Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod, 1886-1894. (Brooklyn Museum)

“The Relations between Jews and Arabs–Syrians in Pre-Islamic Jewish Sources” turns to the well-known animosity between the inhabitants of the cultivated land and wanderers in the wilderness in various biblical stories. In the Second Temple and early rabbinic periods, those conflicts were projected onto the Jews’ contemporary neighbors, the Arabs and Syrians. For example, in the books of Maccabees and the writings of Josephus, Arabs and Syrians were regularly described as antagonists, who joined in warfare against the Jews, and even committed acts of brutality exceeding those of the Jews’ more powerful enemies, such as the Seleucids and Romans.

Jewish biblical exegesis flourished in the early medieval period across France, Spain, North Africa and the Middle East, and gave rise to new schools of thought, the most notable being the Karaites. Exemplifying the various inter-Jewish conflicts discussed above, Saadia Gaon and ibn Ezra both vigorously challenged the Karaites, and defended the rabbinic tradition in the Oral Torah, especially regarding halachic issues. They attempted to show that the simple meaning of the text itself complements the rabbinic interpretations of the Oral Torah, while drawing from their extensive philological knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, and other sciences. Their mastery of Arabic philology, and awareness of the Islamic religious world, theology, and methods of interpretation, were helpful in their linguistic and interpretive works. At the same time, they also polemicized against Christian and Islamic doctrines and biblical interpretations. These polemics were not just intellectual; they grew out of these scholars’ experiences of oppression under foreign rule.

Nonetheless, as much as this history of fighting over the Bible contributed to disastrous conflicts and prejudices between different groups of Jews, Christians and Muslims, it also reflects ongoing engagement. Even at their most harsh, these conflicts forced each side to carefully consider their own theological and interpretive positions, improve their study methods, and return to the text again and again to search for new insights and better arguments. This back and forth prevented traditions from stagnating, and pushed them to continue developing.

Moreover, the harsh conditions that the Jews experienced in Christian and Islamic societies raised difficult theological questions, particularly regarding the relationship between God and Israel, which significantly influenced their interpretive and intellectual works. In the end, therefore, Jewish interpreters not only fought among themselves and with their foreign contemporaries, but even pictured their struggle as God’s fight against them. As Isaac Abarbanel described the situation: “I saw God face to face fighting with his people, his portion of inheritance.”

Isaac Kalimi is Gutenberg-Research Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies and History of Ancient Israel at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany

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