The Bible plays an enormous role in Jewish ritual life. Many of the psalms have been incorporated into the synagogue liturgy, forming an essential component of the regular daily services, as well as the Sabbath and festival services. On Jewish festivals, entire books of the Bible are read aloud: the Song of Songs on Passover, Ruth on Shavuot (Pentecost), Lamentations on Tisha b’Av (the Ninth of Av, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples by the Babylonians and the Romans), Jonah on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), Ecclesiastes on Sukkot (Tabernacles) and Esther on Purim. But the main ceremonial use of the Bible in Jewish worship involves the Torah (the Pentateuch), which is at the ritual center of the Sabbath morning prayer service. The architecture of a synagogue entails an “ark,” an ornamental, ceremonial cupboard at the front of the synagogue, on the eastern wall, usually upon a raised platform. This ark houses at least one Torah scroll, which contains the first five books of the Bible carefully inscribed on parchment with a quill pen. Every Saturday morning, the Torah is taken out of the ark and promenaded around the synagogue, touched and kissed and loved by the congregation. The Torah is then “undressed,” for the scroll normally wears a velvet cloak, with a silver breastplate over the cloak. Even the wooden poles around which the scroll is wrapped are ornamented; they wear either a crown around the two or individual caplets (pomegranates) on each pole.
After the procession and the unveiling, the Torah is ready to be read. Individual members of the congregation receive the honor of being “given an aliyah,” being called up to the Torah to bless God for granting the Torah to Israel. A portion of the Torah is then chanted aloud. In traditional services, seven such honors are awarded. The portions to be read are consecutive, so that each year the entire Torah will be read aloud from Genesis 1:1 to Deuteronomy 34:12. (An alternate tradition allows three years 028for the reading of the entire Torah.) When each Torah reading is complete, the individual being granted the honor will once again offer blessings of thanksgiving.
After the seven readings, a companion piece is chanted. This piece, called the haftarah, is a selection from the prophetic books that tradition decrees complements the Torah portion. When the readings are finished, the Torah is dressed and adorned once more and is conveyed back to the ark in ritual procession.1
On the festival of
In all these liturgical ceremonies, the Torah is the central icon of the long relationship between God and Israel and a visual symbol of the regal nature of God the king. Through participation in these rituals, Jewish worshipers receive a deep sense of the awe and the joy of the Torah.
At the same time, this centrality of the Torah is more symbolic than real, more celebrated than maintained. The liturgical and symbolic centrality of the Torah functions strongly on an emotional level. But in many respects, the Torah, and indeed the whole Bible, has been marginalized in Judaism. Symbolically central to the faith, the Bible has been placed on a pedestal—but being put on a pedestal entails a certain degree of isolation. The Bible is not directly involved in matters of halakhah, Jewish practice and law. 029Authority in halakhah lies in a chain of tradition that begins with the rabbis of the Talmud. The Bible is the source of halakhic authority, but it does not function on its own and is not an independent source of authority in traditional Judaism.
A new reading of the Bible has never had the power to upset rabbinic laws or attitudes. The rabbis turn to the Bible to legitimate and give weight to rabbinic concepts or provisions, and indeed, the Bible is of paramount importance in this way. But the Bible does not have the power to delegitimate or to invalidate rabbinic provisions. One may not argue that the rabbinic reading of a biblical passage is misguided and expect that this argument will automatically uproot the practices that were based on that rabbinic reading. New readings of the Bible do not change old customs. In traditional Judaism, the Torah, regal as it is, is not sovereign; it is yoked to the rabbinic system that it serves. The Torah was (and is, in most traditional circles) a king or queen in captivity.
In effect, Jewish tradition subordinated and domesticated the Bible, as rabbinic readings declared the sense of scripture. This domestication of the Bible had ramifications for the way the Bible was taught, and was in turn reinforced by Jewish religious pedagogy. The Bible was taught as an entry-level book; little children learned their Bible, mostly concentrating on the Torah. But children would “graduate” from the Bible to higher forms of Jewish learning. By the time they were eight or ten, they would be studying the Mishnah, a Jewish law book that was produced around 200 C.E. When a little older, they would enter the world of Talmud study, which they would continue to study in adulthood, later perhaps also studying mystical or philosophical literature. Adults did not come back to the Bible with more sophisticated eyes. They had learned their Bible and were expected to know it. But the Bible they had learned remained the text of their childhood and of ritual.
There is a form of Bible study that continues into adulthood in traditional Judaism, a semiritual form of study in which the portion of the Torah read aloud that week is studied as a devotional activity. In this study, the Torah portion is augmented by the comments that medieval teachers wrote about it. Of these commentators, the most important is Rashi, who lived in the 11th century. He was a master educator with an important goal: He wanted to enable people to continue to study the Bible. To this end, he distilled the bewildering array of postbiblical study of the Bible and the legends attached to it into a simple line-by-line commentary. Rashi’s eyes became the lens by which Jews read the Bible. His commentary became so authoritative that Jews often did not distinguish between what the Bible says and Rashi’s interpretation. Later readers and commentators put new ideas and commentaries on top of the foundation that Rashi laid, but they very rarely went beneath his commentary into the biblical text to find alternate readings.
As time went on, the “Rashi lens” through which Jews looked at the Bible was joined by a “translation lens.” Most Jews read the Bible in English or French or German, alongside their Hebrew. But all translation is interpretationa and modern translations are in the tradition of the great translations of the Renaissance and the Reformation, in which one of the goals of the translation was to remove ambiguity from the text in the interests of opening the Bible to the masses. Like 030Rashi, the translators streamline and simplify the Bible to make it easier to read.
With two such lenses ostensibly helping the reader to see the Bible, the actual text could easily be simplified and amplified into almost total invisibility. The queen on the pedestal had even more veils.
Things have changed.
The many discoveries of modernism have had an enormous impact on our knowledge. They have revealed the existence of many different streams of Judaism in antiquity and later, thus removing the impression that rabbinic choices were the only possible Jewish choices.
There have also been enormous changes in the way we read the Bible. The modern disciplines of biblical studies have increased our knowledge of biblical Hebrew and have led to approaches to biblical ideas that are at least partially independent of the traditional ways of reading the Bible. Ancient Near Eastern studies and Assyriology have given us perspectives on the Bible that come from times prior to the Bible and contemporary with it. Modern philosophy and literary theory have also given Jews a new appreciation for the open-ended approach of midrash. Midrash is the classical rabbinic form of close reading of the Bible that uses startlingly modern-seeming methods of literary analysis to explore and elaborate the multiple meanings and ambiguities inherent in the Bible itself. Midrash declared that there were seventy facets to the Torah and that everything could be found in it. Perhaps the most significant impact of biblical and Judaic studies, however, has been the creation of a core of highly educated Jewish scholars who have not “moved on” from Bible to Talmud but have remained focused on the Bible, applying their reading of the Bible to everything else they learn, and everything else they learn to their reading of the Bible.
But modernism has also intensified the expectation that there could be ever more exactness in finding the one true reading of scripture. Early Bible scholars, imbued with the attitudes of modernism, turned to philology, historical criticism and scientific data to achieve ever more precise readings. Modern scholars “corrected” old readings and challenged the authority of traditional commentators by undermining faith in the accuracy of their traditional readings. Like the medieval commentators before them, these modernist scholars tried to establish a clear and unequivocal reading of scripture that 031would command the allegiance and submission of its readers. In effect, they displaced the source of authority from the traditional clergy and their medieval traditions to the scholar with new modern traditions. A new approach to reading the Bible, and a new understanding of its theological significance, had to wait for the collapse of the authority of the same modernism that had itself challenged the authority of the older approaches.
The recent demise of modernist ideas about objectivity and even about rationality has seen the rise of a variety of biblical interpretations. Contemporary students of the Bible now know that the texts and events they study acquire much of their meaning through their own personal interaction with them. That is, the interests and agenda of the reader always affect how a text is read, sometimes unconsciously and sometimes intentionally.
This new attention to the mutable and subjective nature of knowledge pervades much contemporary thinking. But it is especially strong in biblical scholarship, which has not only learned these principles from contemporary literary theory but has also come to realize them empirically through dialogue with groups who were traditionally on the margins. This dialogue has revealed that different groups have always had different readings of the text, influenced by their own presuppositions and agendas. Jews have had their traditional authoritative readings that were sometimes quite different from traditional Christian readings. The poor have read with their own experiences in mind, Third World readers with their experiences of marginalization and colonization, and groups of women in turn have read the Bible with eyes conditioned by their experiences. Dialogue among these groups has begun to highlight the great amount of interpretive content that lay underneath interpretations that had long masqueraded as simple reading.
What has become clear is that there was nothing essentially “true” about the traditional religious or scholarly readings. They were hegemonic readings, readings that depended for their authority on the power of those doing the reading, whether the rabbis, the church or the academy. The rabbis, church or academy spread their interpretations by the power of their position. At the same time, the demands of power and the interests and agenda of the readers in power helped shape the particular content of these traditional readings. That is, the traditional readings reflected the experiences of 060men of power, who made certain choices in their interpretations. Other people could make other choices. Today, the hegemonic readings continue to hold their authority within authority-driven circles, but in the world of scriptural studies and more open environments, the inclusion of new voices in the wider interpretative community has caused the old hegemonic readings to collapse, at least in academic circles.
The fall of hegemonic authoritative readings has resulted in a liberation of the text itself. Instead of being forced into the straitjacket of the “one true truth,” a biblical passage can now demonstrate its complexity and ambiguity. The contemporary babble of views has begun to reveal that the Bible is complex and ambiguous. It has many voices, not just one.
Knowing that many different interpretations of the text have in fact existed and held authority has caused us to examine carefully the nature of biblical writing that makes multiple readings possible. We have begun to gain understanding of the literary techniques used in the biblical story, in particular the technique of “gapping,” one of the most important tools of ambiguity in the Bible. The biblical authors created stories with narrative holes. This style of writing forces the interpreter or interpretative community to fill in the gaps according to its own presuppositions; thus the story could change with each different reading community. And over time, as presuppositions change, the way that communities fill in the gaps would also change, so that the text begins to have many different variations, allomorphs (alternative forms) of the biblical story.
We have begun to recognize other biblical modes of complexity, other techniques that allow the biblical story to change with its readers even more than literature usually does. For example, biblical stories are often written intertextually; situations and key words in one story make allusions to other stories. Paying attention to intertextual allusions shows us how stories and laws relate to each other and form “discourses.” The story or law has meaning when read by itself but adds another layer of meaning as part of a discourse that may present a whole spectrum of ideas about any given topic.
To illustrate some of the complexity and ambiguity that may inhere in a text, we will look at two Hebrew words—the opening two words of the first book of the Bible: b’reshit bara’.
The traditional translation, “In the beginning,” fails to address the ungrammatical nature of this phrase. The word b’reshit is a noun in construct, “the beginning of…” something; it should be followed by a noun. Instead, it is followed by a verb, bara’, “he created.” The text literally reads “At the beginning of—he created.” But by emending the vowels (remember biblical Hebrew was written without vowels), Rashi changed the second word to b’ro, allowing the first two words to mean “at the beginning of God’s creation.” Rashi’s reading requires emendation, but the general sense of his reading is supported by Assyriologists, who point to an Akkadian grammatical construction in which a construct is followed by a verb instead of a noun to indicate a relative. This leads us to translate “At the beginning (of)—he created” as “When God began to create (the heaven and the earth).” (In support of this, the two major Babylonian creation myths also begin with a “when” clause.) But there is still a problem: The initial b (bet), meaning “in,” in b’reshit is not needed with the noun in construct. Why is there this extra bet?
“In the beginning” speaks of the beginning of all things, the start of God’s activity. Earth and humanity are the first entities that God created. In this translation, the Bible is profoundly geocentric and anthropocentric. Nothing existed before our own cosmos; God did nothing before God created us.
“When God began to create,” on the other hand, says nothing about the beginnings of God’s activities, nothing about events before the six days of creation, nothing about the primacy of our world. There is time before the creation of our space, space before our own. In this translation, the Bible is picking up the story at the beginning of our universe but in medias res in the story of God, and says nothing about the beginning of time or the primacy of this or other worlds.
The authors of the first chapter of Genesis knew Hebrew at least as well as I do. They could say something clearly when they wanted to. Moreover, the beautiful litany is carefully, poetically constructed. They were not being sloppy or racing for deadline when they wrote it this way. The ambiguity of the phrase must be purposeful. The two possible translations represent their uncertainty and lack of clarity about our role in the wider cosmos.
An intentionally ambiguous phrase mirrors the mystery of creation. People who do not know whether eternity preexists creation can refrain from writing in such a way that would reflect a certainty that is not there. The ambiguity is also a foreshadowing and a tip-off about things to come in the Bible. The world the Bible considers is complex and the text reflects the world: Different voices compete and clash, claim and disclaim.
The God of the Bible is not easily known. First Genesis, then the pentateuchal narrative in Exodus through Numbers, and then the narratives that follow in the historical books trace a trajectory in which the God who once walked the garden and actively spoke to Abraham removes the divine presence from human affairs. God may be sought in sacred space and time and in the sacred word. But God remains to be sought, not confronted simply and unambiguously. Even the high priest in the holiest section of the holiest place, on the 062holiest day of the year, could not confront God directly. He experienced a God who was doubly veiled, obscured first by the cloud in which God hovers, then by the cloud of incense that the priest created to prevent him from even glimpsing the divine cloud. God is experienced through veils, experienced through visions and glimpsed through events. And God’s presence can be felt through the writings that record these experiences and consider these events. But these writings cannot be simpler or more obvious than the God they represent.
The Pentateuch was completed during a time of complexity and new horizons following the Babylonian destruction of the Temple in the sixth century B.C.E. The rest of the Hebrew Bible was finished in yet another period of complexity—the Greco-Roman era. The other parts of the Bible, the Prophets (consisting of the Former Prophets [Joshua through Kings] and the Latter Prophets [Isaiah through Malachi]) and the Writings (Psalms through Chronicles), abound in diverse opinions and contradictory thoughts. Since the composition of the Bible, much of its complexity has been simplified or ignored by authorities who have claimed hegemonic power to determine its interpretation. Now, however, the world is once again exploding with new horizons, and the old hegemonic authorities have come under suspicion. Indeed, the very idea of hegemonic power clashes with some of our contemporary approaches to reality. The genie and genius of indeterminacy have come out of the bottle, and the multiple facets of the Bible are once again compelling attention.
The new interpretations of the Bible show that the rabbinic interpreters made choices—and that other choices can be made. By presenting alternative voices in the central iconic text in Judaism, the study of the Bible helps undermine the authority of any single biblical voice, any one particular biblical reading. Biblical studies present an alternative source of authority to rabbinic thinking and create a fertile opportunity for dialogue between biblical and rabbinic ideas. The Bible itself offers us a model of how to react to the collapse of old hegemonies. It shows us that we need not fly into a new absolutism or to nihilistic despair, but that we should proceed with a determination to keep faith and an understanding that revelation and sacrality do not lie in any particular written word, but in the very process of sifting and negotiating and wresting. This is the process of Torah.
The Bible plays an enormous role in Jewish ritual life. Many of the psalms have been incorporated into the synagogue liturgy, forming an essential component of the regular daily services, as well as the Sabbath and festival services. On Jewish festivals, entire books of the Bible are read aloud: the Song of Songs on Passover, Ruth on Shavuot (Pentecost), Lamentations on Tisha b’Av (the Ninth of Av, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples by the Babylonians and the Romans), Jonah on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), Ecclesiastes on Sukkot (Tabernacles) and Esther on Purim. But […]