Studying and Teaching the Bible as an Atheist
I was raised in a secular Zionist and socialist culture. My affinity to Judaism was based mainly on Jewish holidays and traditional food. When I went to college, I was hoping that my studies would accord me a greater understanding of Judaism, so I decided to focus on biblical literature and Jewish history, and take courses that would give me some familiarity with halakhic and midrashic literature, and even a touch of archeology.
The deeper I delved into the texts, the farther removed from Judaism as religion I became. At the same time, I grew to appreciate Judaism as a culture.
The Hebrew University’s Hebrew Bible department compelled us to tackle various schools of thought and find our own way. As a student in the early 1960s, I was privileged to study with some of the best in the field, and their approaches were so diverse, that it almost felt as if I was moving from one discipline to another.
Isaac Seeligmann’s lectures opened the world of critical biblical research, dealing with text critical and redaction critical issues. Samuel Loewenstamm introduced us to the world of tradition history, and comparisons with other ancient Near Eastern stories. Meir Weiss taught us the literary method of total interpretation, showing us how the biblical text manifests an artistic unity of form and content, which can be grasped only through close reading, understanding the whole work in relation to its parts.
Finally, Meir Sternberg, my doctoral advisor at Tel Aviv University who taught in the Dept. of Poetics and Comparative Literature, advocated for a synchronic reading that ignores history and most of critical Bible study, and instead adopts mostly the tools used to analyze all literature, focusing on aesthetic and literary criteria.
In the 1970s, I read Moshe Weinfeld’s Deuteronony and the Deuteronomic School and Sara Japhet’s The Ideology of the Book of Chronicles and its Place in Biblical Thought, and these two had great influence on me. As a consequence, I could not totally adopt Sterenberg's approach and continued to be loyal to biblical criticism with its diachronic tendency.
I decided to focus on the poetics of biblical narrative, and as a result of the variety of methods to which I was exposed, my own approach coalesced, combining both the synchronic and the diachronic approaches. The former looks at the text as we have it, utilizing literary methods, while the latter underscores everything that relates to the text’s creation and the historical and social reality in which it was written.
Maintaining an exclusive synchronic approach means a conscious rejection – on account of faith, theory, or ignorance – of the fact that a text produced over hundreds of years (approximately 600 years) contains the imprint of scribes and editors over generations. Therefore, every biblical text is the product of editing.
For me, the Bible is not an authoritative source. I allow myself not only to examine the text, but also to debate with it, and to disagree with its ideology. This is not merely because I am an atheist, but something I learned from the Hebrew Bible itself. Both Abraham and Abimelech criticize God (Gen. 18:22-33; 20:4), and the written prophets criticize all layers of their society.
Moreover, the Hebrew Bible as a whole cannot constitute an authoritative source. It has no single integrated approach to most issues, rather it contains incompatible values, which reflect ideational worlds of different social circles that shaped it over the generations. Studying and uncovering its polemics, the overt, the indirect, and especially the covert, makes the study of Hebrew Bible all the more meaningful.
Unequivocally, the Hebrew Bible is an inspirational source not only for Judaism, but for other monotheistic religions, and for Western culture, its writers, composers, and visual artists. Like all great classical literature, it contains timeless insights. As the intellectual creation of the Israelites and Judahites from the First and Second Temple periods, it is the basis for all Jewish literature that developed later.
The Hebrew Bible also was a cornerstone for the Zionist movement that regarded it as the seminal and founding book for returning to the homeland after 2,000 years in exile. Its narrative arc imagines only one possible future for its people – return to the Land. Our mythological ancestors always returned to the Land of Israel, at times as a mummy (Jacob), or in a coffin (his son, Joseph).
I would add that, if we are going to use the Hebrew Bible as an inspirational source, it would be better if people could also remember that the borders of the Land of Israel described therein are fluid. This would be an example of covert polemic, something else I learned from the Bible.
Since the Hebrew Bible is our classical and defining literature, I hope Israeli schools will continue to teach it, something that is not altogether certain. I also hope that the critical study of the Hebrew Bible, with all its innovations, will succeed in influencing how people read this important set of texts, even if this approach goes against the grain of traditionalists who wish to see the Hebrew Bible as something other than what it really is.
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May 6, 2021
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Prof. Yairah Amit is Professor (Emerita) of Hebrew Bible in Tel Aviv University's Department of Hebrew Bible. She is the author of The Book of Judges: The Art of Editing (1999), History and Ideology: An Introduction to Historiography in the Hebrew Bible (1999), Hidden Polemics in Biblical Narrative (2000), Reading Biblical Narratives: Literary Criticism and the Hebrew Bible (2001). Her exegetical work is to be found in her Hebrew commentary to the book of Judges (in the Mikra Leyisra’el series) and in the commentary to the book of Judges in the Jewish Study Bible (JPS: 2004). Prof. Amit emphasizes critical approaches and is especially interested in aspects of story, history, ideology and editing. Her most recent publication is: In Praise of Editing in the Hebrew Bible: Collected Essays in Retrospect (2012).
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