Commentary Magazine


Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts, edited by Barry W. Holtz

Apt Beginnings

Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts.
by Barry W. Holtz.
Summit Books. 448 pp. $19.95.

This cogently conceived, handsomely produced volume is a piece of good news about the state of Jewish culture in America. In this crucial regard, it is instructive to note the difference between this book and two previous landmark collections of essays by various contributors that also offer chronological surveys of the major phases of Jewish experience, The Jews (1949), edited by Louis Finkelstein, and Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People (1956), edited by Leo W. Schwarz. Both earlier volumes are the work of scholars who at the time of publication were already established authorities in the fields assigned to them. Both books are very much distillations of their sundry subjects for the edification of the literate general reader. The immediate model for such essays would be the authoritative encyclopedia article—or a retrospective show in a museum. Hellenistic Judaism or medieval Hebrew poetry may be exotic topics, irrevocably removed from the world we live in, but if you are curious enough to want a short guided tour of these strange locales, you need only go to Ralph Cohen’s essay on the Hellenistic period in Great Ages and Ideas or to Shalom Spiegel’s piece on the medieval poets in The Jews.

By contrast, the enlivening central virtue of Back to the Sources is that it provides a series of apt beginnings instead of neatly framed museum exhibits. In this respect, the volume is very much the document of a particular generation and a particular ideological orientation. Nearly all the contributors are scholars still in their thirties—typically, working on their first book or with a first book fairly recently published. Several of them were involved during the late 60’s in the Boston and New York havurah movement that tried to create possibilities for Jewish worship, study, and fellowship outside the established community. The volume avoids a sectarian approach to Judaism; neither Reform nor Orthodoxy is given a real voice, though there may be a certain gravitation toward the more traditionalist values of the Conservative movement (two contributors, including the editor, have academic positions at the movement’s center, the Jewish Theological Seminary). Finally, while all of the essays incorporate a good deal of intelligently assimilated historical information, most of the contributors in one way or another evince a literary interest in their materials, and three were actually trained as literary scholars—Joel Rosenberg, who writes here on biblical narrative, Barry Holtz, who has done the chapter on Midrash, and Alan Mintz, author of the chapter on the prayerbook.

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There is, I think, a sense of personal engagement and of the excitement of discovery in all the contributors that can be related to their youthfulness and to their common experience of having themselves reclaimed some major aspect of tradition through a sustained intellectual effort of will. They write not as museum curators but as people living with the materials they expound. From this location, they invite the public, as the book’s subtitle makes clear, to an active process of reading the variegated texts of Jewish tradition. These are assumed to be, as Barry Holtz stresses in his introduction, as challenging and relevant for literate moderns as Homer or Plato or Virgil:

It is our contention that the Jewish textual tradition is one of the great literary achievements of human culture, representing a system that is unique, important, and deeply compelling to anyone interested in literature itself.

The demonstration of this programmatic declaration is a series of essays on biblical narrative, poetry, and law; on Talmud and Midrash; on medieval exegesis and philosophy; on kabbalistic texts and hasidic homilies; and on the liturgy. In each instance, the writer provides the essential historical context and then concentrates on the distinctive literary modalities and methods of organization of his texts. Each essay concludes with a helpful section called “Where to Go from Here,” which offers a succinct survey and evaluation of primary texts available in English and of general and specialized studies of the material under discussion. The hope is that the energetic general reader will then have not a pat summary of the genius of the Talmud or the profundity of the Kabbalah but rather a set of tools with which he can approach a translated text and begin to make sense of it.

It would be a miracle if this procedure really worked in every case, and some of the texts—perhaps most egregiously, medieval philosophy—seem particularly resistant to the method. It is nevertheless impressive to see how well most of the contributors handle their difficult task, writing with clarity and felicity yet not condescending to the uninitiated, and effectively showing how their texts are put together and convey their meanings. I would especially recommend Robert Goldenberg’s essay on the Talmud, Laurence Fine’s contribution on kabbalistic texts, and that of Arthur Green on hasidic teachings. The one section, however, that seems to me to stand out above all the others is the fifty-page essay on biblical narrative by Joel Rosenberg that begins the volume with a grand flourish.

Rosenberg has assimilated all the recent studies of this subject but he also has many fresh things to say, and in any case his formulations have a lively aptness that continually brings out the complexities of the narrative corpus that is his subject. As a result, he avoids the suspicion of a review of the familiar that sometimes casts its shadow, at least for the informed reader, over other contributions to the volume. In a characteristic moment, he speaks of the “mischief” that the biblical texts work on the reader: “For while biblical narrative unfolds in a plain and ingenuous voice, its sticky surface soon becomes apparent.” He goes on to mention the importance of seeming discontinuities and omissions in the text, the concealment of motives, the proliferation of wordplay, and then offers this evocation of time in biblical narrative, which amounts to an essay compressed into a sentence:

The forward movement of fictional time yields, on closer reading, to a more subtle interplay of flashback, repetition, quotation, allusion, dream-vision and waking, prospective and retrospective glance, fade-out and fade-in—all of which make time seem to proceed in a mottled and disjunctive fashion.

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Why go back to the sources? Behind the title of the volume one feels the pressure of the Hebrew teshuvah, return. At least one contributor, Arthur Green, uses the word in its full theological implication, arguing, at the end of his essay on the hasidic masters, that the world’s survival depends on teshuvah. In a related neo-pietistic vein, Alan Mintz concludes that “The question in the end is not whether the Siddur [prayerbook] is relevant to our age, but whether we possess the will to join our ancestors in the enterprise of interpretation.” This would seem to echo the midrashic declaration that if the Torah seems empty, it is mikem, because of you, because you are empty. This is hardly a tenable rationale for a modern study of the texts, for without a firm prior belief in the inspired character of the texts, their plenitude and eternal relevance cannot simply be assumed. In fact, some of the texts for some readers will be empty, or opaque, or even occasionally antipathetic.

Fortunately, the volume offers a plurality of rationales for a return to the sources. The editor, as we have seen, proposes a humanistic justification, emphasizing the status of Jewish texts as a classical tradition. Robert Goldenberg nicely discriminates between the traditional student of the Talmud, who seeks in it the “truth about how God wants the holy community of Israel to live,” and the modern scholar, who “approaches the text for information.” And yet, Goldenberg goes on to say, the talmudic commitment to intellectual activity as a sanctifying process has a certain appeal to moderns: by reenacting in study the rabbinic “relish for complicated but careful argument,” moderns can experience for themselves a process of intellectual, cultural, and perhaps also religious behavior that is a distinctive mode of classical Judaism.

As has often been remarked, the Jews, at least from late Second Temple times, constitute an extraordinarily text-centered culture. Surely the essential way to maintain meaningful continuity with the Jewish past, whether one is a secularist, traditionalist, or somewhere uncertainly in between, is not merely to contemplate what has happened to the Jews but to engage actively in the study of the texts they created and conned, generation after generation. Back to the Sources will scarcely initiate a mass movement of return to the texts, but it will make some of this neglected literature freshly accessible to some readers, and that in itself is a real achievement.

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