Book Reviews

Fighting over the Bible

Jewish Interpretation, Sectarianism and Polemic from Temple to Talmud and Beyond.

Isaac Kalimi March 9, 2017

One would expect that a religious book like the Bible would have an irenic effect upon its devotees. Instead, for centuries religious communities have engaged in acrimony and bitter dispute over the meaning and application of biblical texts. The very literature that should have contributed to charitable and amicable dealings with those of opposing points of view was often at the center of controversy—sometimes leading to alienation, hatred, persecution, and violence.

In the splendid volume under review, Isaac Kalimi documents the history of such “fighting over the Bible.” Several points of clarification will help readers comprehend his assumptions. First, he writes from a Jewish point of view. The Bible, therefore, is understood to be the Hebrew Bible, exclusive of the New Testament and various deuterocanonical and pseudepigraphical books that are included in certain Christian canons of Scripture. Second, Kalimi has a dual focus. He discusses intermural controversies within Jewish communities over many centuries and extramural Jewish struggles with Christian and Muslim interpreters of the Hebrew Scriptures. Third, Kalimi’s chosen timeframe is roughly the period from the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE to the sixteenth century. For the most part, he does not attempt to carry the discussion into the modern period.

A brief summary of the ten chapters of this volume may help orient potential readers to the overall emphasis of this superb contribution to the role of the Bible during a millennium-and-a-half of Jewish thought. The book is organized in two main parts, each with five chapters. In the first half of the book, Kalimi discusses Jewish interpretive presuppositions and polemics with regard to the Hebrew Bible. In the second half of the book, he takes up case studies drawn from late Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism.

Chapter 1 addresses the distinction between written and oral Torah. Here an enigma emerges. While the written Torah is (at least theoretically) central in Judaism, it was often neglected in preference for the oral Torah. Kalimi analyzes how and why it happened that the study of Mishnah, Talmud, Halachah, and Aggadah co-opted the role of the Bible itself. He isolates two primary factors: the importance of Halachah for maintaining Jewish religious and cultural identity in the exile and Diaspora, and the need for flexibility in dealing with changing conditions in Jewish life. His analysis is insightful and illuminating.

Chapter 2 discusses the phenomenon of rabbinic departure from the simple (peshat) meaning of biblical texts, which sometimes led to contradictory interpretations maintained for halachic, theological, or ethical purposes. Kalimi illustrates the nature of such departures from the simple meaning of texts by treating various rabbinical reinterpretations of the biblical principle of lex talionis, or law of retribution.

Chapter 3 considers the view of God found in Midrash Psalms as an example of diverse understandings of God that sometimes complement one another and other times seem to be inconsistent with one another. Kalimi observes that the rabbis were often content simply to present differing opinions or explanations, without attempting to resolve the tensions between them.

Chapter 4 deals with interpretational controversies experienced within medieval Judaism and certain controversies Judaism experienced with Christian and Muslim communities. An example of the former is the considerable tension that developed between mainstream Judaism, with its emphasis on oral Torah, and Karaite Jewish groups, which stressed Hebrew Bible to the exclusion of oral Torah. In the case of Jewish polemical encounters with Christians and Muslims, severe persecution of Jews was often the result of unresolved disputes over biblical interpretation.

Chapter 5 draws out implications of the different understandings of Hebrew Bible that have characterized Jewish and Christian communities. Kalimi helpfully calls attention to significant differences that implicitly underlie such seemingly innocuous terminology as “Hebrew Bible” and “Old Testament.” He concludes that more often than not a shared literature that should have bridged these communities became in fact a barrier to meaningful dialogue and mutual understanding.

Chapter 6 is an extended discussion of the Aqedah, or binding of Isaac (Gen 22:1–19). Kalimi elaborates various Jewish understandings of this famous biblical story, including rabbinic interpretations to the effect that Isaac sustained a bloody injury or that he died and was resurrected. Rabbinic interpretations of the Aqedahwere influential but diverse.

Chapter 7 treats differing Jewish interpretations of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, Lev 16). Here Kalimi documents disputes between Sadducees, Pharisees, and the Qumran community on the proper observance of this holy day that is so central to Judaism. There were many disputes regarding details related to keeping the Day of Atonement.

Chapter 8 engages differences between Jews and Samaritans over the alleged hiding of the Temple vessels during and after the Second Temple period and the theological significance of this matter for a future restoration of the Temple and renewal of cultic activity.

Chapter 9 reflects on the animosity that characterized interactions Jews had with Arabs and/or Syrians during the pre-Islamic period, as indicated in rabbinic and Targumic sources. The Targums, for example, sometimes introduced into the translation of biblical texts references to Jewish struggles with Arabs and Syrians.

Chapter 10 focuses on the activities of two major figures of Jewish biblical exegesis during Islamic times: Rab Saadia Gaon (882–942 CE) and Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1092–1167 CE). These two scholars made major and lasting contributions to biblical, philological, and exegetical scholarship. They sought to demonstrate a complementary relationship between written and oral Torah.

Kalimi closes this volume with an expression of empathy for those who endured the sometimes-severe consequences of fighting over the Bible: “The spiritual and intellectual strength of the Jewish people overcame all hostility and persecutions. But for what a price! Is there any nation on earth that has paid such a high price to keep its unique cultural legacy as the Jewish people?” (260).

This is a rich and engaging volume, one of impressive erudition and sound scholarship. It demonstrates a deep understanding of the history that it seeks to unravel and document. I especially appreciate the attention given to primary sources in their original languages (usually accompanied by English translation) and the balanced and fair-minded handling of controversial issues. Students of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament (and New Testament as well) will find much to think about here. Fighting over the Bible is every bit as much a Christian dilemma as a Jewish one.

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