A Modern Jewish Bible?

It is easy to find Bible scholarship by Jews that evidences nothing particularly Jewish. It is also easy to find non-Jewish Bible scholars who display mastery of scholarship produced in modern Hebrew, knowledge of rabbinic traditions, and theological independence from Christian biases regarding the relationship of “Old” and “New” Testament, language which many colleges and universities have abandoned. As in any profession, how a scholar has been trained has an enormous impact. When it comes to the Bible, purely disciplinary considerations prove to be controlling factors, more important than the Jewish dimension.

See also: The Making of the Modern Jewish Bible (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011)

By Alan T. Levenson
Schusterman/Josey Professor of Jewish Intellectual History
Judaic Studies, University of Oklahoma
August 2011

Since the Bible stems from the ancient near east, can it possibly be modern? Since the Bible no longer enjoys universal regard as Scripture, can the Bible be the Bible? Having bequeathed the Bible to Christianity and Islam and Western culture, can the Bible be “Jewish?”1

What is Jewish about the Bible today? To begin with, it is not Christian. Obviously, the Jewish Bible does not include the New Testament, is organized in three rather than four main sections, has a different ending (II Chronicles 36 versus Malachai), and so on. But that was already true in the 4th century CE. Resistance to Christian readings, however, spills into modern times, as reflected in Rabbi Benno Jacob’s rhetorical complaint about the fruits of a century of Protestant Bible scholarship: “The Bible is no longer our Bible.”2 From Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) until today, Jewish scholars resisted the biases of Protestant-dominated world of Bible study and expressed kinship with Jewish efforts. The undeniable animus of early source critics toward later sources (read: more Jewish ones) invited this conflict, although it has proven possible to disentangle anti-Judaic prejudices from the validity of source-critical procedures. Whereas Solomon Schechter famously complained in 1902 that the higher criticism was higher antisemitism, today, the most widely disseminated account of source criticism among Christians and Jews alike, remains Richard Eliot Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) claimed that the Bible translation produced by the Orthodox Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) was closer in spirit to his own avant garde efforts than to any Christian translation. I find that claim dubious, but it expresses an authentic desire for fictive kinship, often reflected in the scholarly acknowledgments and footnotes of Jewish authors. One expects a Jewish study Bible or a Torah commentary to be informed by Jewish traditions. But the “Jewish” aspect becomes problematic when we turn to academic works and what one scholar has termed “Bible research” rather than “ study.”3

Since modern scholarship purports to be objective, why should works undertaken in an academic framework reflect a Jewish sensibility? Jacob Neusner, co-editor of Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel, attempted to isolate three characteristics of Jewish Bible scholars:

First, they take up texts neglected by others, or treated by others in a quite different context. … Second, they draw upon a corpus of exegetical traditions that has been neglected up to now… . And third, at some very specific points, Judaic perspectives on ancient Israel lead to a distinctively and particularly Judaic inquiry into a biblical text or problem. That is self-evident in the theological papers presented here. Clearly, then, Jewish biblical scholars can be defined as a distinct group.4

Prompted by this claim, I started collecting examples of modern Jewish Bible scholarship. Eventually, I came to see Neusner’s description as too essentialist. It is easy to find Bible scholarship by Jews that evidences nothing particularly Jewish. It is also easy to find non-Jewish Bible scholars who display mastery of scholarship produced in modern Hebrew, knowledge of rabbinic traditions, and theological independence from Christian biases regarding the relationship of “Old” and “New” Testament, language which many colleges and universities have abandoned. As in any profession, how a scholar has been trained has an enormous impact. When it comes to the Bible, purely disciplinary considerations prove to be controlling factors, more important than the Jewish dimension. Readers of S. David Sperling’s Students of the Covenant, a discussion of North American Bible scholars of Jewish descent, may conclude that where and with whom somebody did their Ph.D. has more influence than any other factor.5 Neusner’s dictum that “Jewish biblical scholars can be defined as a distinct group” cannot be maintained without qualification.

But a fuller account of this crux must reckon with the efforts of scholars in Germany, Israel, and America to craft a consciously Jewish Bible. Academics generally oppose the suspect concept of “essentialism” with the concept that cultural realities are all “constructed,” that is, an agreed upon agenda or set of premises that give a group or society self-definition. I adopted that approach in The Making of the Modern Jewish Bible (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), but I am conservative in my use of the term. The modern Jewish Bible was not constructed arbitrarily. The Bible itself exerts enormous gravitational pull — when Zionists placed a secularized, historicized Bible at the center of their national ideology — they invested it with a significance that can only be called biblical. Similarly, Jewish tradition, specifically rabbinic exegesis, drew modern interpreters down certain pathways and excluded others.

Not all ages in Jewish history have accorded equal importance to the study of the Bible. Sometimes the Bible has been scrutinized, and at other times it has been put on a pedestal inside an ark. The rabbinic period saw a profusion of legal and narrative works with the Bible as its basis; the twelfth century CE saw an explosion of scholarship bringing philological and mystical perspectives on the Bible to bear. But one could argue that even in these periods the truly revolutionary advances lay elsewhere. As Lawrence Schiffman concludes in his standard textbook of early rabbinic Judaism: “By the Amoraic period, the rabbis were openly asserting the superiority of the oral law… . Scripture had been displaced by Talmud.”6 Similarly, Ephraim Karnafogel, surveying Bible study in medieval Europe, writes, “Independent Bible study was advocated in medieval Ashkenaz only by small, unrelated groups of scholars and religious leaders.”7 Yet Schiffman and Karnafogel described periods of relatively intense biblical interest. In the century before Moses Mendelssohn’s epochal translation, the Bible suffered far greater neglect. Contrary to assumptions about the poverty of modern Jewish thought, it transpires that modernity has been the golden age of Jewish Bible study. (It is another irony that the period historians call “biblical Israel” is a pure misnomer – there was no Bible in ancient Israel.)

Beginning with Mendelssohn, the German-Jews produced dozens of high quality translations and commentaries, including those of Leopold Zunz, Ludwig Philippsohn, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Benno Jacob and Buber-Rosenzweig. For all their differences, these works developed a religious humanism that typified the German Jewish striving to be fully modern and authentically Jewish. A second iteration of the modern Jewish Bible emerged from Zionism. Almost from the start of the movement, the Bible seemed to contain a ready-made national history (featuring soldiers, farmers, and political leaders) compatible with secular Zionism’s goals. The state-sponsored biblicism of David ben Gurion helped make biblical literacy a norm (or, at least, a mandatory course in secondary schools). Developments in religious Zionist Bible studies, best exemplified by the work of Nehama Leibowitz, raised “Written Torah” to the level of “Oral Torah” as a subject worthy of intellectual inquiry. For all their differences, these efforts aimed at an appropriation of the Bible as relevant for a modern nation. Within American Jewry, a third site in the renaissance of the modern Jewish Bible, the works of Nahum Sarna and Robert Alter, respectively, upheld the Bible as an enduring ethical and/or literary gem. In recent decades, a profusion of Jewish synagogues Bibles (chumashim) has served an American community very diverse in levels of observance and belief; the diversity of these volumes is extremely “functional,” to borrow Lewis Coser’s sociological term. Even feminism, on first glance, irreconcilable with traditional religion, has proven a powerful exegetical method to cultivate an American-Jewish ethnic identity. In America, too, opposition to presumptions of Christian ownership of the Bible has played a role. On the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible (or Authorized Version), the mid-nineteenth century complaint of Philadelphia’s Isaac Leeser that the translators were deficient in Hebrew and that King James was surely no prophet continues to resonate.

Having turned the corner on the second decade of the new millenium, I see plenty of life left in this phenomenon, though, of course, the German-Jewish tradition was “extinguished in unspeakable horror,”8 to borrow a phrase from Gershom Scholem’s eulogy – uttered in Jerusalem in 1961 on the occasion of the completion of Martin Buber’s Bible translation, begun with Rosenzweig in the 1920s. Even in the German case, academic interest in the Bible and its interpreters continues, with new studies on Benjamin’s Bible, Rosenzweig’s Bible, Hirsch’s Bible, Jacob’s Bible appearing every few months. Israel also remains fertile soil – while in Jerusalem recently, I stumbled into a think-tank conference on the Bible as a philosophical text. Several scholars have demonstrated that the impact of the Bible upon secular Israelis has waned in recent decades.9 But the recovery of the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria in 1967 ignited even greater interest in the nationalist Orthodox camp.10 At Elon Shevut in the Occupied Territories there is now an annual, multi-day Bible symposium which attracts thousands of participants (a far greater number than were ever in residence at any European Yeshiva.) And, as long as American Jewish authors know that their Bible-books have the potential to reach an audience that their books on Talmud or Jewish history never will, America remains a biblical promised land. As Daniel Radosh wrote in The New Yorker (18 December 2006): “Calculating how many Bibles sold in the United States is a virtually impossible task, but a conservative estimate is that in 2005 Americans purchased some twenty-five million Bibles — twice as many as the most recent Harry Potter book.”

I conclude with obviously inadequate answers to the other two questions raised in the first paragraph:

The Bible is modern because the reader also determines the meaning of a text. Even if some ancient Israelites heard out loud some of the words later written in the Bible, they did not perceive them as being THE BIBLE. Canonization constituted the clearest dividing line, though only one of a succession of dividing lines in how the Bible was received and read. Reflecting on the post-Reformation situation in Germany and England, Jonathan Sheehan writes, “No longer tied to God”s Word, the Enlightenment Bible became authoritative by virtue of its connection and relevance to human morality, aesthetics, and history. Instead of theology, culture would be the new rock atop which the legitimacy of the Bible was built.”11

Finally, the Bible remains the Bible, though this reality does make everyone happy. From Hobbes and Spinoza to the present, many would like to dethrone the Bible from its position, thus far, with only partial success. What accounts for this impartial victory of secularism? Many answers are possible, but they would have to include the fact that most readers of the Bible still turn to it for devotional purposes and are thus at odds with agendas of avowed secularists. Quite recently, this site posted an article by Hector Avalos, “What”s Not So Secular About Introductions to the Bible.”12 Professor Avalos contends that only a secular perspective on the Bible has validity and that any attempt to distill prescriptive lessons from the Bible must be regarded as apologetics or worse (that is, Eurocentric imperialism). So Avalos states: “For me overthrowing the authority of biblical text is the only mission of any liberatory agenda.” I do not think the matter is so clear cut. The history of interpretation of the Bible, in both Jewish and Christian traditions, for instance, seems an intellectual enterprise of undoubted importance and validity. The Bible may be abused like any other text, and since it has been the most read text of all times, it has been the most abused text of all times – and the most well used too. Therein lies the power of the Book of Books (itself an early modern phrase). In my mind, it would be hard to improve upon the paradoxical formula of the early Zionist thinker Ahad Haam:

The Holy Scriptures are not immanently holy…. The book exists forever, but its content is changed by life and learning. What have men not found in the Holy Scriptures from the time of Philo until the present day?... In the Holy Scriptures they all sought only the truth, each his own truth, and they all found what they sought, found it because they were compelled to, for if not, the truth would not be the truth and the Holy Scriptures would not be holy.13


1 On how the Bible became the Bible, start with James Kugel, How to Read the Bible? (New York: Free Press, 2007) and the forceful rejoinders in Jewish Quarterly Review 100:1 (Winter, 2010).

2 Benno Jacob, cited in Christian Wiese, Challenging Colonial Discourse. Jewish Studies and Protestant Theology in Wilhelmine Germany (Leiden-Boston: Brill 2005), 223.

3 Michael Signer, “How the Bible Has Been Interpreted in Jewish Tradition,” New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994): 65-82.

4 Jacob Neusner and Ernst Freirichs, eds., Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), xii.

5 S. David Sperling, Students of the Covenant (Atlanta; Scholars Press, 1992.)

6 Lawrence Schiffman, From Text to Tradition (KTAV, 1991), 266-267.

7 Ephraim Karnafogel, “The Role of Bible Study in Medieval Ashkenaz,” Barry Wallfish, ed., Frank Talmadge Memorial Volume, (Haifa, 1993).

8 Gershom Scholem, “At the Completion of the Buber Bible Translation,” in The Messianic Idea in Judaism and other Essays (NY: Schocken Books, 1971), 315.

9 Yaacov Shavit - Mordechai Eran, The Hebrew Bible Reborn: from Holy Scripture to the Book of Books (Berlin-New York: De Gruyter, 2007); Anita Shapira, The Bible and Israeli Identity [Ha-Tanach ve ha-zehut ha-yisraelit] (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2005).

10 On the role of the Bible in the Orthodox nationalist camp see the many works of Aviezer Ravitsky, David Hartman, and Gideon Aran. For a Palestinian perspective that is highly critical of Zionism’s colonialist use of the Bible, see Nur Masalha, Zionism and the Bible (London: Zed Books, 2007).

11 Jonathan Sheehan, The Enlightenment Bible (Princeton University Press: 2005), p. xiv.

12 Hector Avalos, “What’s Not So Secular about Introductions to the Bible,” Iowa State University (December, 2010) The Bible and Interpretation. Accessed 7/25/2011.

13 Ahad Haam, Al Parashat Derakhim (At the Crossroads), vol. 1 (Berlin, 1930), 138. Translation by Yaacov Shavit and Mordechai Eran, The Hebrew Bible Reborn, epigraph.

Comments (4)

Is the point of this book to show that Jewish scholars translate some quotes to fit Jewish beliefs and Christian scholars translate them to fit their beliefs because I think that is already known? Supposedly, they are all supposed to be unbiased, unless they are not what you might call "academic scholars". I think all scholars are biased by their religious or anti-religious beliefs, so every Bible is translated and explained in a biased phony way by scholars.

#1 - Kenneth Greifer - 08/26/2011 - 15:30

I believe Kenneth Greifer does not distinguish between having a point of view and being "biased and phony." Scholars all have points of view, but if they try to present evidence fairly, don't neglect evidence that contradicts their argument, and try to put things in a plausible context, they are not being "biased or phony." My book tries to argue that modern Jewish Bible scholars, whether more academic or more devotional, usually met these criteria, and in so doing, succeeded in making an ancient near eastern text a centerpiece of modern Jewish identity and culture -- and corrected some real biases in the process -- the bogus term "Late Judaism" being a good example, thoroughly discredited by Christian and Jewish scholars alike.

#2 - alan levenson - 08/28/2011 - 16:52

Dr. Levenson,

You wrote a book about the modern "Jewish" Bible. The fact that there are Jewish and Christian translations of the Hebrew Bible shows that the scholars are biased and translations are kind of "phony" like I said. Is it a coincidence that the Jewish scholars all translate quotes to fit the Jewish point of view and the Christian scholars translate every controversial quote to fit their point of view? If they were unbiased, wouldn't they sometimes agree with the other side's translation? If they each stick to their party line, that shows bias to me.

Translations don't usually have footnotes and arguments like you mention that prove they are unbiased and have considered all of the evidence from both points of view.

It is not just Isaiah 7:14, but many other quotes like Zech. 6:13 where the Jewish translation says a man will rule on his throne and a priest will be on his throne, and there will be a counsel of peace between the two of them (the two men). The Christian translations all say the man will rule on his throne and he (the man) will be a priest on his throne, and there will the counsel of peace between them (the two offices). I am sure you have heard about this quote.

Is it an accident that unbiased scholars who are usually very religious happen to always agree with their religions' translations? Why can't scholars who translate Bibles admit that they are biased in favor of their own religion instead of pretending that their translations just coincidentally perfectly match their religious beliefs?

Your book's subject seems to prove the existence of bias among scholars, but you seem offended at the idea. You can't write about Jewish Bibles and pretend they are not biased in favor of Judaism. Why is it horrible to say scholars are religiously biased?

Kenneth Greifer

#3 - Kenneth Greifer - 08/29/2011 - 17:20

I have obviously failed to convince Kenneth Greifer that a point of view need not be "biased and phony." I presume that his view is that only assessing biblical literature in its original ancient near east context has the potential to avoid this charge, and that the wonderful Anchor Bible and similar endeavors come closest. But one can find points of view there too (see Moshe Greenberg's introduction to Ezekiel for a parade example). Actually, I have another objection: if someone said you should study the U.S. Constitution only for what the framers meant at that time, the obvious reply would be that this denudes it of all utility and above that, seems unlikely to reflect the framers' intentions. The parallel with the Bible is inexact, but I think closer to the original intent of the biblical authors than what KG proposes.

#4 - Alan Levenson - 08/30/2011 - 14:29

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