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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Hebrew Scriptures in Early Post-Biblical Judaism,

with Special Reference to the Rabbinic Tradition

Robert Goldenberg

At some point during the period that the Persian Empire ruled Judaea (538–332 B.C.E.), Ezra the priestly scribe came to Jerusalem and established “the law (Heb. torah, lit., “teaching”) of Moses which the LORD the God of Israel had given them” (Ezra 7.6 ) as the law of the land. This law, along with some ancient stories and other miscellaneous material, was inscribed in a book which Scripture interchangeably calls “the book of the law of Moses” (Neh. 8.1 ) and “the book of the law of God” (Neh. 8.18 ). This book, often simply called the Torah, in turn became the basis of nearly all subsequent forms of Jewish religious life.

The Torah, or Pentateuch, forms the first, and for most of the history of Judaism the dominant, part of the larger collection of sacred texts known as the Hebrew Scriptures (which Christians call the Old Testament). In the Jewish tradition the collection as a whole received no single name, and has generally been viewed more as a collection or anthology of sacred writings, rather than as the unified canonical text that Christianity came to see in it. Both Judaism and Christianity have tended to affirm that all these texts are divine in origin and have a coherent content, though Jewish teaching has never insisted that these different books present a single message. Jews did not generally imagine that the collection as a whole contained fundamental disagreements or contradictions, but it was understood that different parts of the anthology were the work of different authors, all of whom had spoken with their own voices, expressing their own views on a great variety of questions.

An initial paradox is to be noted. Because all forms of Judaism have found it necessary to justify their particular rules and teachings through interpretation of the Torah, this text has served as the common bond linking all forms of Judaism and distinguishing them from other religious traditions. Ancient Judaism in all its variety was characterized by constant appeal to the Torah as the ultimate source of validation in religious life. By the same token, however, because each form of Judaism has found it necessary to justify its particular rules and teachings through interpretation of this one Torah, it has served also as the cause of religious disputes among the Jews. By putting forth its own way of life as the correct, uniquely valid fulfillment of the commands of the Torah, and its own views as the correct, uniquely valid interpretation of the message of the Torah, each particular Jewish group has implied (or sometimes openly stated) that every other Jewish group is wrong. Thus, the Torah has constituted both the common thread in the history of Judaism and also the most contentious issue. These two roles have sprung from the same set of factors: they can never be separated.

Classical Rabbinic Judaism, which will provide the main focus for this essay, assumed its mature shape during the early centuries of the Common Era, but proper understanding of rabbinic approaches to Scripture requires some attention to issues that had emerged even before that time. During the last centuries of its existence the Jerusalem temple was dominated by priests belonging to the party called Sadducees, a group notorious for its refusal to acknowledge the binding validity of any religious custom not explicitly ordained in Scripture. The Mishnah (Sukkah 4.9) reports that a riot once broke out in the temple on the festival of Tabernacles (Sukkot) when the High Priest rejected with contempt an annual water libation much beloved by the people, but not authorized in Scripture. The Mishnah (Eruvin 3.2; 6.1) also reveals that the widespread practice of ‘eruv, which was designed to ease the severity of Sabbath restrictions, but was likewise ungrounded in Scripture, was not acknowledged by all Jews. As these two examples illustrate, the validity of tradition as a source of religious authority alongside and equal to Scripture was a contentious issue early in the history of Judaism.

Another fundamental question concerned the relative importance of the surface meaning and possible deeper meanings of the Torah's narratives and rules. In this case surviving evidence provides more information about the nature of this debate among the Greek-speaking Jews of ancient Alexandria. The noted philosopher Philo, who taught in Alexandria during the first half of the first century C.E., developed an elaborate technique for interpreting the Torah as a complex allegory about the nature of virtue and religious experience. Throughout his writings Philo insists that the rules of the Torah must be followed, but he repeatedly emphasizes as well that the real value of the Torah lies in the sublime truths that can be uncovered once the key to its hidden meanings has been found. The knowledge thus obtained, he believes, is not only of immeasurable intellectual value, but also provides a mystical ecstasy available from no other source. Philo often argues against the “literalists” who are blind to this deeper layer of truth that Scripture can be made to yield, but he argues as well, and equally vehemently, against those who believe that once they have found the deeper meaning of the Torah's rules they are freed of the obligation to follow them. He compares such people to hermits living alone in the wilderness lacking all regard for the proper functioning of society, or to souls living without a body, that is, without connection to the concrete human relationships of everyday life (see on the Migration of Abraham 89–90). Philonic allegory did not survive among the Jews, but the fundamental issue that it represents continued to draw attention.

Some pre-rabbinic groups of Jews, for example the authors of certain Dead Sea Scrolls or the Christians who stand behind the Gospel of Matthew, took great care to present themselves, their respective doctrines, and their respective ways of life as the unique concrete fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Rabbinic thinking did not generally tend in this direction; the early rabbis instead developed a view of Judaism that in principle embraced the entire Jewish people and included all generations of Jews from the days of Moses to the end of history. This view was built on the most novel contribution of the early rabbis to the history of Jewish thought: the idea of Oral Torah.

The rabbinic concept of Oral Torah provided a new context for the questions just reviewed. Building on earlier notions and themes (see, for example, 2 Esd. 14.45–47 ), the rabbis of late antiquity developed the idea that from the very time it was revealed the “Torah of Moses” had been largely unwritten. In their innovative view, the book called by that name which Jews had revered for centuries was in reality but a small part of the divine revelation that underlies Jewish life. The book, in fact, was not regarded as sufficient by itself to serve as a guide to the will of God. In one telling passage in the Babylonian Talmud, a person who has learned Scripture but not undergone full rabbinic training is condemned by a series of rabbis as no better than an ignoramus, or a boor, or a Samaritan, or even a Magus (b. Sotah 22a). “Oral Torah” became the rabbis' name for everything they taught that went beyond simple restatement of Scripture. In principle the availability or absence of a Scriptural basis for any teaching of the rabbis—and thus for any aspect of Jewish religious life—was no longer of critical importance.

To be sure, rabbinic authorities continued to reserve for Scripture a special role in Jewish religious life. Perhaps most important, the centerpiece of Sabbath morning synagogue worship remained the weekly reading of the Pentateuch. Rabbinic law in fact required that the reading be letter perfect, and from a scroll written in the ancient way without vowel signs, punctuation, or other diacritical marks. The preservation of this ritual kept the text of the Pentateuch intimately familiar to those Jews who regularly attended a synagogue; it was repeatedly heard and studied, and it supplied raw material for homiletic elaboration week after week, and year after year.

Eventually, however, Jewish religious life paradoxically came to rest, not on the Bible, but rather on books in which early rabbis' “Oral Torah” got written down. Of these, the best known and most important are the Mishnah and the two Talmuds. The Mishnah is a compilation of mostly legal rabbinic teaching that first appeared around 200 C.E. The Talmuds, one Palestinian (ca. 425 C.E.) and one Babylonian (6th century C.E.), are vast collections of rabbinic discussion organized as commentary on the Mishnah but extremely wide-ranging in actual subject-matter. With respect to both form and content the Mishnah is a free-standing text; while it quotes Scripture from time to time, it does not aim to provide a systematic commentary on the Bible nor does it invoke the Bible as the basis of its own authority or status as a sacred text. The Talmuds do seek in varying degrees to link Mishnaic teaching to Scripture, but again not in a systematic fashion and not with any sense that rabbinic teaching depends on the Bible for its own validity. This central corpus of rabbinic literature thus makes clear that rabbinic Judaism in its own formative period assigned the sacred canon of Scripture an essentially marginal role in Jewish religious life.

Nevertheless, the early rabbis did study Scripture, and their own generic name for the hermeneutic methods underlying this activity was midrash (“inquiry”). Although lacking the systematic comprehensiveness of Philonic allegory, rabbinic midrash—the careful examination of Scripture in search of additional meanings alongside (or beyond, or beneath) the “plain” sense of the text—became a ubiquitous mode of discourse. Substantial portions of the Talmud take the form of attempts to associate with Scripture rabbinic teachings about all sorts of topics that have at first glance no particular connection to the passages adduced. Midrash thus served as a technique for overcoming the theoretical independence of Scripture and Oral Torah. Through skillful midrashic elaboration, virtually all of rabbinic teaching could be presented as interpretation of Scripture and all of Scripture could be understood as conforming to rabbinic teaching. To be sure, some rabbinic documents strive more energetically than others to achieve this synthesis of Scripture with tradition; the Mishnah, in particular, seems almost entirely uninterested in the question. In general, however, it became an important goal of later rabbinic inquiry to supply such links in cases where none had yet been found.

With respect to the second problem noted above, namely the relation between the surface meaning of Scripture and any additional significance that might be extracted from its text, midrash offered a technique for multiplying such extra interpretations virtually without limit while never losing track of the surface-level, contextually derived “simple meaning” (pshat) of the text. Midrash was unconcerned in principle with the plausibility of its exegesis or with the original context of its biblical raw materials; any meaning which any interpreter could derive from any detail in the biblical text could at least in theory be offered as a midrash on that text.

The power of midrash to extract unexpected meaning from the text of the Bible can best be understood through the following examples, which illustrate different applications of the procedure.

One frequent use of midrash was to solve a problem arising from the biblical text without explicitly acknowledging the force of that problem. The story of the “Binding of Isaac” in Genesis ch. 22 tells of God's command to Abraham that he offer his beloved son as a sacrifice; the story as told presents this command as a test of Abraham's obedience, but this idea is profoundly disturbing on both the moral and theological planes. By juxtaposing Gen. 22.1 with Ps. 60.6 , however, the verb nissah in Genesis, translated as “tested,” can be linked to the noun nes, meaning “banner” or “standard,” from the Psalm. This link allows the notoriously troublesome verse in Genesis to be translated “God put Abraham on display as one might a banner.” The idea that God had tested Abraham through the cruel device of demanding the sacrifice of Isaac is thus removed from the text; it is replaced with the more gratifying notion that by pretending to make such a demand God had put Abraham's obedience on display for the whole world to see, and thus justified God's choice of Abraham as bearer of the covenant (see Genesis Rabba 55.1).

Midrash, however, was not used only to solve problems; it served as well to supply a scriptural basis for fundamental rabbinic teachings. Thus, by combining Gen. 1.1 with Prov. 8.22 , each of which contains the word reshit (beginning), and by a novel interpretation of the one-letter preposition usually translated “in” with which the Torah begins, Rabbi Oshaia sought to demonstrate that the Torah—here identified with the “Wisdom” of Proverbs—existed before the world was created and in fact served as a kind of blueprint for its creation (see Genesis Rabba 1.1).

These two examples illustrate the points made above that midrash aims primarily at the discovery of new meaning in the biblical text and that midrash is normally uninterested in either the literary context of the verses (or even the words and letters) being interpreted or the exegetical plausibility of the interpretations reached. Midrash in principle aims at the endless production of new meaning, limited only by the ingenuity of the interpreter, and motivated by any imaginable consideration, from the fundamental to the superficial.

This unfettered approach to the words of Scripture was not without its problems, and efforts were made from an early time to subject midrash to various sorts of regulation. Hillel, the semilegendary proto-rabbi of the first century B.C.E., is said to have drawn up a set of seven norms by which the Torah might be interpreted, and a closely-related but expanded set of thirteen is somewhat more reliably attributed to the second-century Rabbi Ishmael. These norms did not function by way of dictating the interpretation that an exegete was expected to provide—even with such norms there was still no single correct interpretation of the Torah—but instead provided a list of acceptable types of argument. Anyone proposing a new interpretation for a given verse—in particular anyone seeking to derive new law (halakhah) from the text of Scripture—now had to be able to justify that interpretation or derive that new law through one of these types of argument.

These rules of interpretation themselves were not equally plausible by modern Western standards. In the lists of both Hillel and R. Ishmael the first norm is called gal wa-homer, and functions much like the argument a fortiori that is found in many logical systems. For instance, in the Tosefta, another collection of rabbinic material, the argument occurs that if God counts even an unintentional good deed as a good deed nonetheless, “how much more” will God count an intentional good deed as good (T. Peah 3.8). The validity of this mode of argument was beyond challenge, both on account of its intuitive cogency and also because examples of it could be found in the Scriptures themselves (e.g., Gen. 44.8, Exod. 6.12, Deut. 31.27 ). The second norm, however, is not strictly logical at all. Called gezerah shawwah, this type of argument is based on the idea that any two verses containing the same word must be linked in meaning as well, even if the word in question is no more than a common particle. To give one example, the religious obligations of women and of slaves were declared equal in a great variety of situations because biblical references to divorce and to manumission both contain the word “to her” (b. Hagigah 4a; see Lev. 19.20 and Deut. 24.1 ).

Now gezerah shawwah is unlike a more logical argument such as gal wa-homer in that there is no way such a demonstration can be refuted; in the hands of irresponsible practitioners this can lead to uncontrollably outlandish results. In recognition of this state of affairs, by the end of the Talmudic period (in the mid-sixth century C.E.) the rule had been established that no one could offer a new gezerah shawwah of his own invention, which is to say that no new laws could be derived from the Torah by means of this interpretive device (b. Pesahim 66a). In effect gezerah shawwah was removed by common consent from the repertoire of future interpreters of the Torah, although certain arguments from gezerah shawwah such as the one cited above that had the prestige of tradition behind them were allowed to stand.

Debate over the need for plausibility in midrash seems to have become most articulate in a set of disputes attributed to the second-century authorities Akiva and Ishmael. Rabbi Ishmael is repeatedly cited as having affirmed the principle that “the Torah speaks in the manner of human language” (b. Berakhot 31b); this means the Torah must not be interpreted in a manner that forces the biblical text into implausible or artificial constructions. Ishmael's great contemporary Akiva, however, approached the Torah as though every letter was a separate divine oracle. He was famed for his ability to find meaning in grammatical particles, in anomalies of spelling, in the sequence of topics, in the juxtaposition of apparently unrelated paragraphs. As later generations reported the debates between these two, the imaginative hermeneutics that Akiva championed aroused opposition: when Akiva interpreted the “and” (in Hebrew a single letter) of Lev. 21.9 (“[And] when a priest's daughter makes herself profane by becoming a prostitute, … she must be burnt.”) to mean that a priest's betrothed daughter caught in adultery was to be executed by burning even if she was not yet married, Ishmael is said to have responded, “And because you interpret ‘and's’ shall we take this girl out for burning?” (b. Sanhedrin 51b).

Over the following generations, the techniques of Akiva gained wide acceptance, but attempts to ground Jewish law (halakhah) in this way never fully overcame the resistance of more sober-minded rabbis. As a result, two contrasting tendencies—one that read the Torah as though it was an ordinary though very important text; and one that read the Torah as though it was a product of divine perfection demanding imaginative elaboration of every detail—existed side by side for the rest of antiquity and beyond, through the Middle Ages and into the modern world.

It should be reiterated, however, that both sides in this debate were expressing rabbinic viewpoints. There was no dispute between them over the fundamental belief that in the long run the rabbis with their Oral Torah would determine the proper interpretation of Scripture; this was true for both the “simple meaning” of the text and also any midrashic elaboration that might be proposed. All rabbis agreed that Scripture could not be properly understood outside the framework of rabbinic tradition, and this meant that in theory, even if never fully in practice, the concept of Oral Torah made study of Scripture a second-rank activity in Jewish life. Rabbinic teaching as laid down in the great post-biblical texts, chiefly the Talmud, became the real foundation of Jewish law and the real fountainhead of Jewish thought. Scripture was not cast aside, needless to say; the education of children began with the Pentateuch, the public reading of the Torah in the synagogue remained a central feature of the liturgy, certain individuals studied the rest of Scripture as a kind of private interest, and some even prepared distinguished commentaries on post-Mosaic books of the Bible. Nevertheless, the center of gravity of Jewish religious life had shifted away from Scripture to something else. Under rabbinic tutelage the Jewish religious tradition continued to develop, neither fully independent of Scripture nor yet directly dependent on Scripture for its fundamental character; the history of Judaism is more a history of rabbinic thought (and later on, of responses to rabbinic thought) than a history of biblical interpretation.

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