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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

The Crisis of Secular Zionism Undermines the Validity of the National Midrash

One does not have to be a “post‐Zionist” to realize that Zionism, as an ideology and a mass movement, is in deep trouble, and this has implications for the place of the Bible in contemporary Israeli society.

The establishment of the State of Israel brought about major changes in the country: Voluntarism gave way to state‐run action, donations to taxation; governmental relief labor made tree‐planting on the fifteenth of Shevat an anachronism, and the Land Administration took over “redemption of the land” from the Jewish National Fund. Manual labor has become the province of foreign workers. Finally,the Yom Kippur War (1973) revealed for all to see that the institutionalized Israel Defense Forces could no longer be compared to the Israelite army of the time of the judges and the early monarchy.

Along with social, economic, and political change has come a mental revolution: Romantic dreams and utopian aspirations have given way to concrete, short‐term realism; a self‐assured ideology, ignoring anything that clashed with its all‐embracing concepts and not averse to shallow conformism, has become unfashionable. There is a strong bias for skepticism and open‐mindedness, avoiding bombastic phraseology (embellished with biblical quotations) and preferring understatement—a descent from declamation to stammering; a systematic demythologization of Zionism is underway in the name of one's right—and obligation—to know the complex truth underlying appearance and pretension. The cult of heroism, with its implied contempt for human weakness and disregard for the enemy's suffering, has been discredited. The collective vision, which demanded bravery and self‐sacrifice, has been supplanted by personal goals, in which individuals make their own choices and decide what demands to make on themselves. Spontaneity and permissiveness are preferred to normativity and moderation; education has shifted from nurturing values to developing aptitudes, advocating extracurricular studies rather than youth‐movement activities. The humanities and natural sciences are neglected in favor of social and applied sciences, law, and business administration. The ambition of the second‐generation sabra [native Israeli] is no longer to put down roots in this country but to spread his or her wings and explore the world.

Some consider this crisis to be the beginning of the end of Zionism, for better or for worse. I, however, see the process not as disintegration but as maturation, which is a precondition for any new growth. At any rate, Zionism is gradually losing its power as a secular religion, and the Bible is no longer the Scripture of that religion. The allure of romantic Zionism has dimmed, the sensation of miracle in Israel's revival has faded, and feelings of national pride have weakened; the abyss between the real present and the mythological past has deepened. As a result, the national midrash has lost its potency, no longer able to bridge the chasm between life and the Book. We increasingly lack a link with the Bible; it is no longer a source of inspiration and guidance. It has lost its magic.

A brief hermeneutic excursion will explain. The interpretive power of peshat derives not from religious common ground but only from philological credibility. In contrast, the interpretive validity of a midrashic system, the confidence that the content attributed to the text is indeed concealed between its lines, is limited a priori to believers. For the members of that audience to embrace the proposed midrashic commentary as an authentic, binding interpretation, they must agree on:

  • 1. The overall truth of the values, ideas, and ideals that they are supposed to believe: Zionism as renaissance and redemption; Eretz Israel as the promised land; the duty of self‐sacrifice to pioneering and security goals; and so on.

  • 2. The supreme position of the Book in the community, its ability to reinforce the beliefs, precepts, and hopes to which it is committed: the Bible as the peak of creativity in the era of our national splendor and an embodiment of eternal truths.

  • 3. The capacity of quasi‐homiletical exegesis—despite its relative methodological freedom—to reveal an inner truth behind the linguistic exterior.

The first two assumptions taken together—the truth of the values the audience embraces and their acceptance of the eternal truth of the Book—clearly justify an interpretive technique flexible enough to adapt those eternal truths to the needs of the times: The secularizing national midrash is indeed revealing and faithfully representing the message of Scripture to our generation, which is once again implementing, “for the first time in two thousandyears,” the injunction to return to Zion and to rebuild the land. But once the force of Zionist values has faded, their brilliance dimmed, with the concomitant weakening of the need to connect with the Bible as the values’ source of inspiration, the methodological weakness of the national midrash is clear: It is artificial, empty, meaningless. Interpretive flexibility, tolerated because it was necessary to bridge the gap between the Bible and its readers, is now seen as illusion, repugnant manipulation. Once the national midrash has lost its allure, it has also lost its creative power.

These days, appeals to the Bible for inspiration or motivation are rare indeed, and they are generally low‐key; perhaps the only instance in recent years was the use of the anti‐pharaonic call “Let my people go” as a unifying slogan in the struggle for liberation of the Soviet Jews. Another echo of biblical language is the Hebrew name of the Israeli association for the protection of human rights in the Occupied Areas, Be‐Tzelem, “in the image” (“in the image of God,” Gen. 1.27 ), implying that the association's work is a true expression of the biblical ethic. The secular nature of this midrash is brought out by divorcing the word from its context—whose “image”?—but the link with the Bible is highlighted by printing the word with the traditional vowel points and cantillation accents. A similar technique is employed on the title page of Arieh (Lova) Eliav's anthology, On Peace in Jewish Tradition (Heb.: Tel Aviv, 1975), where the word shalom is printed in the same way. In this book, however, even the sympathetic reader senses that the author is seeking in the Bible not inspiration but “proofs” for his values. Similarly—though the differences are greater than the comparison—Member of Kenesset (Israel's Parliament) Yael Dayan's attempt to anchor her campaign for gay rights in David's lament for Jonathan was seen not as authentic, merely provocative. On the other hand, Meir Shalev's humorous midrash, The Bible Now (Heb.: Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1985), was received enthusiastically and widely circulated because, in contrast to the traditionally adulatory attitude, he has brought the Bible down to our own level. His readers willingly swallow even his entirely imaginary additions (such as the idea that Abigail poisoned her husband Nabal in order to marry David) because the humorous midrash provides us with a kind of biblical confirmation for a realistic, forgiving view of ourselves.

In contrast to Ben‐Gurion's ideals, not only has the Bible lost its hold on young people but Israeli youth has rallied to the Diaspora's characteristic issue: the Holocaust. This may be an attempt to atone for early condescending sabra‐Zionist attitudes to the Diaspora and the hasty judgment of the millions of victims as “lambs led to slaughter”; it may also represent a desire to exchange the imperative of Return implicit in the biblical promise, grounds for fervent, ideological Zionism, for the imperative of preventing a further Holocaust, grounds for pragmatic Zionism. Perhaps it also expresses a craving for a national ideal protected by a universal, unchallenged taboo, uniting the entire nation in the face of a calamity whose uniqueness and exclusiveness are vehemently defended.

None of these revolutionary developments have affected the ḥaredi [ultra‐Orthodox] community. One component of that community's opposition to Zionism is a firm refusal to detach the Bible from the oral law and make it shine “with its own light” in the center of national existence. The talmudic worldview considers the written law first in sanctity but not in authority. That privilege is reserved for the oral law, which, as the authoritative interpretation of the Bible, also determines which of its contents are effective today. The hierarchy is also reflected in the curriculum of the ḥaredi schools: The Bible is studied by children, both boys and girls, but when the boys are ready to study Talmud they no longer study the Bible (except for the weekly Torah portion). The Talmud itself, it is true, lists the Bible as a subject for study in its own right, binding for adults: “Man should always divide his time into three: a third [spent] studyingBible, a third Mishnah, a third the Talmud” (b. Kid. 30a). In the Middle Ages, however, it was ruled that that injuction is fulfilled—in all three parts—by studying the Babylonian Talmud, since it includes all three.

With the Talmud occupying center stage, contextual, philological interpretation of the text, peshat, is not a challenge (except for the two centuries between Rashi and Ḥizkuni, the Golden Age of the French school of peshat, which flourished in the explicitly talmudic culture of northern France); besides, over the last few generations, the creativity of homiletic interpretation in general has declined. As a result, contemporary ḥaredi society has raised the exclusivity of Talmud study to an unprecedented level, and accordingly has not been affected by the changing attitudes to the Bible in the Zionist camp. One cost of this stability has been a loss of creativity: There are among this group no new commentaries on the Bible; they prefer instead to publish anthologies of classical commentaries. Examples are the eclectic commentaries published in English in the United States by the ḥaredi Art‐Scroll Publishing House, and the popular book by Yehudah Nashoni, Hagut be‐Parshiyot ha‐Torah, i.e., Meditation on the Portions of the Torah, subtitled “Original Exegesis according to Pardes, as directed by Early and Late Authorities, with the Addition of Innovations and Insights” (2nd ed., Benei Berak, 1979).

The national‐religious public, too, believes in the unity of the oral and written law, while insisting that this principle in no way bars its participation in the Zionist return to the Bible. On its face this should be easy: it requires a clear differentiation between peshat and midrash, as taught by the great exponents of peshat, mainly in medieval Spain and northern France. Since both modes of exegesis are legitimate, each can be considered for its specific purpose: midrash explains the written law in accordance with the oral, while peshat extracts the primary meaning of the biblical text. In fact, however, the paths blazed by the medieval commentators cannot simply be resumed, for in modern biblical studies the peshat method is immeasurably more critical than in the medieval period: It challenges not only the unity of the written and oral law but even the sanctity of the Bible itself—at least, in the traditional definition.

Orthodox Bible scholars, therefore, who teach at Bar‐Ilan University and other academic institutions, must contribute to the development of peshat while meeting the double criterion of scientific method and religious faith. In answering this challenge they are motivated, among other things, by the belief that the quest for truth is a religious duty—a mitzvah—and that intellectual integrity is an ethical‐religious virtue. In this endeavor they indeed require no little courage to face opposition from both right and left.

The great majority of religiously observant Bible teachers, however, prefer not to confront the tension between peshat and derash, or the critical bent of modern peshat, instead adopting various pragmatic solutions. Quite typical, for example, is the inclusion of Bible lessons in almost all the yeshivah high schools, in the category of “secular” rather than “sacred” studies. Moreover, most Bible teachers in these schools—and in the parallel girls’ ulpenot—are not university graduates with degrees in Bible studies, but yeshivah graduates whose studies have centered on the Talmud. Not only are they unqualified, having professionally studied neither the Bible itself nor the related tools; but, lacking the aptitude to explain the peshat consistently and systematically (particularly as they sometimes view it contemptuously as overly “simple” and superficial), they tend to offer their own fanciful interpretations in the spirit of derash. Even when teaching the Torah with the standard commentators, they generally fail to distinguish between peshat and derash, preferring to present their students with a harmonistic hodgepodge of “pretty” explanations, unsystematic and uncontrolled.

Observant Jews are exposed in the synagogue to signficant sections of the Bible: the weekly Torah portions, the haftarot, and theFive Scrolls; and a good many psalms in the prayers. They regard study of the Torah (including the Written Torah) as a major religious duty (mitzvah). Consequently, their sons and daughters rival each other in the worldwide Bible Quiz for Youth, with no secular competitors on the scene. Nevertheless, whether they are slowly edging to the right and adopting ḥaredi ways, or maintaining their involvement in society as a whole, they cannot evade their part in the process of the deterioration of the Bible's status.

Now that the Bible has been divested of the colorful cloak created by the national midrash, it emerges in its primary light, as a religious document. As long as the national midrash ruled, the secular public thought it understood the Bible better than did the religious public, which was still shackled by the bonds of rabbinic midrash. Now, however, with the religious nature of the Bible rediscovered, secular Israelis have seemingly renounced such pretensions, and are perhaps even willing to relinquish possession, and restore the Bible to the believers in its sanctity. The latter, for their part, are quick to cite the relative short‐livedness of the secular interpretation as historical proof of its illegitimacy; intoxicated by this newfound power, they are inclined to arrogate to themselves the exclusive right to interpret and explain the Bible. Moreover, as religiosity is generally perceived today from the outside and from a distance, in its fundamentalist‐nationalist guise, secular Israelis are increasingly distancing themselves from the Bible. This has been reinforced by yet another development: As the secular‐national midrash has lost its cogency, it has been supplanted by a new national midrash, which places the values of a maximalist—at times brutal—religious Zionism on what seems like the plain meaning of the biblical text. Thus, exclusive Jewish ownership of the land is justified by Rashi's comment on the first verse of the Torah; commitment to the territorial integrity of Greater Israel is derived from Abraham's “Covenant of Pieces” with God in Gen. ch 15 ; triumphalist isolationism is substantiated by Balaam's blessing, “A people that dwells apart, not reckoning itself among the goyim” (Num. 23.9 ); and the taking of excessive political and military risks is based on “Israel, trust in the LORD! He is their help and shield” (Ps. 115.9 ); not to mention the Kahanist glorification of Simeon's and Levi's killing in Shechem (Gen. ch 34 ) and the topical espousal of the book of Joshua and the war against Amalek. If this is indeed the true message of the Bible, little wonder that many secular Israelis, who believed with all their heart that justice and humanity, if applied only to our own people, are no better than injustice and inhumanity, draw back and reject the Bible. It has lost its universality; once a unifier, it has become divisive.

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