How Can a Torah Commentary Be Source-Critical and Jewish?
I had the honor of writing the commentary on Leviticus for The Jewish Study Bible, a task I enjoyed thoroughly and from which I learned immensely. Throughout the project I had the opportunity of reflecting quite often on the task of the commentator and how best to accomplish it. Because I was working on one of the books of the Torah, and because I am so thoroughly convinced by the results of the source-critical method of analysis, I found myself returning again and again to the question of how a Torah commentary can be source-critical and Jewish. I shall address my remarks here to this question.
Let me attempt to explain what a source-critical commentary on the Torah is. I shall begin by defining source criticism itself. In order to provide the broadest definition, one that does not immediately exclude all critical theories except my own, I shall define source criticism as the acknowledgment that the Torah is the result of the separate efforts of more than one writer whose contributions have ultimately been combined in the final product.
The separate literary contributions, be they large or small, early or late, complete or fragmentary, documentary or supplementary, numerous or comparatively few (four, according to the classical Documentary Hypothesis), are referred to by the overall term “sources,” so that when a commentator on the Torah, or any part of it, takes their existence into account for the purpose of interpretation, then we can call the commentary a “source-critical” commentary. The commentary that I have contributed to The Jewish Study Bible on Leviticus is an attempt to produce such a commentary.
How can such a commentary be Jewish in character?
Perhaps the simplest answer would be that it cannot, that is, that there is no room in the Jewish tradition of attempting to understand the Torah for the recognition of literary strata as a key to the meaning of the text.
Now this contention could perhaps be disproven by statements in Talmudic and Rabbinic literature that constitute evidence to the contrary, statements that refer, explicitly or by implication and intimation, to passages in the Torah that were inserted at a stage subsequent to the initial writing. But since these statements, and the passages to which they pertain, are such a small drop in the bucket, such a far cry from what source-critical scholarship has in mind when it talks about literary strata, they are rather negligible. In any case, if I were to respond in this manner, it would mean admitting that my Leviticus commentary is not a Jewish one, and I do not believe that this is the case.
Another possibility would be to say: I wrote this commentary; I am Jewish; anything produced by Jews is Jewish, so my commentary is a Jewish commentary. A similar response would be: the editors and publishers asked me to write this; they decided to put it in The Jewish Study Bible and to sell it to Jews for their use. By definition, therefore, it is a Jewish commentary.
I believe that this sort of response evades the question. The question, after all, was not “How can a source-critical commentator be Jewish?”; that too is an important question, but it is one for a different occasion. Our question is not about the authors or the readers but about the commentary itself, specifically, its method and content. So I will not let myself off the hook by taking the easy way out.
One way for a commentary to be both source-critical and Jewish might be for the commentator to acknowledge all of the duplications, contradictions, inconsistencies and interruptions that the source critics have identified, to point out clearly the difficulties that they pose, and then to proceed to demonstrate that the traditional, harmonistic, often midrashic ways of solving and reconciling them, however forced they may be, are necessary, desirable and correct. In this way, all of the issues faced by critical scholarship would be part and parcel of the commentary, while the interpretations offered by the commentator would be demonstrably Jewish in character and usually in content.
I cannot really find anything wrong with this approach – provided, of course, that the commentator who adopts it is genuinely convinced that the issues raised by the critics can be addressed adequately and honestly without the need to admit any of their findings or to accept any actual critical theories, since the Jewish tradition provides more satisfactory ways to deal with the issues than the critics do. But since I am not at all convinced of this, it would have been thoroughly disingenuous for me to proceed in this manner.
Another possibility might have been for me to acknowledge that the Torah is a composite literary work, and even to accept one or another of the source-critical theories, but to state from the outset that for the purpose of this commentary, I am only interested in the final product, and so my commentary will focus only on the Torah as it is.
I suppose this could be viewed as a Jewish approach, at least in the sense that traditional Jewish commentators did in fact look at the Torah exclusively as a whole, in its final form. On the other hand, so did traditional Christian commentators, so there may be nothing distinctively Jewish here. More important, such a method is not really source-critical at all. It merely pays some lip-service to the source critics, even admitting that they may be right, but in fact nothing that they actually say is even an object of interest, much less a decisive factor in interpreting the text.
A further problem with this approach is that the suggestions at which it arrives in the attempt to interpret the final form are often quite modern, sometimes even post-modern. Thus while the point of departure, namely the unity of the Torah, and the aim, namely to read the Torah holistically, are identical to those of traditional Jewish exegesis, the methods and results may bear little or no resemblance to anything found there.
However, the main reason that I did not adopt this method is that the specific source-critical theory that I embrace, the four-source, one redactor, maximal preservation, minimal editorial invention theory, does not see very much “Validity in Interpretation” (to use the title of an important book by the literary critic, E.D. Hirsch) in exclusively final-form readings of the Pentateuch.
To me, it does not seem that the redaction, or composition, of the Torah was performed with any literary freedom, but was rather the inevitable result of the combining of the sources. Since I do not think that the writers responsible for the final form can be credited with much in the way of literary creativity, I am not at all comfortable with the attempt to find literary intent or design in what they produced. I do not simply prefer to confine myself to interpreting only the sources; I believe that this is the only legitimate way to proceed since, in my view, only the sources were actually created by literary art.
One variation on the above might have been to follow the path of the late Mordechai Breuer. Breuer was a source-critic par excellence, insisting that the only intellectually honest solution to the incongruities in the Torah was the one provided by the four-source documentary theory. One of the things that made his work Jewish was that he wrote in Hebrew and used very traditional terminology. Another was his adamant claim that the sources themselves were both written and combined by God, and subsequently dictated, verbatim, to Moses, thus affirming what he believed to be the authoritative Jewish definition of Torah min ha-shamayim.
But what really made his commentary so Jewish was his uncanny ability to draw parallels between the tensions between the Torah sources and the controversies in Rabbinic literature and thought. A contradiction between J and P might be identical to a mahloqet between two Sages and a dispute between E and D could be seen as analogous to one between Rashi and ibn Ezra. Thus, when one studies his commentaries, one is without a doubt engaged in Jewish Torah study. And to the extent that this can be done without resorting to forced and partial correspondences, I strongly advocate this and I only wish I were more capable of it than I am.
Still, in the final analysis, Breuer’s approach too is primarily concerned with the final form of the Torah, which he views as the one and only perfect resolution of all of the inconsistencies. For him, the canonical Torah intentionally preserves the dialectic interaction among the sources for theological or halachic reasons that can be ascertained by the commentator—and here I part company with him.
My own opinion is that a commentary can be truly source-critical only if it acknowledges the findings of source-criticism. In other words, an approach is source-critical only if it accepts one theory or other regarding which texts are authentically connected with one another and which ones are not. Such an approach interprets the passages that have nothing to do with each other—that are not part of the same literary stratum, that do not derive from the same “source,”—contrastively. It avoids all temptation to harmonize unrelated texts artificially and, instead, admits that they belong to separate and divergent story lines and are irreconcilable expressions of divergent views of the facts, of the events, of God and of the mitzvot, views that emerged from, and express the opinions of, different schools of thought and literary creativity. To repeat what I said above: the source critical commentator is one who takes the literary strata into account for the purpose of interpretation.
Thus, in writing the commentary on Leviticus (as I explain in that work’s introduction) I resolved to interpret all of Leviticus exclusively in the context to which I believe it belongs: the priestly version of Israel’s pre-history as told in the priestly source, or P. I made no attempt whatsoever to integrate, reconcile or otherwise connect Leviticus with any non-priestly passage in the Torah.
I was compelled therefore to take note of the non-priestly sources only for the purpose of contrast. What is more, I was compelled to reject, or at least ignore, all interpretations, however famous, popular, traditional or even normative, that failed to adhere to this standard. This resulted in a method precisely the opposite of one those described above. Instead of introducing traditional Jewish interpretations as the true and necessary way of reconciling P with non-P, I introduced traditional Jewish readings, including halachically normative ones, in order to show that they are not the authentic meaning of the text but rather anachronistic attempts to reconcile texts that are in fact unrelated.
The warrant for viewing this method as Jewish is not difficult to find. The indispensable basis for the critical reading of the Bible is the uncompromising commitment to peshat. By the term peshat, we basically mean: the historical, grammatical, logical, contextual meaning of a text in what can plausibly be determined to be its authentic literary setting.
The existence of peshat in a sense not too far from this was acknowledged in Rabbinic sources. Its priority, indeed its exclusive claim to validity for the purpose of exegesis, was held by some Jewish commentators during the early and High Middle Ages to be not only a cardinal rule of methodology but also a matter of religious belief, an article of faith, so that the search for the peshat of the Torah, and the acceptance of whatever conclusions that search leads to, became not merely permissible but obligatory – and modern scholars have described this process in great detail. Thus, the exclusive dedication to peshat is, in fact, a quintessentially Jewish feature of biblical interpretation.
Now, I believe it has been shown conclusively that the critical method in biblical studies evolved quite directly from the peshat method of interpretation as developed in medieval Judaism. As far as source criticism is concerned, this total commitment to peshat, along with the steady advancement of our knowledge and the constant refinement of the tools used to arrive at it, leads inevitably to the source-critical discovery. In other words, any commentator who is truly committed to peshat must eventually arrive at one or another theory of multiple authorship and compositional process; the search for peshat leads inevitably to the sources. And since this commitment to peshat is undeniably Jewish in character, the source-critical commentary is as well.
I have generally avoided statements like: “If Rashbam were alive today, he too would have arrived at the documents of the Torah.” I have always thought of such assertions as potentially confrontational and even perhaps a bit arrogant. But the more I read, study and think about it, the more inclined I am to believe that there may be something to them after all.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
May 7, 2015
June 19, 2020
Dr. Baruch J. Schwartz is the Avraham Mordechai Shlansky Senior Lecturer in Biblical History at Hebrew University. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. (1988) from Hebrew University. Schwartz writes and lectures on the Priestly tradition and literature in the Torah and on the biblical accounts of the revelation at Sinai. He is especially interested in how academic biblical scholarship and traditional Jewish belief and observance may co-exist.
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series