Dr. Mordechai Cohen, professor of Bible, associate dean of Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and divisional coordinator of academic Jewish studies at Yeshiva College, recently delivered a lecture about research he conducted as the head of a 14-member group of distinguished scholars from America, Europe and Israel at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem in 2010. Their year-long study aimed to bring to light aspects of interpretive approaches to sacred scriptures in the three major faith traditions.
In a Library Book talk given on Sunday, February 11, Cohen spoke about the volume produced by the research group, “Interpreting Scriptures in Judaism, Christianity and Islam” (edited by Cohen and Adele Berlin, a Biblical scholar at the University of Maryland). He showed how the Jewish tradition of Bible interpretation (parshanut ha-miqra) is best understood when we consider how our great commentators, such as Saadia Gaon, Rashi and Maimonides, met the cultural challenges posed by Muslim and Christian interpretation of scripture.
“This broadly interdisciplinary project was especially rewarding for me as a scholar of Jewish Bible interpretation,” noted Cohen, because it provided rich and profound perspectives on the Muslim and Christian cultural contexts in which our great commentators worked.” He added that the scholars of the three faith traditions that convened in Jerusalem all felt similarly that they gained a deeper perspective on their own scholarship by understanding parallel strategies of reading sacred scripture adopted within other faiths.”
The lecture can be viewed on Revel’s YouTube channel.
In 2010/11, Dr. Mordechai Cohen headed a fourteen-member research group of distinguished scholars from America, Europe, and Israel at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem. Their study aimed to bring to light aspects of interpretive approaches to sacred scriptures in the three faith traditions that remain hidden until set in relation to one another.
In his talk, Dr. Cohen spoke about the work product of the research group, a volume he edited with Adele Berlin entitled Interpreting Scriptures in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He showed how the Jewish tradition of Bible interpretation (parshanut ha-miqra) is best understood when we consider how our great commentators, such as Saadia Gaon, Rashi, and Maimonides, met the cultural challenges posed by Muslim and Christian interpretation of scripture.
In the Spanish – Andalusian tradition, Moshe Ibn Ezra (11th cent. Spain) drew upon Arabic poetics to write his Kitāb al-Muḥāḍara wa al-Mudhākara, in which he highlighted poetic techniques found within the Bible. Maimonides, in the same tradition, used terms and concepts from Muslim jurisprudence in privileging peshuto shel miqra in his halakhic codification.
Rashi may also have been aware of intellectual trends in his surrounding culture, which was Christian and not Islam. A contemporary of his, Bruno of Cologne, who came to be known as St Bruno the Carthusian, wrote a commentary to Psalms in which he critically selected Christological interpretations of the early Church fathers. St. Bruno selected those interpretations that best fit the language and sequence of the text. This is similar to Rashi’s endeavor in his commentary to the Bible, in which he critically selects midrashim that fit and elucidate the words of the text.
Does G-d need the Tabernacle[i] or the Temple to live in and is that where G-d can be found? Isn’t G-d everywhere? Why then all this focus on the construction of the Tabernacle in last week’s Torah reading of Parshat Terumah and the accouterments of the High Priest in this week’s portion of Parshat Tetzaveh? Is there another message buried in these detailed recitations?
The Bible notes G-d commanded a Sanctuary be built. However, the verse[ii] goes on to say that G-d would then dwell in the midst of the people, not in the Sanctuary. Interestingly, at the end of this week’s Torah reading, which describes the Golden Altar, the Bible[iii] reiterates that the Divine Presence resides in the midst of the Children of Israel.
However, it would appear, the First Temple and, its predecessor, the Tabernacle, did not accomplish this mission. The Prophets are replete with admonishments against idol worship, which apparently continued throughout the First Temple period[xi]. Indeed, as the Talmud[xii] reports, idol worship was among the primary causes of the destruction of the First Temple.
What then is a sustainable approach to solving the problem? How can we, bereft of the Holy Temple, bring the Divine Presence into our lives?
It is suggested, the Bible both anticipated the problem and provided the cure. It does so in a most dramatic fashion. Bilam, an arch nemesis of the Jewish people, gave voice to the remedy, in a blessing, which G-d caused him to utter in place of the curse he intended. He gazed upon the Jewish people encamped before him. According to the Talmud[xiii], he noticed how the entrances of each of the dwellings did not face one another. Rather, they were located so as to preserve family privacy and avoid immodesty. Respecting boundaries is an essential building block in the family structure, as well as, society. As Tosafot[xiv] notes, Bilam visualized how the Divine Presence rested on them. This inspired Bilam to express how wonderful are your tents Jacob, your tabernacles[xv] Israel, as recorded in the Bible[xvi].
The Talmud[xvii] states the tents of Jacob referred to by Bilam symbolize the synagogues and study halls, where Jews pray and study Torah. The tabernacles of Israel represent the sanctity of Jewish home life. These are the two prongs of the sustainable model, which has enabled the Jewish people to survive the millennia. It benefits from the protection afforded by Divine Providence, which is a particular feature of the Divine Presence residing in the midst of them[xviii].
The Talmud[xix] reports that the Divine Presence resides in a home if the husband and wife are worthy. Rashi on this Talmudic text explains that this occurs when both spouses follow the straight path and are faithful to each other. The focus on spousal and family harmony is a reoccurring theme in the Talmud. Thus, a husband is required to respect his wife more than himself[xx] and a wife is also required to respect her husband[xxi]. Verbal abuse of a spouse is not only wrong it is a sin, which causes the offender to be punished[xxii]. The Talmud[xxiii] declares that a household is blessed, including with riches, only because of the honor and respect a husband accords his wife. The home is viewed as a sanctuary and it is important to strive to have it well provisioned, because strife within the household is typically the result of a lack of sufficient sustenance for the family[xxiv]. A person is also encouraged always to eat and drink less than his financial means permit and correspondingly treat his spouse and children better than his means would otherwise allow[xxv]. Maintaining peace and harmony in the home is critical. Indeed, the Talmud[xxvi]notes purchasing Shabbos candles takes precedence over Chanukah lights, because of the importance of maintaining family peace in the home.
In this warm and convivial environment of trust, peace and harmony in the family home, the Divine Presence resides. It is a holy sanctuary and therefore the Talmud[xxvii] cautions a person not to enter the home suddenly and to make some noise, like knocking, before entering. Rav Yochanan compares this to the ringing bells sewn into the hem of the High Priest’s robe, which announce his entry into the Holy area in the Temple before G-d[xxviii].
The Talmud[xxix] records that the synagogue and study hall are also places where the Divine Presence resides. This may help explain why the experience of praying in a quorum at the synagogue is so embracing. There is a unique brand of energy that suffuses those present and the effect is invigorating. The experience of studying Torah in the study hall is similar, except that it is often even more engaging. The give and take of Torah study with others, in this space specifically dedicated for this purpose, is energizing. The animated discussions and active engagement in the exchange of ideas are thrilling. Torah study in this setting has the power to transcend our mundane existence and it’s sublime.
The home, synagogue and study hall form a circuit dedicated to experiencing the Divine Presence, regularly, each and every day. They are holy sanctuaries, which refresh and revitalize us. They are the antidote to loneliness and feelings of ennui. Whether it is building a family in the warmth and security of the home or the unique form of social and intellectual engagement of the synagogue and study hall, they engender the sense of fulfilling a higher purpose, as a part of greater whole that transcends the individual. The effect is to inspire the feeling of being a complete person. Is that what it means to feel the Divine Presence?
As I age, I better appreciate the wisdom of this approach to life. There is a unique power to the combination of sublime experiences in these spaces, which are so effective in preserving and enhancing our existence in the face of seemingly overwhelming challenges. Enjoy them; but don’t forget to knock before entering the home and the warm embrace of family and the Divine Presence.
[i] The Hebrew term used in the Biblical text is the “Mishkan”.
[ii] Exodus 25:8.
[iii] Exodus 29:45.
[iv] Midrash Tanchuma, Teruma 8.
[v] Exodus, Chapter 32.
[vi] See Rashi’s commentary on Exodus 32:34, which notes that the sin of the Golden Calf was so overwhelming that the punishment had to be meted out in small measures (tacked on to punishments for other sins), over the ages, in order to avoid the complete annihilation of the people. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 102a.
[vii] In his commentary on Exodus 31:18.
[viii] See, for example, Nachmanide’s commentary on Exodus 25:1.
[ix] In his Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Commandment 20 and Mishne Torah, Hilchot Beit HaBechira 1:1.
[x] In his Guide to the Perplexed 3:32.
[xi] See, for example, Judges, Chapter 18; Isaiah, Chapters 10 and 44; and Jeremiah, Chapter 10.
[xii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at page 9b.
[xiii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, at page 60a.
[xv] The Hebrew term used is “Mishkanot”, mirroring the term “Mishkan”, as noted above.
[xvi] Numbers 24:5.
[xvii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 105b.
[xviii] See Sforno and Ralbag commentaries on Exodus 29:45.
[xix] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah, at page 17a.
[xx] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, at page 59a. See also Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ishut 15:19.
[xxi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, at page 31a. See also Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ishut 15:20.
[xxii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, at page 59a.
[xxv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chulin, at page 84b. See also Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Deot 5:10.
[xxvi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbos, at page 23b.
[xxvii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, at page 112a.
[xxviii] See Exodus 28:33-35 and commentary of Nachmanides on Exodus 28:35.
[xxix] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, at page 29a.
Prof. Adam Ferziger of Bar-Ilan University has researched and written about the way that Orthodox views toward nonobservant Jews developed between 1770 and 1918. This issue became acute because of the serious defection from Orthodoxy during that time. Indeed, by World War I, only twenty percent of German Jewry was Sabbath observant. In this talk, Prof. Ferziger explored how the approach of R. Aharon Lichtenstein differed from approaches advanced by three important rabbinic figures in the twentieth century.
Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (Chazon Ish, Russia, Israel, 1878 – 1953) argued that nonobservant Jews in our time are considered “abducted youth,” who are not to be faulted for their nonobservance. At the same time, the Chazon Ish maintained an axiological hierarchy in which observant Jews are considered “a full wagon,” while nonobservant Jews are considered “an empty wagon.” As such, the Chazon Ish petitioned Ben Gurion for observant Jews to be exempted from military duty even while nonobservant Jews would be called upon to serve.
Abraham Isaac Kook (Russia, Israel, 1865- 1935) applied his focus on redemption and messianism to his discussion of nonobservant Jewry. He viewed outreach among nonobservant Jews as a fulfillment of the kabbalistic idea of raising the hidden sparks. He maintained that while all Jews should be characterized as segula (treasured), the additional characteristic of behira (chosen) depended on an individual’s observance.
Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Poland, US, 1903-1993) similarly explained that while a covenant of fate, brit goral, binds all Jews regardless of observance, an additional covenant of faith, brit Sinai, binds Torah observant Jews.
All three of these twentieth-century Rabbis made room for non-orthodox Jews in their world view but maintained an axiological hierarchy privileging Orthodox Jewry. R. Aharon Lichtenstein articulated a new approach, which Ferziger terms “fragmentary Judaism.” In this approach, one must consider all of elements that make up each Jew’s behavior and not simply the sum total of his observance or nonobservance. For instance, R. Lichtenstein has said that an Orthodox Jew can learn from non-Orthodox Jews how to improve his behavior in a certain realm – moral, devotional, or even theological. Each Jew should be viewed through many different lenses and one can embrace the elements that are correct and reject the elements that are lacking. Ferziger posited that R. Lichtenstein’s complex and nuanced way of viewing nonobservant Jews had roots in his earlier education. R. Lichtenstein studied Christian Humanist literature in university and learned to find moral lessons even in works that were theologically objectionable from a traditional Jewish perspective.
After the Inquisition became active in Portugal in the 1540’s, many conversos left to disparate locations in order to openly embrace Judaism. Dr. Perelis explained briefly the style of the synagogues that they erected in their new homes. In Amsterdam, the focal points of the synagogue were the central Teivah (Bimah, the raised platform from which the Torah is read and services led) and the Heichal (Aron, the ark where the Torah Scrolls are stored) at the front of the synagogue. The 1675 Amsterdam synagogue, or esnoga, was an impressive, almost ostentatious, building. This was in contrast to the synagogues in Europe which were kept modest (or hidden). The community embraced the image of the phoenix born from ashes to symbolize their community’s experience of being reborn out of the persecution and auto-da-fes of the inquisitions. The synagogue also included external sloping arches and columns meant to evoke the Temple of Solomon. Dr. Perelis also showed how some of these themes emerged in the synagogues of this diasporic network in London, Recife, Curacao, Surinam, Newport, and Philadelphia.
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