Michael A. "How the Bible Has Been Interpreted in Jewish Tradition.”
In New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1, 65-82. Nashville: Abingdon,
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HOW THE BIBLE HAS BEEN
INTERPRETED IN JEWISH
by MICHAEL A. SIGNER
From the return of the community after the Babylonian
exile in the sixth century BCE, the Bible and its interpretation played
a central role in the life of the Jewish people. In Neh 8:1-8, Ezra reads
from the book of the Law of Cod. He is surrounded by the priests who translate
and interpret it to the people. These two activities of reading the word
of Cod and making the divine message comprehensible so that it may be applied
in the life of Israel provide the boundaries for all descriptions of biblical
studies in Judaism. Generations of teachers and students have demonstrated
concern for the sacred character of its words and their transmission. In
addition, they have continually reinterpreted these words in the light
of their contemporary milieu. This dynamic approach to the possibility
of interpreting the word of Cod has provided Judaism with the opportunity
for renewal throughout its history.
THE CLASSICAL PERIOD
The Rabbis, who emerged as religious leaders after the destruction of the
Temple in 70 CF, provided the lenses through which the Jewish people have
viewed the biblical text. From their perspective, Moses received both a
written and an oral Torah at Sinai. The latter was a complete revelation
of all possible interpretations of the written document.
The term Bible is somewhat alien to Jewish religious discourse.
Scripture is referred to as Miqra', "what is read" or Kitbe Qodes,
"sacred writings". The most frequently used word is Tora, "teaching".
When referring to the entire corpus of biblical books, Jews use the Hebrew
acronym TNK, which represents the threefold division of the canon
into Tora (the Five Books of Moses), Nebi'im (Prophets -
Joshua-2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets,
and Ketubim, Writings - Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth,
Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1-2 Chronicles).
This order of the books, which appears in the Babylonian Talmud tractate
Baba Batra 14b, indicates that for Jews the canon of Scripture ends
with a narration of the return of the Jewish community to its homeland
by the order of Cyrus.
All three sections of Scripture are called "Torah" in an effort to maintain
the unity within divine revelation. However, it is clear that the Five
Books of Moses have, since antiquity, been understood as the most sacred.
Passages from the Prophets or Writings are always interpreted to harmonize
with the Pentateuch.
The scroll of the Pentateuch has been part of the liturgical life of the
synagogue since the classical rabbinic period. There is a body of laws
that govern the material to be used for writing, how it is sewn together,
and how it is used during worship. By contrast, the prophetic books and
hagiographa, which were written on scrolls during the Tannaitic and Amoraic
periods (the first five hundred years of the Common Era), have been read
from codices in the synagogues since the Middle Ages.
Torah is understood as the "Tree of Life" that provides a path for Jews
to fulfill the will of their creator. Until the modern period, the task
of interpretation 
was assumed by the Rabbis. Their exegesis
was developed through many genres: Midrash (Homilies), Perush
(Commentaries), Piyyut (religious poetry), Legal Codes and Responsa
(responses to questions), and philosophical and mystical treatises. It
would be fair to conclude that no genre of post-biblical Jewish literature
is unrelated to the explication of Scripture.
At the core of Jewish scriptural interpretation is the conviction that
the Hebrew language is sacred because it is identified with the divine
speech. For this reason the Rabbis, as early as the second century CE,
attempted to define the limits of interpretation. There were those who
believed that every word or, indeed, every letter could form the basis
for interpretation. These rabbis, whom we might call "maximalists," thought
that even the decorations or crowns on the letters should be interpreted.
In contrast, other rabbis thought that "Scripture speaks in human language."
The position of the "minimalists" was that God had accommodated human beings,
endowing them with reason, and had revealed Torah in terms that required
a logical approach to exegesis. From their perspective, Scripture was subject
to the same rules of interpretation as any language. Words could not be
fragmented, or twisted out of context. The tension between "minimalist"
and "maximalist" types of interpretation can be translated in two technical
terms used throughout the history of Jewish exegesis: Peshat,
or "plain meaning" and Derash, or "homiletical meaning". In the
medieval and modern periods, there has been a preference to claim that
Peshat has represented the higher aim of Jewish interpretation.
However, a survey of Jewish biblical exegesis indicates that Derash
has been a constant impetus for creativity. It may be claimed that what
was Peshat for one generation became Derash for the next.
As a religious community, Jews sought to ground the reinterpretation of
their traditions within the context of Scripture and its language. Therefore,
both Peshat and Derash in dialectical tension provide vital
elements for interpretation.
One can chart the most significant reformulations of Judaism throughout
its history by noting the developments within scriptural interpretation.
In each era there are three significant spheres of exegetical activity.
The first is at the lexical or philological level. The ancient Rabbis and
their successors were concerned with the interpretation of Scripture
so that it could be appreciated
by the community. In the medieval and modern periods one can discern that
translation of the Bible into the contemporary vernacular is a significant
part of exegetical activity. The second area is a focus on the sequence
or coherence of the biblical text. Innovations in grammar and syntax made
this a particularly creative field of Jewish exegesis. This area brought
contemporary concerns into tension with classical rabbinic explanations
of Scripture so that Peshat and Derash could be harmonized.
The third domain of exegetical reformulation concentrated on harmonizing
the traditional concerns of Scripture with elements of contemporary culture.
As philosophical or scientific developments in non-Jewish culture became
the subject of controversy, the genre of biblical interpretation became
a significant locus for Jewish self-expression and polemics about the boundaries
of the secular world and sacred text.
God said to Moses:
"Write these things, for it is by means of these things that I have made
a covenant with Israel." (Exod 34:27) When God was about to give the Torah,
He recited it to Moses in proper order, Scriptures, Mishnah, Aggadah, and
Talmud, for God spoke all these words (Exod 20:1), even the answers to
questions which distinguished scholars in the future are destined to ask
their teachers did God reveal to Moses! (1)
The interpretations of
the written law - while known to Moses - were to be "discovered" by subsequent
generations of teachers who would make them known to their students. Torah
study became the process for resolving the contradictions between the contemporary
world of the interpreters and the written and oral law.
Rabbinic Judaism is, therefore, a religion of a dual canon constituted
by written and oral Torah wherein the structure of Jewish interpretation
since the beginning of the third century CE has been 
grounded on the presumption that revelation
of both Torahs was simultaneous. The Rabbis simply worked out the revelation
that had taken place at Sinai "in proper order." One rabbinic text interpreted
Eccl 12:11, "The words of the Sages are like goads [Kaddorbanot]
which are given from one shepherd" in the following way:
Rabbi Berechiah said:
What is the meaning of "like goads" (Kaddorbanot)? It means Kaddur
Banot, a girl's ball, which maidens toss in sport from one to another.
So it is when the Sages enter the house of study, and are occupied with
Torah. One says its meaning is this, and another says its meaning is that.
One gives such an opinion; his fellow a different one. But they were all
"given from one shepherd" - that is from Moses who received the teaching
from God who is One and unique in the world. (2)
The "play" of rabbinic interpretation is evidenced in
the document that the Rabbis considered fundamental to oral law, the Mishnah
(teaching or repetition).
As the passage cited previously from Tanchuma
indicates, Miqra and Mishnah constituted a single revelation. According
to rabbinic tradition,
Mishnah was compiled by Rabbi Judah the Patriarch,
based on the oral traditions of his predecessors who were called "Tannaim."
Some modern scholars
have emphasized the independence of the Mishnah
from the biblical text with respect to its formal
structure and language. From the perspective of
the history of Judaism, the Mishnah is a seminal document
for all subsequent interpretations of Scripture regarding religious practice.
Moreover, it is possible to discern motifs congruent with the biblical
canon within the six divisions (Sedarim) of the Mishnah (3).
Although the Mishnah has a complex textual tradition that indicates that
there were various arrangements of its six divisions, there is a strong
conjunction between the order in which the Sedarim were traditionally studied
and biblical motifs from the creation of the world in Genesis through the
eschatological themes of the restoration of the Temple.
The correlation of biblical and mishnaic themes commences in the first
order, Zeraim, which focuses on appropriate times for acknowledging
the divine through prayer, and on the holiness of the land of Israel through
appropriate giving of tithes. This set of legal practices is linked to
the pentateuchal themes of Genesis and Deuteronomy, which focus on the
creation of the earth, its seasons, and the role Israel has undertaken
as the covenanted people of God. The next order, Moed, begins with
a description of the sabbath laws and continues with explanations of the
biblical festivals: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. This order develops
the pentateuchal themes of how the people of Israel serve God both within
and beyond the borders of the Land. Neziqin concentrates on laws
of property and personal injury, while Nashim provides details on
the legal procedure for marriage, divorce, and adulterous relationships.
These Sedarim rooted solidly in the legislative sections of Exodus, Leviticus,
and Deuteronomy, contribute a more profound characterization of the place
of human interaction in the Jewish community.
From the idea of the earth and its creatures and their obligation to the
divine, the Mishnah shifts ground to a discussion of how human beings ought
to behave toward one another. In the remaining two Sedarim, which delineate
the laws of Qodashim (Holy Things) and Tohorot (Purities),
the Mishnah describes practices that relate to the Temple cult and priestly
activities. Later generations of Rabbis would draw upon these orders for
such practical issues as the ritual slaughter of animals for human consumption
and other dietary laws, or the laws of women's menstrual purity. Even though
many of the laws delineated in the Mishnah were no longer in practice since
the Temple had been destroyed for more than a century, the Rabbis included
them. This was most likely because of their hope that the Temple would
be restored and the exile brought to a conclusion. One rabbinic tradition
states, "Scholars who occupy themselves with the halakhot [laws] of the
Temple are regarded by Scripture as if the Temple had been rebuilt in their
time." The Mishnah thereby encompasses all scriptural concerns from the
creation of the world to the hope for the coming of the messiah and the
vindication of the people Israel.
The Mishnah indicates the centrality of Scripture in religious practice.
Tractate Berakhot (Blessings) provides evidence that the Rabbis
had fixed, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One" (Deut
6:4) as a significant liturgical text that was recited in the evening and
morning prayer together with other passages from the Torah. In tractate
Megilla (Scroll) is a description of the appropriate Torah lections
for the festivals and special sabbaths. Furthermore, the legal
in Exodus 21-23 provide the basis for an elaborate conceptual scheme of
torts and damages in tractates Baba Qama, Baba Metzi'a, and Baba
Batra. The Rabbis traced their own legitimacy as divinely sanctioned
interpreters of Torah in tractate Abot Although there are profound
formal differences between the Mishnah and Scripture, the two documents
complement each other.
Mishnah provided the primary text of interpretation in the rabbinic academies
in Palestine and Babylon from the third until the sixth or seventh centuries
Those rabbinic expositions, called Gemara, focus on the source of
authority or reasoning within the Mishnah. Together the Mishnah and the
Gemara constitute what the Rabbis called "Talmud" (5).
Two categories of interpretation develop in the Talmuds written in both
Israel and Babylonia. One method, known as Halakha, focuses on the
development of a body of ritual and civil legal practice for the Jewish
community. Although the Gemara does not define a unified body of law, its
dialectical arguments illustrate a variety of approaches to any single
issue. In the Talmud many discussions of the Mishnaic text can be understood
as the attempt to find the appropriate biblical warrant for the Mishnah.
The second method, no less important, was the development of the Aggadah.
In these passages the Rabbis allow their imagination to function freely,
developing theological and ethical principles. Biblical narratives are
developed to reveal the intention of obscure biblical texts, or passages
the Rabbis found incompatible with their understanding of the texts. For
example, the call of Hosea to marry a harlot (Hos 1:2) is introduced by
the Rabbis in the form of a dialogue between the prophet and God. Hosea
expresses anger and disappointment at the behavior of the people. He urges
God to abandon them to the punishment of exile. God then decides that Hosea
must discover for himself how profound God's bond with Israel might be,
and orders him to marry a woman of harlotry (Pesig. R. 87:a-b).
Halakhah and Aggadah, though not specifically distinguished in the text
of the Talmuds, parallel the legal and narrative unity of the Bible and
thereby constitute the woof and warp of the oral Torah.
The Talmud became the primary text for Jewish religious life and praxis
The collection of biblical interpretations known as Midrash constitutes
the other major genre of biblical interpretation from the classical period.
The word midrash encompasses both a method of expounding the biblical
text and a name for a collection of these discourses. Michael Fishbane
has demonstrated that midrash draws upon techniques of interpretation already
present in the biblical text itself (6).
Yet the collections of midrash as they have been transmitted by the tradition
constitute a separate literary genre. Joseph Heinemann has argued that
midrash derive from the homilies that were part of the religious
life in the synagogue, which were sometimes called Bet Midrash (House of
Collections of midrash may have been composed as early as the third century,
but most of them seem to originate from the fifth to the eighth centuries
CE. In contrast to the Gemara on the Mishnah, which was composed in both
Palestine and Babylon, midrashim appear to be the product of Jewish communities
in Palestine. There are some remarkable parallels between the midrashim
and patristic literature, both Greek and Syriac, in hermeneutical methods.
Origen and Jerome both reveal an awareness of midrashic literature.
Midrashic literature moves in two main directions: creative historiography
and creative philology. In creative historiography, the Rabbis fill out
the biblical narrative by supplying details, identifying persons, and drawing
anachronistic pictures of the living conditions of biblical characters.
We may learn, for example, that Abraham's "fear" in Gen 15:1 is the result
of his victory over the Canaanite kings in Genesis 14; or that Moses sat
in the rabbinic academy listening to the discourses of Rabbi Akiba. Creative
philology permits the Rabbis to make their own divisions of the words and
sentences of the biblical text that lay before them. In this manner they
discover that when Abraham celebrated the weaning of Isaac (beyom higamel),
he was really giving a feast in honor of his circumcision on the eighth
day (bayom he + gimmel = 8).
Most introductions to rabbinic literature classify 
midrash collections according to "Halakhic"
or "Tannaitic" midrashim and "Exegetical" or "Homeletical" midrashim. The
basis for the first category rests on the assumption that these collections
relate to the earliest period of rabbinic activity, which was oriented
toward deriving laws "Halakhah" directly from the biblical text (Tanna
is the term rabbinic literature uses to describe the teachers mentioned
in the Mishnah). The second category is organized according to either the
feasts or the special sabbaths of the Jewish calendar. Scholars have questioned
the assumptions supporting these classifications. Halakhic midrashim also
contain large sections of Aggadah. The textual history of the exegetical
and homiletical midrashim indicates that their present arrangement has
been modified throughout their transmission.
The "Halakhic" midrashim form a continuous commentary on the Pentateuch
from Exodus to Deuteronomy. Mekhilta comments on portions of Exodus
and includes treatment of both legal and narrative passages. The rabbinic
commentary on Leviticus is called Sifre and bears a close relationship
to Mishnah, indicating that the laws of sacrifice may be derived directly
from the Torah itself, without a process of abstraction or deductive reasoning
employed by Mishnah. Sifre on Numbers elucidates both narrative
and legal portions of the book, omitting Numbers 13-14 and 16-17. She is
also the name for the Halakhic midrash on Deuteronomy, which seems to have
been exclusively a commentary on legal passages, with aggadic portions
added later. The Halakhic midrashim are quoted in the Babylonian Talmud,
and often have parallel passages in the homiletical midrashim.
The collections of midrashim considered homiletical are arranged under
the title Midrash Rabbah ("The Great Midrash") on the Five Books
of Moses and the five scrolls. They were composed at different periods
and have distinct literary histories. What unites these collections is
their formal similarity. They appear to be structured by the order of verses
in the biblical text. Other homiletical midrashim such as Pesikta d'Rav
Kahana, Pesikta Rabbati, and Tanhuma derive their structure from
the special feasts and sabbaths of the Jewish calendar.
Some scholars believe that these midrashim may represent collections of
homilies that were preached in the synagogues in Palestine. These sermons
a proem, or Petihah, which commences with a verse from the Ketubim
(Writings) and is expounded with illustrative biblical texts or newly composed
parables leading up to the verse from the weekly Torah reading. Scholars
assert that the verses from the Prophets may represent the Haftarah,
or prophetic lection, for that Sabbath. The complexity of these proems
(several proems may appear for a single verse), indicates that in Palestine
synagogues divided the weekly reading of Torah over a three-to four-year
cycle, as distinguished from Babylonia, where the Torah was divided into
fifty-four portions and read in a single year.
After the proem, the rabbinic homily might expound several verses from
the weekly portion. The sermon concludes with a Hatima, or conclusion.
The Hatima is formulated by reversing the order of the proem. Beginning
with the verse from the weekly Torah portion, the midrash advances to verses
from the Prophets. In these prophetic verses, the rabbinic voice disappears
from the Midrash, and it appears that God alone is speaking directly to
the audience. Comfort and consolation are the prophetic message of the
Hatima. Often, the preacher contrasts the situation in "this world"
with the "world to come," allowing the prophetic words to illuminate the
bright and glorious future for the Jewish people.
Midrash as a literature encouraged the continuing dialogue between the
Jewish people and their past as embedded in the biblical texts. It permitted
the past to be eternally present when Jews gathered in the synagogue for
study and prayer. James Kugel has expressed the power of Midrash in its
relationship to Scripture.
In Midrash the Bible
becomes a world unto itself. Midrashic exegesis is the way into that world;
it does not seek to view present-day reality through biblical spectacles,
neither to find referents of biblical prophecy in present-day happenings,
nor to find referents to the daily life of the soul in biblical allegory.
Instead it simply overwhelms the present; the Bible's time is important,
while the present is not; and so it invites the reader to cross over into
the enterable world of Scripture (8).
God's revelation to Israel on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19) is transformed from
a moment of singularity for Israel into a universal revelation. In Mekhilta,
the  Rabbis
claim that Torah was given in the wilderness and in fire and in water.
Just as they are free to all the inhabitants of the world, so also the
words of Torah are free to all. Israel freely chose to undertake the commandments
after God offered them to all the other nations (9).
Midrash understands Israel's biblical history with its tragic exile through
the text of Cant 1:5: "1 am black but beautiful" (author trans.). Israel
is darkened by the exile, but beautiful in the eyes of God. Midrash reveals
the rabbinic imagination emboldened to reformulate the letters, sentences,
and books of Scripture, merging the Jewish people in any era into the scriptural
The Talmud and midrashim constitute the two principal genres of creative
biblical interpretation during the classical period. However, during this
era synagogue life with its weekly Torah and prophetic readings gave birth
to yet another channel of interpretation. These public readings were accompanied
by an Aramaic translation: the Targum. The principal Targum texts are the
Targum Onqelos, Yerusalml, Neofiti on the Pentateuch, and the Targum
of the Prophets.
This practice of vernacular translation is attested in the Mishnah (10).
It was to be read after every verse of the lection from the Pentateuch
and after every third verse of the reading from the Prophets. The Targums
are not literal translations of the Hebrew, but often contain paraphrases
or literary embellishments. One of their primary purposes seems to have
been to harmonize the biblical text with rabbinic interpretation as expressed
in the Talmud. The Rabbis' avoidance of biblical anthropomorphism is reflected
in the Targum's rendition of "And God said," by the locution, "A word came
from before the Lord." The Targum to the Prophets is characterized
by aggadic expansion of the biblical text.
By the third century it was suggested that the Hebrew text of the weekly
lection be read twice in Hebrew and once in Aramaic (11).
This practice has continued in some traditional Jewish communities into
the modern period. In the Middle Ages, the Aramaic Targum was supplemented
in Arabicspeaking lands by Saadia Gaon's translation. In Europe there were
translations into Old French, Judaeo-German,
and Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish). This focus on the transmission of the biblical
text to the people in their own vernacular symbolizes the effort to make
the biblical lessons available to the people in the language they could
Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, and Targum constitute the classical texts of
rabbinic biblical interpretation. As "classics" they engender a long tradition
of interpretation themselves. Subsequent generations of Jewish literature
draw upon the formal aspects of Talmud and Midrash to create their own
expositions of Scripture. Two characteristics distinguish the compositions
of the classical period. First, they are compilations rather than the work
of a single author. They feature the traditions of all the Rabbis, rather
than the work of any one of them. Second, they have a utopian and atemporal
nature. The classic texts of the Rabbis do not emphasize the time or place
when something happened. When the Mishnah narrates an incident about an
begins with the words, "A story about . The transcendent
presentation of time and space in these texts
may have reinforced the Rabbis' estimation that
written and oral Torah were the twin repositories of divine wisdom.
THE MEDIEVAL PERIOD
Jewish biblical studies in the medieval period begin with the division
of the world of late antiquity into Islamic and Christian cultures. From
the eighth and ninth centuries, focus on the Bible moves beyond the genres
of Talmud, Midrash, and Targum into the development of commentary (Perush).
Individual authors writing commentaries on individual books replace collective
or pseudonymous authorship of anthologies. Each section of the canon -
Torah, Prophets, Hagiographa - has its own history of exegesis. The preponderance
of commentaries was written on the Pentateuch, but works from the Hagiographa,
such as Psalms and Song of Songs, generated many works of interpretation.
In their writings, medieval exegetes maintain a reverential attitude toward
the authority of the ancient Rabbis. They share with their forebears a
belief in the simultaneous revelation of the written and oral Torah, and
the obligation to carry on the task of eliciting their complementary nature.
However, medieval authors reveal the exigencies of their own intellectual
milieu. Toward that end, they 
engage in arguments with
one another, and in polemics with both Islamic and Christian scholars.
Religious apologetics and controversy become a significant focus in medieval
Despite the shared religious goal of expounding the biblical text, the
study of the Bible by Jews during the medieval period was influenced by
geographic and cultural factors. Jewish authors who lived in areas of Islamic
culture in the East, North Africa, and Spain from the eighth until the
fifteenth centuries developed a different approach to the Bible than those
who resided in Europe during the same period. The assimilation of the linguistic
and philosophical heritage of Hellenistic civilization by Arabic writers
made a profound impression upon the Jews who lived among them. Appropriation
of these disciplines extended to the fact that commentaries on Jewish sacred
scripture were composed in Arabic by acknowledged rabbinic authorities.
Ideas and concepts from these arabic commentaries would find their way
into the Hebrew lexicon due to the efforts of the twelfth-century immigrants
from Spain to Provence.
In European centers of Jewish learning, where the literature of biblical
exegesis emerged only in the eleventh century, rabbinic Hebrew was utilized
exclusively. Although philosophical speculation and interest in grammar
and lexicography were by no means absent, the European Rabbis did not develop
the technical vocabulary that their colleagues appropriated from Islamic
culture. They did not write dictionaries or grammars of the Bible. They
composed commentaries and collections of Midrash.
After the fifteenth century, Jewish biblical exegesis developed a greater
sense of homogeneity. After their expulsion in 1492, Spanish Jews, known
as Sephardim, had thoroughly assimilated the writings of the northern European
Rabbis, called Ashkenazim. Jewish authors from the European centers moved
eastward into Poland and the Ukraine. The language of biblical exegesis
until this later medieval period was exclusively Hebrew. Much of the creative
spirit in biblical studies moved from the genre of commentary (Perush)
to homiletics (Derush). Important developments in the field of Jewish
mystical literature, Kabbalah, have significant bearing on the language
and thought of biblical exegesis.
The first major exegete of rabbinic Judaism in the medieval period was
Saadia ben Joseph al-Fayyumi (882-942).
His intellectual activity was stimulated by a major challenge to the fundamental
principle of rabbinic Judaism, that the oral Torah was divinely revealed
to Moses at Mount Sinai and the Rabbis were its legitimate inheritors.
After the rise of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries, the studies
of oral and written Torah continued in the rabbinic academies of the newly
conquered lands. The heads of the Talmudic academies in Baghdad continued
the activity of their predecessors, spreading the interpretation of rabbinic
Judaism. Their efforts to consolidate the teachings of previous generations
of Rabbis extended to written Torah. They canonized the Targum of Onqelos
(Aramaic translation) and began to compose codes of law.
By the eighth century, however, some Jewish authors challenged the divine
origin of the oral Torah, one of the primary assumptions of rabbinic Judaism.
These theologians, who were later called Karaites, a name derived from
Hebrew Miqra, or Scripture, insisted that divine revelation was
to be found only in the Tanakh. The oral Torah was exclusively the creation
of the Rabbis, lacking divine sanction. Therefore, Karaite exegetes claimed
that all Jewish ritual practice must be derived exclusively from the text
of Scripture based on rules of grammar and syntax. Karaite biblical hermeneutics
led to religious practices that diverged from those of the Rabbis with
respect to laws of Sabbath, marriage, and diet. Commentaries by Karaite
authors were written in Arabic on the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the
Hagiographa. These exegetical works focused on grammar and syntax, often
challenging rabbinic interpretations that were founded on loose association
with the biblical text itself.
Saadia ben Joseph's writings on the Bible represent a defense of the divinely
revealed character of the Oral Torah as the only legitimate interpretation
of written Torah. He promoted this justification of the rabbis by creating
new genres in scriptural exegesis. At the lexical level, he wrote the first
dictionary of the Hebrew Bible (HB), Sefer HaEgron. More important,
he prepared a translation of the Hebrew Scripture into Arabic (Tafsir).
Saadia demonstrated the importance of translation for biblical studies.
His goal was to translate Scripture into the vernacular and make it comprehensible
to Jews and non-Jews. This results in a translation that permits the reader
to enter the textual world of the biblical context. He is determined always
to transmit the  sense
of a passage, no matter how difficult it might be in the original. This
requires him to translate according to context within the sentence. Often
the use of the conjunction and is expanded into complex sentences
with adverbial conjunctions or other subordinate clauses. These smooth
and readable translations were based on Saadia's conclusion that one should
translate according to the plain meaning except under specific circumstances,
such as (a) when experience or sense data contradict the plain meaning;
(b) when reason contradicts the plain meaning; (c) when two verses contradict
each other; (d) when the written text contradicts the rabbinic tradition;
(e) when Scripture uses anthropomorphism.
To accompany his translations, he wrote commentaries (Sharkh), sometimes
in two versions, on the Pentateuch, Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. An introduction
preceded each of these commentaries, focusing on the fundamental idea of
the book and how this idea was coherent with its rhetorical form. In his
insistence on the congruity of rhetorical form and theological content,
we can see that the principles of translating the biblical text became
the foundations for Saadia's introduction to his commentaries. The contents
of Scripture are constituted through narratives about the past through
which Jews are led to the service of God. In addition, Scripture provides
promises that are validated only when they are fulfilled.
For Saadia, the Pentateuch focuses on the importance of educating humanity
about its obligations to God. These obligations, or commandments, are formulated
in three types of locutions. At times they are framed as a simple command
that does not reveal its purpose. Commandments expressed in this manner
provide an opportunity for obedience to the One who gave them. A second
type of commandment is revealed together with its reward and punishment.
In this formulation of commandment, Saadia discerns a higher level than
the first, because we have a choice to obey or disobey. The most important
formulation of divine commandment in the Pentateuch appears in the form
of a narrative that reveals what happened to those who obeyed and experienced
success, or those who disobeyed and were punished.
Improvement of the moral and spiritual character of the Jewish people constitutes
the central theme of Saadia's investigations of the books in the Hagiographa.
In his introduction to Proverbs, Saadia calls it
the book of knowledge or wisdom. The central theme of the book is discerned
in recognizing twelve topics and their opposites, which helps the reader
to acquire wisdom or knowledge. The division of a biblical book into topics
also provides the framework in his introduction to the book of Psalms.
Saadia claimed that there were five basic forms of speech: direct address,
interrogation, narrative, commandment or admonition, and prayer or petition.
These five elementary forms yield eighteen rhetorical modes that constitute
"the totality of edification." Saadia concludes that what is common to
all forms of speech in Psalms is that they focus on commandment and prohibition,
what humanity is obliged to do and what is prohibited. The book of Job
provides an occasion for Saadia to explore the theme of theodicy. Human
suffering ultimately serves a pedagogic purpose. In the speeches of Job's
comforters, Saadia discerns two ways of understanding suffering. People
suffer so that they might change their evil ways or as punishment for their
sins. Saadia rejects these formulations, and argues that suffering comes
as a test for the individual, who will be rewarded in the end. Each of
Saadia's commentaries, in its introduction and exegesis of individual chapters,
presents a coherent monograph on a specific theme.
Complementing his translation and exegetical works, Saadia wrote The
Book of Beliefs and Opinions, a philosophical treatise presenting his
theology of the coherence of scriptural revelation and rabbinic tradition
of Judaism. Although the form of the book is entirely philosophical, the
major themes within this treatise focus on Scripture: creation, commandment,
reward, and punishment. Saadia asserted that scriptural revelation is entirely
congruent with human reason when the latter is properly used. He argued
that the report of reliable witnesses or tradition is a source of knowledge
equivalent to what can be learned by the senses or through logical deduction.
The consistency of Saadia's views throughout the variety of genres makes
him one of the most significant exegetes of the Bible in Judaism. His commentaries
were well-known in Arabic-speaking Jewish communities. To those Jews who
read only Hebrew, his commentaries were transmitted by quotations in the
writings of Jewish exegetes in Spain.
Biblical studies continued in Spain. During the tenth and eleventh centuries,
the authors wrote in Arabic. They drew upon the rich traditions of Arabic
language, with its well-developed disciplines of philology, 
lexicography, and poetics. In addition, they were heir to the philosophical
polemics and religious apologetics that had been developed in the eastern
Mediterranean. Karaite exegesis presented a continuing challenge for these
authors to justify rabbinic interpretation of Scripture.
In the tenth and eleventh centuries, a specialization in grammar and lexicography
dominated the exegetical efforts of Jewish authors in Spain. They produced
dictionaries and grammars of biblical texts. For example, Menahem ibn Saruq
(c. 960) wrote a dictionary, while Jonah ibn Janah (c. 950-1040) composed
a systematic work on the Hebrew language, focusing on problems of metathesis
(exchange of letters within a single word), syntax, and poetics. Biblical
commentaries written during this period focus almost exclusively on linguistic
Abraham ibn Ezra (1092-1167) wrote commentaries on almost all books of
the Bible, often producing two recensions of a commentary to the same book.
By his extensive quotation, Ibn Ezra transmitted much of the Arabic writings
of his predecessors to audiences who read only Hebrew. Ibn Ezra subtly
shifts from specialization in linguistic problems to the synthetic effort
to apply the insights derived from philological study to the classical
literature of the rabbis.
In his introduction to the commentary on the Pentateuch, Ibn Ezra describes
his program for Scripture exegesis in comparison to other contemporary
Jewish, Karaite, and Christian methods. He builds his method on the foundation
of human reason. Reason, for ibn Ezra, is the "angel" that mediates between
God and humanity. Therefore, understanding any obscurity in Scripture commences
with an investigation of its language, which is designed to accommodate
human beings. This leads him to focus on the written text of Scripture
as it had been transmitted by tradition, and limit the use of rabbinic
exegesis that relied on changes in the orthography of the Hebrew text.
When the biblical text contradicts human experience, Ibn Ezra attempts
to harmonize them. At times he relies on a solution that suggests that
the chronological distance between scriptural language and the contemporary
reader accounts for the difficulty. On other occasions he relies on metaphor
to explain away these contradictions. For example, he maintained that God's
request for Hosea to marry a harlot was in conflict with the pattern of
divine behavior in the Bible, and that these passages could
be explained as occurring
only in a vision. His insistence on the rational and historical basis for
explaining what happened to biblical characters led him to deny the validity
of narrations created by the Rabbis to explain the events in Scripture.
For example, he cast doubt on Jeremiah's authorship of Lamentations, denying
that it was the book burned by Jehoiakin.
Ibn Ezra did not argue for the exegete's complete reliance on historical
and rational explication. Rabbinic tradition provided the only reliable
guide to explain Jewish law. The lack of complete explanations for all
the commandments in the Pentateuch was a clear indication that the oral
Torah was required. In his introduction to the Pentateuch commentary, Ibn
Ezra demonstrates that the lack of details for calculating the monthly
and yearly calendar implies the necessity for further rabbinic elaboration.
The use of grammar alone to explicate these scriptural passages would lead
to erroneous interpretation were it not for the comprehensive rules for
the calendar, which were provided by the Rabbis. The conclusions of the
Rabbis could be set aside only if one could demonstrate that a legal decision
was based on an opinion of one sage. In all other cases, Ibn Ezra's exegetical
system insisted on the rigorous use of grammar within the framework of
classical rabbinic literature.
We now turn from Ibn Ezra's mid-twelfth-century synthesis of the exegetical
achievements of Jewry under Islamic culture to the developments within
the northern European or Ashkenazi communities. Jewish scholars began to
settle the areas in the Rhineland and present-day Alsace-Lorraine, and
Champagne as early as the ninth century, emigrating from northern Italy.
By the eleventh century, the first literary works of the Ashkenazi Rabbis
emerge, focusing on the explication of the Talmud and the composition of
The Jews who inhabited these regions also seem to have been in contact
with learned Christians who inquired about the meaning of passages in Hebrew
Scriptures. In the late eleventh century, Gilbert Crispin, Abbot of Westminster,
composed a "dialogue" with a learned Jew from Mainz about the interpretation
of Scripture. The goal of the dialogue was to convince the Jewish interlocutor
about the truth of Christianity. By contrast, Stephen Harding, Abbot of
Citeaux, described a meeting at the abbey where Jews were invited to respond
to his inquiries  about
the Hebrew basis for textual problems in the Vulgate. The contrast between
his description of an intellectual encounter and the missionary spirit
of Crispin's Dialogus provides the background to Jewish exegetical developments
In the exegetical writings of Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes (1040-1105),
known as Rashi, the HB receives its classical Jewish garment. Having studied
at the Rhineland academies, Rashi transmitted the accumulated learning
of the Ashkenazi Rabbis to the soil of France. He was profoundly interested
in explicating the complex dialectics of the Talmud into an orderly argument
that students could follow. As one who composed liturgical poetry, Rashi
was aware of the multiple meanings of biblical words when they were used
in different semantic contexts.
In Rashi's exegetical framework, Scripture and the Rabbis constitute a
single world. Therefore, one may derive the meaning of one from the other.
His commentaries fuse rabbinic literature and the HB into a seamless text.
At the same time, they insist upon discovering the Peshuto shel Miqra,
bringing out the plain meaning of the biblical text in a narrative order
that reduces the number of rabbinic midrashim relevant to a specific passage
Both the integrity of rabbinic interpretation and its defense in the presence
of Christian argument shape Rashi's exegesis. His prefatory remarks to
Gen 1:1 provide an excellent example of these concerns. Citing a passage
from Midrash Tanhuma, he raises the question of why the Pentateuch
begins with the creation narrative rather than the mandate of the Passover
(Exod 12:1) which was the "first commandment God gave to Israel." Rashi's
response was grounded on a passage in Ps 111:6, which asserts that God
declared his mighty acts to Israel, providing them with an inheritance
among the nations. Thus if the nations of the world accused Israel of robbing
the seven Canaanite nations of their territory, Israel could respond that
all the earth belongs to God, who created it and gave it to whoever was
upright from the divine perspective. By God's will it passed to the Canaanites,
and by God's will it was given to Israel. The apologetic nature of this
passage is patent. Rashi focuses on interpreting the creation narrative
as an argument that the Pentateuch is not simply a book of divine mandates
that regulate Israel's conduct, but the revelation of a covenant between
God and the Jewish people.
The interpretation of the Song of Songs provided another opportunity for
Rashi to present a hermeneutical framework grounded on the language of
Scripture itself, but indicated that the rabbinic allegorical interpretation
of the Canticle of God's love for Israel was correct. He asserted that
Solomon had composed the Canticle through the power of the Holy Spirit
to show that Israel would endure one exile after another, and would mourn
for its former glory when it was God's chosen among all the nations. Israel
would then recount God's merciful acts and her own misdeeds. Solomon composed
this narrative on the example of a young widow who longs for her husband,
recounting his youthful love for her. Her husband mourns for her, recalling
her beauty and the powerful bonds of love between them, and says that her
exile is not permanent and that he will return to her in the future. The
commentary itself explicates both the narrative of the lovers and the stages
in the relationship between God and Israel from the creation of the world
until the end of Israel's exile in the messianic era.
Rashi's commentary on Psalms reveals his exegetical method of relocating
passages, which the Rabbis interpreted in an eschatological manner, within
the framework of the Bible itself. Psalm 2 had been interpreted as a description
of the messianic battle at the end of history by the rabbis. Rashi repeats
their explanation, but also provides a Teshuba le Minim, a refutation
of the heretics. He asserts that the opening verses of the Psalm refer
to 2 Sam 5:17, in which the Philistines gather to overthrow David, who
had been crowned in Jerusalem. Rashi ascribes Ps 2:10-12 to the "Prophets
of Israel" who rebuke the nations of the world to turn aside from their
evil ways and obey God. This exegetical technique responds to Christian
interpretation by a positive Jewish assertion that the passages in question
contain a positive promise of the future redemption of Israel.
Rashi's younger colleague, Rabbi Joseph Kara, and scholars in the generation
of Rashi's grandson, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, continue to develop his exegetical
techniques. Their search for the Peshuto shel Miqra, or plain meaning,
often leads them to more intense focus on the biblical text, which, in
turn, diminishes their effort to harmonize rabbinic interpretation with
Scripture. Some of the rabbis, such as Rabbi Joseph of Orleans, engage
in refutations of Christian typological interpretation.
The commentaries written by Christian scholars, such as Hugh, Richard,
and Andrew at the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris, during the twelfth century
reflect contact with the exegesis of Rashi and his disciples. Particularly
in the exegesis written by Andrew of St. Victor one can discover "traditions
of the Hebrews" in Latin translation that have direct parallels in the
commentaries of Rashi, Rabbi Joseph Kara, and Rabbi Samuel ben Meir. It
is remarkable that Andrew at times accepts these Jewish interpretations,
preferring them to those of the Church Fathers or the writings of his own
teachers. Andrew's pupil, Herbert of Bosham, who was part of the scholarly
community of Thomas a Beckett, indicates a greater capacity for utilizing
rabbinic literature in his own commentary on the psalter. Christian utilization
of Rashi and his pupils continues into the writings of other scholars,
such as the fourteenth-century Franciscan, Nicholas of Lyra.
Ashkenazi Rabbis of the thirteenth century turned their efforts toward
a more dialectical study of the Bible. Rashi became their point of departure
from the biblical text. They then use various passages from both Scripture
and rabbinic literature to resolve the contradictions they discern behind
Rashi's question. For example, they might dispute Rashi's argument in the
introduction to his Torah commentary, mentioned above, that Exod 12:1 was
the first commandment God gave to Israel. These Rabbis were known as Tosafot,
"those who added." They did not compile independent commentaries on biblical
books, but their interpretations were transmitted as parts of anthologies.
In addition to compiling anthologies of Tosafot commentaries, these
same scholars composed new anthologies of classical midrashim on the books
of Scripture, such as the Yalqut Shim'oni.
The creativity in biblical studies among the Rabbis in northern Europe
during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries had its parallel in Iberia
and the Mediterranean world. However, the rise of the Reconquista from
the north and the invasion of the intolerant Almohades from the south changed
the intellectual atmosphere. Emigration meant that new centers of study
would flourish in Egypt, Provence, and in the new Christian monarchies
Moses Maimonides (1135-1205), known in most circles as a philosopher, did
not write in the genre of biblical commentary. However, one could argue
that the entire scope of his writings focuses on Scripture, providing various
approaches for its proper
interpretation. Moreover, subsequent generations of Jewish students of
Scripture drew upon his writings as the basis for their own work.
The introduction to the Commentary on the Mishnah, written in Arabic,
weaves both biblical text and rabbinic midrash into a coherent narrative
of how the divine Word was transmitted from Moses through Aaron and the
elders to the children of Israel. In his Book of the Commandments,
Maimonides provides one of the first attempts to delineate precisely which
of the scriptural admonitions constitute the rabbinically prescribed number
of 613 positive and negative commandments. In the Mishneh Torah,
the first effort to codify the written and oral Torah, Maimonides presents
an accounting of how each category of Jewish law had developed from pre-scriptural
times through the age of the rabbis.
Building a bridge between the God of Moses and Aristotle would seem to
be the purpose of Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed. However, the
reconciliation between philosophical perspectives and Jewish revealed tradition
shaped the Guide into a treatise on the hermeneutics of Scripture.
Maimonides stated, "The first purpose of this Treatise is to explain the
meaning of certain terms occurring in the books of Prophecy. [The] second
purpose [is] the explanation of very obscure parables occurring in the
books of the prophets but not explicitly identified as such."
Consistent with these purposes, the first part of the Guide provides
a lexicon of biblical terms that are used with respect to God, and suggests
how they might be understood. Part two offers an exposition of the nature
of biblical prophecy with particular emphasis on the unique character of
Moses. Maimonides concluded the Guide with a discussion on divine
providence (which is presented as a commentary on the book of Job) and
an examination of the character of divine legislation or commandments.
In Maimonides' hermeneutical system, all of the divine commandments had
an inner meaning. With his emphasis on the significance of the "inner meaning"
of Scripture, allegorical interpretation moves to the core of proper biblical
exegesis and is not simply an apologetic embellishment. This approach to
Scripture emphasizes the necessary connection between learning, moral perfection,
and knowledge of God.
Provence and northern Spain inherited the linguistic and philosophical
traditions of the previous 
generations as well as
the challenge of Maimonides' synthesis of Aristotle with Judaism. Philosophical
interpretation had to be defended against those Rabbis who argued that
the divine Word as transmitted in written and oral Torah was sufficient.
These rabbis asserted that too much allegorization would have led Maimonides
to deny concepts such as creation ex nihilo or the resurrection
of the dead. Turning the Torah into parables would undermine observance
of the commandments; perhaps even worse, it would validate Christian claims
to the true interpretation of Jewish Scripture.
The Kimchi family, Joseph (c. 1105 - c. 1170) and his two sons, Moses (d.
c. 1190) and David (c. 1160 - c. 1235), moved to Narbonne from Spain and
wrote commentaries on Scripture, responding to the rabbis who attacked
philosophical and allegorical methods. Rabbi Joseph Kimchi composed The
Book of the Covenant to defend Jewish interpretation of Scripture against
Christian typological exegesis. The use of rationalism in this treatise
demonstrates how philosophical methods could be used to support traditional
rabbinic understanding of legal and prophetic passages. Rabbi David Kimchi,
known as RaDaK, asserted that rationalist approaches to understanding the
miracles in Scripture or prophecy were simply an extension of the original
efforts of the classical Rabbis. Wherever possible, RaDaK argued that rigorous
examination of biblical language yielded the most satisfactory explanations
of figurative language. In addition, rational inquiry provided the best
answers to Christian typological interpretations. For RaDaK, philosophy
was one more weapon in Israel's arsenal for reclaiming the truth of its
interpretation of Scripture despite its condition of exile. In his commentary
on Jer 9:23, RaDaK asserts that Israel's covenant with God was the covenant
Let him that glories
glory in this, that he understands and knows Me. Understanding God
is understanding that He is one, eternal and noncorporeal, that He creates
all and supervises all; that He manages the upper and lower worlds in wisdom.
The knowledge of God is walking in His ways, performing mercy, justice
and righteousness, as he performs with them.
The most extensive exegetical writings of the Kimchi family come from David.
He wrote a systematic treatise on the textual criticism of the Bible,
Et Sofer (The
Scribe's Pen), which describes manuscript variants and the problems
of the Massorah. In addition he wrote a grammar book, Sefer Mikhlol
(The Compendium), containing both a dictionary and a description
of Hebrew grammatical rules. He wrote commentaries on Genesis, all the
Prophets, Psalms, Proverbs, and Chronicles. In addition, he wrote allegorical
commentaries on the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, and the first chapter
of Ezekiel. These commentaries reflect the approach developed by his father,
and also by Abraham ibn Ezra, where rigorous philological analysis is combined
with a rationalist approach. He maintains a strict division between the
pursuit of plain meaning and homiletical meaning. However, he uses the
Talmudic Aggadah to develop moral and ethical lessons.
Like his father, David Kimchi actively pursued polemics against Christian
allegorical interpretations of the HB. Many of these polemical interpretations
appear in his commentary on the book of Psalms. Many of David Kimchi's
works were translated into Latin and were influential for Christian Hebraists
in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Maimonides' emphasis on "inner meaning" of Scripture stimulated the growth
of an alternative nonphilosophical method of biblical hermeneutics in both
Provence and Spain during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This method
of interpretation, known as Kabbalah ("received tradition"), was
associated with esoteric traditions of the classical Rabbis. The Kabbalists
asserted that Scripture had an inner meaning that was to be discovered
through their theosophic teachings rather than by philosophical categories.
The teachers of these kabbalistic doctrines were well-known rabbinic authorities
who wrote commentaries on the Talmud, produced codifications of Jewish
law, and answered inquiries on how Jewish law should be practiced. In writing
their treatises they drew upon the language of classical rabbinic midrash
rather than philosophical language that was translated from Arabic into
Hebrew. Their primary concerns were with a profound understanding of how
God was manifest in the universe and how the observance of the commandments
bound the Jewish people to the cosmos.
The key to kabbalistic systems was grounded in the axiom that Scripture
was the language of God. Therefore, its words and letters were more than
conventional means of communication. They represented a concentration of
energy and express a  wealth
of meaning that could not be fully translated into human language.
Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (1194-1270), known as Nachmanides, wrote a commentary
on the Pentateuch that is one of the first literary witnesses to the kabbalistic
approach to Scripture. In his introduction, he argues that the "entire
Torah consists of the names of God, and that the words we read can be divided
in a very different way." Nachmanides suggested that the Torah was originally
revealed as a continuous string of letters. Moses was then presented with
the divisions of these words so that the text could be read as the commandments.
However, he was also given an oral tradition that transmitted the esoteric
reading of the text as a sequence of divine names. The reader of Scripture
who had studied the esoteric tradition could have access to both levels
of meaning. However, Nachmanides set his own task as an interpreter of
the Torah according to the traditional modes of rabbinic plain meaning
and Aggadah, drawing upon the commentaries of Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra,
and occasionally alluding to those passages that were pregnant with esoteric
By the end of the thirteenth century, Jewish biblical interpretation continued
its role as the vehicle for expanding upon philosophical or kabbalistic
themes. Levi ben Gershom (1288-1344) in Provence promoted his philosophical
and ethical teachings in his biblical commentaries. Rabbi Bachya ben Asher
of Saragossa wrote commentaries on the Pentateuch. Bachya ben Asher introduced
a four-level division for the interpretation of scriptural verses: peshat,
or "plain meaning"; derash, or "rabbinic aggadah"; derekh hassekhel,
or "philosophical"; and sod, or "kabbalistic." Under Bachya ben
Asher's influence, or perhaps from the surrounding Christian culture, the
fourfold interpretation of Scripture, also known by the acronym pardes,
"the garden", became a popular schema for the composition of biblical commentaries
after the fourteenth century.
The later medieval period, from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries,
witnessed another development in biblical commentary. Marc Saperstein has
demonstrated that the sermons delivered in synagogues were rewritten into
commentaries on Scripture (12).
These "commentaries" became the literary vehicles for expanding on philosophical,
kabbalistic, or moral themes. They provide a window into the theological
concerns, ritual practices, and moral problems of the communities throughout
the Jewish dispersion.
THE MODERN PERIOD
At the dawn of the modern era, the eighteenth century, Jewish society was
fragmented into three geographical and cultural areas: Western Europe,
Eastern Europe (the former kingdom of Poland, which had been divided between
Russia and Austria-Hungary), and the Ottoman Empire. This division has
significance for the study of the Bible, because it indicates the distance
that modern Western European thought had to travel before entering all
elements of Jewish society. As civil emancipation became a possibility
for Jews in France and Germany, they were enjoined to consider seriously
the possibilities offered. by non-Jewish culture and society. Their co-religionists
in Eastern Europe were not presented with the same political possibilities,
but the importance of Western European thought was recognized. In the Ottoman
Empire, Jewish religious thinkers would not contend with the challenges
of modernity until the twentieth century.
Only in Western Europe, particularly in Germany, was the Bible perceived
as a cultural bridge between Jews and non-Jews. Before the Western European
Enlightenment, external cultural influences were either absorbed or integrated
into Jewish biblical studies in an indirect manner. As we have seen, Jewish
exegetes in the Middle Ages sometimes responded to Christian study of the
HB with direct polemical attacks. In the modern period, Jewish students
of the Bible entertain the philological and historical discoveries generated
by Christian biblical scholars without hostility, and often as a stimulus
to their own work. The extent of this cultural integration evoked a serious
debate among the Jews because it demanded a sundering of the context for
biblical studies from the oral Law. From the perspective of traditional
rabbinic Judaism, this dichotomy between oral and written Law constituted
heresy. Beyond the theological issue, many traditional Rabbis recognized
that by using nontraditional Hebrew sources Jews would be led away from
the Jewish community and Jewish observance. This ambivalence toward separating
the HB from its connections with rabbinic literature characterizes Judaism
from  the
eighteenth century through the modern period. It leads to a division into
what we might call "biblical studies," which integrates the philological
and historical insights with the heritage of pre-modern Jewry, and "biblical
research," which focuses exclusively on the attempt to illuminate the HB
within the context of its own world. Biblical research has absorbed Jews
within the university community or within liberal seminaries. It has had
an influence on the world of biblical studies through its work in translations.
Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86) presents the first example of the tension that
modernity introduced for Jewish biblical studies. His desire was to produce
a translation of the HB into elegant German and combine it with a commentary
in Hebrew (Biur). The primary purpose of this translation was to
open the gateway to general culture for the Jewish community, and lead
them toward an aesthetic outlook. He set about the task by gathering a
group of like-minded scholars, assigning them commentaries. As the editor,
Mendelssohn provided a unifying tone for both biblical translation and
In his introduction to the Commentary on the Torah, Mendelssohn
asserted that his goal was to focus on the language and grammar of Scripture.
This emphasis had been lost to Jewish biblical commentary since the thirteenth-century
scholar Rabbi David Kimchi. Primarily this grammatical method allowed Mendelssohn
to demonstrate the essential correctness of Jewish traditional explanation
of Torah. Christian scholars, he claimed, did not "recognize the traditions
of our Sages and do not keep the Massorah." Therefore, they are not bound
by vowel points and accents. For them, the Jewish Scripture is just a "historical
work." The sages, however, established the Massorah to preclude the need
for conjecture. Jews cannot simply modify the text of the Torah "for a
grammarian's conjecture." Mendelssohn presents a defense of traditional
Jewish understanding of the Pentateuch by emphasizing its linguistic foundation.
The translation and commentary on Psalms permitted Mendelssohn greater
latitude with respect to the aesthetics of biblical language. Here, Mendelssohn
acknowledged his debt to Herder's Vom Geist der ebraeischer Poesie
(1782-83) and R. Lowth's De sacra poesi habraeroum (1753). He focused
on the parallelism of the psalms, hoping to accustom
the reader to the lyric poetry of the Jews without seeing the prophetic
and mystical sides.
Mendelssohn and his colleagues seem to have reached their audience. Subscription
lists indicate that Jews in Western European cities who were predisposed
to assimilation into the larger society were not alone in purchasing them.
Many Jews in smaller communities, particularly in Galicia, and the Eastern
European Pale of settlement also supported the translation and commentary.
This success met with condemnation from some of the leading Rabbis, such
as Akiba Eger and Yehezkiel Landau. They attacked Mendelssohn's translations
for making Hebrew subordinate to German and leading Jews into assimilation
The opening to Jewish students of the universities in Berlin, Jena, and
Halle in the nineteenth century brought a new generation to the study of
oriental languages. By the 1820s a Society for the Scientific Study of
Judaism (Wissenschaft des Judentums) commenced publication on a
critical examination of Jewish history and literature. The principal activity
of the advocates of scientific study of Judaism was in post-biblical Hebrew
literature or the oral Torah rather than the Bible. Those who advocated
religious reform within Judaism focused their efforts on changing the liturgy
or Jewish ritual laws. Scripture seemed to be beyond their interests.
However, by mid-century the idea of progress became very much a part of
the ideology of the reformers. A platform promulgated by Rabbis in Frankfurt
"recognized the possibility of unlimited progress in Mosaism." Inevitably,
the reformers and advocates of Wissenschaft des Judentums began
to react to the results of historical criticism by Christian scholars in
their own writings. Rabbi Abraham Geiger (1810-79), founder of the Reform
Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin, was the first scholar to incorporate the
modern systematic study of biblical books into the program of Wissenschaft
des Judentums and made it a part of his seminary curriculum. In his
work on the History of the Text of the Hebrew Bible (Urschrift and ubersetzungen
der Bibel in ihrer Abhengigkeit von der inneren Entwicklung des Judentums,
1857), Geiger articulated the integration of historical-critical studies
and Jewish theology. He argued that the history of the biblical text was
linked to the history of the Jewish people; and it was possible to reconstruct
the inner history of Israel's faith from the external history of the biblical
 text. What
exegesis and midrash achieved at a later period was accomplished through
manipulation of the biblical text. In this manner, Geiger constructed a
coherent thesis that assumed a different Hebrew Vorlage behind the translations
and versions, rather than ascribing them to copyists' errors. He associated
the textual variants with the divergent social, political, and intellectual
groups of Second Temple Judaism.
Geiger also wrote an Introduction to Biblical Writings (1871-73)
in which he argued that the prophetic books form the nucleus of the Bible;
that the Pentateuch was a later work composed from various sources and
united by a single redactor; and that the historical experience of the
exodus was limited to the tribes of Joseph. This introduction, derived
from his course at the rabbinical seminary in Berlin, was consistent with
Geiger's idea that the Prophets who proclaimed the centrality of ethical
monotheism and Israel's universal mission constituted the core of the HB.
Reactions to the reformers' ideas about Scripture came from rabbis in both
Eastern and Western Europe. Meir Loeb ben Jehiel Michael (1809-79), known
by the acronym Malbim, wrote a commentary on the books of the HB, whose
explicit purpose was to oppose the "rabbis, preachers and readers who butcher
Judaism in their commentaries." Malbim asserted that the oral Torah was
divinely revealed. Therefore, every word in the biblical text was necessary.
More important for Malbim was that the sages of the Jewish tradition had
utilized a linguistic approach since antiquity, which they called Peshat.
Therefore, all interpretations of the rabbis were grounded on a linguistic
foundation and were more authentic than the explanations offered by those
Jews who used modern historical methods.
Malbim's attitude toward historical criticism was not completely shared
by his Orthodox colleagues in Western European countries like Germany and
Italy. They focused their arguments on efforts to tamper with the unity
of the Pentateuch, while they were willing to utilize modern scholarly
methods on the other parts of the HB. Samuel David Luzzatto (1800-65) in
Padua translated the Pentateuch into Italian and wrote a Hebrew commentary,
affirming a belief in the divinely revealed character of the Torah. It
displays great reverence for Rashi and argues that one need not take Genesis
literally, but may understand its narratives as model lessons for moral
values. In his commentary on Isaiah, he was less
fideistic. He reviewed the arguments against the unity of Isaiah and rejected
them purely on their merit. Luzzatto, however, found merit in the argu
ments that denied the
Solomonic authorship of the book of Ecclesiastes.
In Frankfurt-am-Main, Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88) opposed any historical
dimension in the analysis of the Pentateuch. His translation and commentary
asserted that Torah, like nature, is a fact. No principle revealed in Torah
may be denied, even when it is beyond the power of human understanding.
The central principle of Torah is that it is beyond history, not contingent
upon the will of society or any individual. In Hirsch's commentary on the
Pentateuch and on Psalms, one may discern his use of allegory to advance
his theological interpretation of Torah or Law as the eternal truth of
Judaism. Hirsch's colleagues at the Hildesheimer Rabbinerseminar in Berlin
were in complete solidarity with his views on the Pentateuch. However,
they were more moderate in their view of the benefits that could be derived
from modern scholarly methods. Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer declared that
"Bible commentary demanded investigation from a new point of view and required
the use of valuable linguistic material." Rabbi David Zvi Hoff-man wrote
commentaries on Genesis, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, attacking the Graf-Wellhausen
hypothesis. He articulated the axiom of the divine revelation of Torah,
asserting that the written Torah can be understood only in conjunction
with the oral haw. Like Mendelssohn, he declared that the Masoretic Text
(MT) and its vowel points were an inviolable integrity. From Hoffman's
perspective, Scripture was the word of God in content as well as expression.
Therefore, one could recognize only those aspects of modern scholarship
that did not question its integrity or sanctity.
Another instructor at the Hildesheimer Rabbinerseminar, Rabbi Jakob Barth,
utilized academic research to separate the authorship of Isaiah 40-66 from
the rest of the book. In addition to his linguistic analysis, he also adduced
proof from the Talmud (Tractate B. Bat, l 5a) that some passages
in Isaiah had been written by Hezekiah. Orthodox Jewish scholars would
accept the results of historical explanations in biblical books outside
the Pentateuch, especially when they could be justified by sacred rabbinic
It is clear that intra-religious polemics and ideology had a definite impact
on the acceptance of non-Jewish biblical studies in the Jewish community.
Both Reform and Orthodox Jewish scholars 
were drawn into the debate
about the theories developed by Old Testament (OT) scholars in the universities.
In the early years of the twentieth century, Solomon Schechter, who had
taught at Cambridge University and become a leader of Conservative Judaism,
exposed a theological dimension of the Graf-Wellhausen documentary hypothesis.
The post-exilic dating of the Priestly document with the "legalism" of
its content was, in Schechter's words, grounded in the "Higher Antisemitism."
Thus what proposed itself as "objective scholarship" was grounded in anti-Jewish
apologetic. Schechter articulated the sentiments of even those Jews who
did not object to historical studies, but who were highly suspicious of
apologetics masked as scholarship.
Schechter's statement about biblical historical studies had broader implications
for the Jewish tradition. It affirmed the gap that separated Christian
scholars who read the HB from their Jewish counterparts. The statement
also adumbrated radical changes that have taken place in the twentieth
century Jewish community and shaped the way in which Jews interpret their
Scripture. Among these changes we might specify the massive migration to
America at the beginning of the century; the rise of Zionism as a movement
of Jewish self-renewal; the Holocaust; and the founding of the state of
From the perspective of these changes in the Jewish community, it would
seem appropriate to describe biblical interpretation in the twentieth century
as oscillating between explaining the Bible only in its historical context
and reassembling aspects of the rabbinic tradition. The academic environment
of the university and liberal rabbinical seminary have stimulated work
by Jewish scholars, who have contributed to the historical approach. Rabbis
in both Europe and North America have written commentaries on the Pentateuch
and other parts of the HB that are used in both synagogue worship and study
programs. These commentaries, while presenting some of the results of historical
research, emphasize the rabbinic tradition.
By 1894 the Jewish Publication Society of America (JPS) undertook a revision
of an earlier translation by Rabbi Isaac Leeser (1853). The committee was
chaired by Marcus Jastrow, a professor at Columbia University. The committee
was reconstituted in 1907 with Max L. Margolis of Dropsie College serving
as the principal translator. By 1917, the committee had approved the work
of Margolis. The JPS
translation (1917) served as the principal text in American Jewish synagogues
and institutions until 1955, when a committee for revision was constituted
under the leadership of Harry M. Orlinsky, who taught at Hebrew Union College
- Jewish Institute of Religion. Orlinsky's committee was composed of scholars
who taught in seminaries and universities - E. A. Speiser (Pennsylvania)
and H. L. Ginsberg (Jewish Theological Seminary of America) - and Rabbis
B. J. Bamberger (Reform), Max Arzt (Conservative), H. Freedman (Orthodox).
They completed their work on all three sections of the HB by 1979. The
JPS committee's efforts reflect a "descriptive translation" that draws
upon the rich background of ancient Near Eastern culture to produce a text
accessible to the modern reader. Wherever possible, the translators attempt
to reduce theological implications. Therefore, in Gen 1:2 the Hebrew ruah
'elohim is translated as "a wind from God sweeping over the water."
The reader becomes aware of passages that are difficult to translate by
a notation indicating "translation uncertain."
Another significant effort in Jewish biblical translation was the collaboration
by two Jewish scholars in Germany, Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) and Martin
Buber (1878-1964). Their collaborative translation was motivated by their
common project of a renewal of Jewish identity in Germany as well as by
their individual theological and philosophical investigations. By the time
of Rosenzweig's death in 1929, they had completed the Pentateuch; Buber
continued the work in Germany until 1938, when he left for Israel. The
translation was completed between 1950 and 1961.
The Buber-Rosenzweig translation has its foundation in Buber's philosophical
assumption of the dialogue as a primary human way of knowing. The Bible
is, in Hebrew, Miqra, "that which calls out or exclaims." It can
be understood only by the reader who is to become a partner in the dialogue;
one who expects the texts to be as relevant today as it was to previous
generations. Poor translation, rather than historical criticism, threatened
the relationship of the individual with Scripture. The scholarly task was
to restore the original structure of the text that points to its underlying
plan. Then the text could resume its perennial function of teaching.
Buber's approach was to discover the living unity of the text rather than
atomizing it into a series of unrelated literary strands. By focusing on
the particularities  of
biblical language and rhetoric, Buber and Rosenzweig sought to be faithful
to its unique voice. In contrast to Mendelssohn's effort to elevate Hebrew
to elegant German, they attempted to mold the German to the starkness of
In addition to his work of translation, Buber wrote a number of books on
the history of ideas in Hebrew Scripture. A number of other academicians
in Israel and the United States also contributed to this historical genre.
Yehezkiel Kaufmann (1889-1965), Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951), and Joseph
Klausner (1874-1965) wrote on the history of ancient Israelite religion.
While they utilized the same historical methods as non-Jewish scholars,
they advocated a reconstruction based on Jewish peoplehood and nationalism.
The history of biblical research in Israeli and American universities reflects
the dynamic relationship between the demands of a scholarly discipline
and changing perspectives on the continuity between the biblical and rabbinic
In shifting our perspective from the international academy to the synagogues
in North America, it would be fair to conclude that most Jews have not
been touched by the results of biblical studies. The cycle of weekly Torah
and prophetic readings have provided Rabbis with opportunities to share
their theological perspectives. The use of Scripture as a basis for moral
and ethical exhortation is common to the homiletics of Orthodox, Conservative,
and Reform Rabbis. To some extent the emphasis of Reform Judaism on the
prophetic literature yielded an emphasis on issues of social justice. However,
the renewal of ritual observance during the 1970s and 1980s among all philosophies
of American Jewry required biblical commentaries that also promoted a retrieval
of insights from the rabbinic and medieval periods. One can discern this
integration of biblical studies with the insights of Jewish religious ideas
in the commentaries of Nahum Sarna (b. 1923) (13).
Two commentaries on the Pentateuch that are currently used in North American
synagogues reveal this tendency to balance modern and pre-modern perspectives.
Rabbi J. H. Hertz (1872-1946), a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary
of America and later Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of
the British Commonwealth, completed a one-volume commentary on the Pentateuch
and Haftarah (prophetic
passages). Hertz presented his reader with a commentary that combined an
emphasis on "plain meaning" with the insights from the best of Jewish and
European culture. Dante and T. H. Huxley are quoted, together with Rashi
and Nachmanides. There is a strong emphasis on moral and ethical issues.
Hertz condemns social evils. He adopts the insights of Samson Raphael Hirsch
and David Zvi Hoffman to indicate that the sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus
are symbols of human gratitude and dependence upon God.
Hertz's commentary employs a strong apologetic attack on any attempt to
suggest that Scripture and modern science contradict each other. However,
any scholarly opinion that criticizes the unity of the Pentateuch or the
antiquity of its sources receives lengthy rebuttal. These counterarguments
are often presented in the supplementary notes appended to each book of
the Pentateuch. The reader of the Hertz Pentateuch is, therefore, inured
to any concept of historical development. The insights of Jews and non-Jews
are presented to polish the image of the perfect revelation God gave to
Moses at Mount Sinai.
A contrasting perspective on the nature of a commentary on the Pentateuch
for the synagogue was presented by W. Gunther Plaut (b. 1912) and Bernard
Bamberger (1904-80), both Rabbis of the Reform movement: The Torah:
A Modern Commentary (14).
Plaut was the principal architect of the commentary, while Bamberger wrote
the commentary on Leviticus.
Where Hertz was hostile to comparisons of the Pentateuch to its ancient
Near Eastern background, Plaut invites them. Each book of the Pentateuch
has an introduction written by William Hallo, summarizing the contributions
of historical studies to a modern understanding of the Pentateuch. Hertz
emphasizes the divine inspiration of the Pentateuch. Plaut's introduction
argues that "the Torah is ancient Israel's distinctive reference of its
search for God." It records the meeting of the human and the divine, the
great moments of encounter. Therefore, the text is touched by an ineffable
essence. For Plaut, "God is not the author of the text, the people are.
God's voice may be heard through theirs if we listen with the human mind."
Consistent with Reform Judaism's emphasis on personal autonomy in religious
 life, he
asserts, "The Commentary is neither an apology for nor an endorsement of
every passage. It will present the modern readers with tools for understanding
and leave the option to them (15)."
The Plaut-Bamberger commentary carries out its plan to both educate and
inspire the modern Jewish reader. Breaking with the traditional rabbinic
divisions of the Pentateuch into the weekly portions read on the Sabbath,
it is divided by literary units. Each unit contains a general introduction,
followed by the Hebrew text and the JPS translation, with either Plaut's
or Bamberger's philological notes. A discussion of theological and halakhic
issues follows the text, translation, and notes. Each unit concludes with
excerpts from Jewish and non-Jewish sources relating to the most significant
themes. There is an emphasis on moral and ethical issues, but the relationship
between the Pentateuch and Jewish law and practice are discussed without
In concluding our survey of biblical interpretation within the Jewish tradition,
it seems appropriate to retrieve the rabbinic image of Torah study as Pardes,
an orchard. Many Rabbis understood the letters of Pardes as an acronym
describing hermeneutical approaches to the text: Peshat, plain meaning,
Remez, allusion or allegory, Derash, homiletical, and Sod,
mystical. By the end of the Middle Ages, Jewish interpreters of the Bible
wrote their commentaries, offering systematic explanations of each verse
according to its appropriate level. Each approach, however, was understood
as a point of entry into the orchard of divine delights.
For the rabbis, medieval Jews, and even Jews of modernity to read Scripture
in the synagogue or in private study is to enter the richness of the Jewish
people's encounter with the divine. Michael Fishbane has indicated that
interpretation of the divine Word has been an integral part of Jewish life
even during the biblical period itself (16).
Given this perspective, one could argue that the fruits of modern biblical
scholarship permit modern Jews to appreciate parts of the orchard that
previously have been obscured. Each generation of Jews has added to the
beauty of the orchard. They have responded to the wisdom of an early rabbinic
teacher who claimed, "Turn it, and turn it again, for everything is contained
Halivni, D. Weiss.
Midrash, Mishnah and Gemara: The Jewish Predilection for Justified Law.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. A discussion of the relationship
between the written Torah and the literary expressions of oral Torah.
Neusner, J. The
Oral Torah: The Sacred Books in Judaism. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991.
Neusner examines the interrelationships between the documents that transmit
Strack, H. L., and
G. Stemberger. Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. Translated
by M. Bockmuehl. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992. This book provides an introduction
to rabbinic literature, its genres and their histories with extensive bibliography.
Bather, W. "Biblical
Exegesis," The Jewish Encyclopedia (1906) III:1962-1974. Bather's
article focuses on the linguistic emphasis of medieval Jewish exegetical
Banitt, M. Rashi:
Interpreter of the Biblical Letter. Tel Aviv: Chaim Rosenberg School
of Jewish Studies, Tel Aviv University, 1985. Rashi's exegesis is examined
within the context of medieval French culture.
Funkenstein, A. Perceptions
of Jewish History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Funkenstein presents medieval Jewish exegesis in relationship to both Islamic
and Christian civilizations.
Saperstein, M. Jewish
Preaching: 1200-1800. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989. The introduction
provides a history of the relationship between biblical exegesis and Jewish
preaching with comparisons to Christianity.
Talmage, F. "Keep Your
Sons from Scripture: The Bible in Medieval Jewish Scholarship and Spirituality."
In C. Thoma and M. Wyschograd, Understanding Scripture: Explorations
of Jewish and Christian Traditions of Interpretation. Mahwah, N.J.:
1987, 81-101; and "Apples of Gold: The Inner Meaning of Sacred Texts in
Medieval Judaism." In A. Green, ed. Jewish Spirituality: From the Bible
Through the Middle Ages. New York: Crossroad, 1986, 313-55. These two
essays by Talmage constitute an excellent introduction to the place of
Scripture in medieval Judaism.
Walfish, B. Esther
in Medieval Garb: Jewish Interpretation of the Book of Esther in the Middle
Ages. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. This volume
represents an innovative approach to the study of exegesis on a single
book of Scripture.
Altmann, A. Moses
Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study. Birmingham: University of Alabama
Press, 1973. In chapter 5, Altmann provides an analysis of the intellectual
and social milieu of Mendelssohn's translation.
Fishbane, M. Garments
of Torah. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. Essays on ancient,
medieval, and modern Jewish biblical hermeneutics emphasize elements of
continuity within the Jewish tradition.
Ochs, P., ed. The
Return to Scripture in Judaism and Christianity: Essays in Postcritical
Scriptural Interpretation. Mahwah, N.Y.: Paulist, 1993. The efforts
by Jewish scholars in modernity to reintegrate elements from the entire
spectrum of Jewish interpretations are described.
Orlinsky, H. M. Essays
in Biblical Culture and Bible Translation. New York: KTAV Publishing,
1974. A collection of articles that focus on modern Jewish approaches to
exegesis and its practitioners.