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Aly Elrefaei

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2024

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Yehezkel Kaufmann: An Academic Defender of Israel’s Religious Spirit

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https://thetorah.com/article/yehezkel-kaufmann-an-academic-defender-of-israels-religious-spirit

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Aly Elrefaei

,

,

,

"

Yehezkel Kaufmann: An Academic Defender of Israel’s Religious Spirit

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TheTorah.com

(

2024

)

.

https://thetorah.com/article/yehezkel-kaufmann-an-academic-defender-of-israels-religious-spirit

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Yehezkel Kaufmann: An Academic Defender of Israel’s Religious Spirit

Israelite religion developed from a revolutionary idea: monotheism. And religion alone, not external factors, accounted for the remarkable preservation of Jewish national identity and consciousness in exile.

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Yehezkel Kaufmann: An Academic Defender of Israel’s Religious Spirit

Yehezkel Kaufmann before 1964.

Yehezkel Kaufmann’s (1889–1963) works had a profound impact on Jewish intellectual circles and biblical scholarship, closing the divide between biblical and post-biblical Judaism created by Christian theology.[1] While his arguments were not widely accepted among non-Jewish scholars, Kaufmann had tremendous influence on Jewish Bible studies and Jewish scholars reclaiming Jews’ place in the field.

His research also provided valuable insights into the nature of Jewish existence, revealing the relationship between religion and nationalism in Jewish life.[2] He received several prestigious awards over his career for his scholarly achievements and their impact on biblical studies and Jewish life,[3] and he remains among the most important Jewish biblical scholars of modern times.[4]

Kaufmann was a distinguished Jewish historian, biblical scholar, and nationalist. Born in Ukraine,[5] he was educated at a modern yeshiva in Odessa, studied at the Academy of Oriental Studies in St. Petersburg, and, in 1918, earned his doctorate in Kantian philosophy at Berne University in Switzerland; he studied there alongside the great intellectual Walter Benjamin. He moved to Berlin in 1920 and then immigrated to Palestine in 1928.

For around twenty years, Kaufmann taught at the Beth Hasepher Hareali in Haifa. However, his unorthodox views and uncompromising personality prevented him from gaining a position at the Hebrew University during his most creative years.[6] It was not until 1949 that he was appointed as a professor of the Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he taught until 1957.

Voluminous Scholarship

Kaufmann’s extensive scholarly works were wide-ranging.[7] Though he received his doctorate in philosophy, his main interest, beginning already in his early writings, was exploring the problem of Jewish diaspora and survival throughout history.[8]

The first of his major works, גולה ונכר [Exile and Alienhood, 1929–1930], was a four-volume socio-historical study of the fate of the Jewish people from ancient times through the modern period. The book attempts to uncover the historical process that shaped the Jewish people’s experience, arguing that religion alone, not external factors, accounted for the remarkable preservation of Jewish national identity and consciousness in exile.[9]

Kaufmann was convinced that an understanding of the perpetual Jewish exile may be attained only after getting to the root of the character of Jewish history. Hence, he turned to the Bible, which he believed was the foundation of Jewish history.[10]

The History of Israelite Religion

Kaufmann’s second major work was תולדות האמונה הישראלית: מימי קדם עד סוף בית שני [The History of Israelite Religion; 1937–1956], eight volumes that examine the history of Israelite religion from its beginning to the end of the Second Temple period.[11] The first volume is almost entirely dedicated to a thorough literary analysis of the pentateuchal literature through a historical-critical lens.[12]

Kaufmann distinguishes different literary strata in the Pentateuch—including Genesis 1–11, Genesis 1–49, JEP (Genesis-Numbers), Deuteronomy–II Kings, and the laws of JE, P, and D.[13] He also recognizes the various legal corpora—the Covenant Code (containing most of the JE laws), Deuteronomy, and Priestly Code.

Regarding the Torah, he argues:

Two periods can be discerned in the development of the Torah: the period of the composition of the Torah literature and the age of the formation of the Torah book. The first is an age of variegated, many-styled creativity. The second is an age of collection and ordering. The legal corpora were composed and fixed before the formation of the book.

The boundary between the two periods—the end of the creation of the Torah literature, and the beginning of the formation of the book—was the reform of Josiah, inspired and guided by the Torah book found in the temple.[14]

He largely accepts the documentary sources proposed by earlier scholars, who divide the sources of the Torah into J, E, D, and P, based on stylistic and thematic variations,[15] but he rebuts the claim that D pre-dates P.[16] In making this claim, Kaufmann disputed the theory, prevalent in his time, that Israelite religion in the Second Temple period represented a decline from an original religion of the people to a religion of law.[17]

P before D

Kaufmann’s point of departure in dating the sources is D’s centralization of the cult, which he dates to the 8th–7th centuries B.C.E.:

Since the idea of centralization in its deuteronomic form does not appear in the prophetic literature or the realities of the pre-Hezekiah age, it must be assumed to have arisen later. The stratum of D concerning the centralization of worship must be considered a product of the age in which it first appears as a historical factor, the age of Hezekiah and Josiah.[18]

Kaufmann argues that P knew nothing of D’s cultic centralization program:[19]

P [did] not even mention the law of appearing before YHWH on the three major festivals, let alone the requirement that this be done at a chosen site.[20]

In addition, Kaufmann rejected the assumption of historical criticism that P’s single tent of meeting (אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד) or tabernacle (מִשְׁכָּן) presupposes cultic centralization and therefore mirrors the conditions of the Second Temple.[21] Unlike D’s “place,” P’s tent was not a fixed and chosen site but “a portable sanctuary,” in accord with the needs of the wandering tribes.[22] Thus, Kaufmann asserts:

P knows of but one legitimate sanctuary, the “tent of meeting.” But P’s tent is not represented as a law, but as a historical fact… It was the only legitimate cult place. There is no intention, however, to exclude the legitimacy of many temple sites in the land after the conquest. That is why P is silent about the sin of the high places; it recognizes no such sin.[23]

Kaufmann concludes that P predates any cult centralization as envisioned in Deuteronomy, and instead reflects Israel’s preexilic situation as a military rather than ecclesiastical community:

In every detail, P betrays its antiquity. Its narrative preserves bold anthropomorphisms; its cult presupposes the existence of local altars.... Its tithes are ancient; its thousands of Levites are a reflex of a distant past; its view of the prophets as the civil and military leaders of the people is archaic.[24]

Kaufmann’s ultimate goal was to prove the authenticity of the pentateuchal literature as a source for history, asserting that it, particularly the Priestly source, contains ancient materials reflecting early Israelite religion and history in a manner that scholars had denied.[25]

Monotheism: Israel’s Religious Revolution

In his literary analysis of the Pentateuch, Kaufmann developed his own understanding of the relationship between the Torah and the literary prophets. He critiqued the idea, prevelant in scholarship, that the prophets preceded the Torah and influenced it. He claimed:[26]

The development of Israelite faith was, indeed, more ramified and intricate than either tradition or modern criticism has recognized. A stratum of tradition, independent of literary prophecy, is evident in the literature of the Torah-group. From the viewpoint of the evolution of Israelite religion this stratum belongs not after, but before literary prophecy. It is the literary product of the earliest stage of Israelite religion.[27]

Against claims that monotheism and other ideas developed fully in response to the prophets, he argued for their independence and anterior nature, as reflected already in the Priestly source:

The literary product of the ancient Israelite priesthood is the priestly stratum of the Torah (most of which is found from Exodus 25 to Numbers 36). Its laws and prescriptions give us an excellent idea of the part the priesthood played in the formation of Israelite monotheism.[28]

This fundamental distinction allowed Kaufmann to articulate a new understanding of Israelite religious history that aimed to correct what he saw as misguided aspects of classical biblical criticism.[29] Kaufmann presented a paradigm where Israelite religion arose independently as a new idea from the collective folk spirit of the people.[30] He rejected theories of gradual evolutionary development, insisting Israel’s faith was monotheistic from the start and never deviated.

A key aspect of Kaufmann’s model was identifying the religious idea’s source as the creative spirit or “ruaḥ” of the nation. He argued that both idealism and materialism failed to explain the origin of Israel’s cultural creativity.[31] Rather, it was Israel’s intuitive notion of a supreme God, i.e. monotheism,[32] which arose with Moses.[33]

A central point of Kaufmann’s paradigm was that Moses’ discovery of monotheism sparked a revolution. He declared:

The monotheistic idea was not only born in Israel’s initial period, but that already then it had affected a far-reaching revolution in the spirit of the people. It did not make its appearance as the esoteric doctrine of a select circle, but became at once the basis of a new culture for the whole nation.[34]

Through the framework of “objective spirit,”[35] Kaufmann proposed that monotheism permeated Israelite culture, conveyed by Moses to the people.

Accepting, but Critical, of Biblical Criticism

Kaufmann acknowledged the importance of source criticism and textual criticism as foundations for biblical scholarship, but felt that many biblical scholars had come to misguided conclusions in their application of these methods.[36] He embraced criticisms directed at what he referred to as the flawed and absurd utilization of source criticism by scholars.[37] He believed that the theories that scholars developed based on isolated biblical passages were often too extensive, deriving broad conclusions from creatively interpreting obscure or isolated passages.[38]

Kaufmann also contended biblical scholarship failed to appreciate what he saw as the “monumental evidence” contained in the biblical texts regarding early Israelite religion and literature.[39] In his commentary on Joshua, for example, Kaufmann asserted that the conquest account, as given in Joshua and Judges, was the true representation of Israel’s early tradition in Canaan, not a literary invention.[40]

He further argued that biblical critics “deliberately distorted the historical facts of Israel’s history,” and he believed they intentionally misrepresented the actual historical realities portrayed in the biblical accounts.[41] Thus, biblical criticism came to counterproductive conclusions that devalued the historical worth of biblical traditions.[42]

Thus, Kaufmann’s stance on biblical criticism was characterized by a critical and corrective approach rather than outright rejection. His exegetical approach to understanding the Bible incorporated aspects of critical methods that aligned with his reconstruction of history, but he refined many of the conclusions reached by mainstream biblical scholarship.[43]

Sources of His Exegetical Approach

Kaufmann analyzed the facets of Jewish history relevant to his time: the problem of exile, the essence of Judaism, causes of anti-Semitism, and the relationship between Judaism and other religions like Christianity.[44] His early works on Jewish history indicate he was deeply concerned with national questions.

Kaufmann’s exegetical approach incorporated aspects of Jewish rationalist tradition dating back to Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed and flourishing in Hermann Cohen’s book Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums. Kaufmann’s definition of Israelite monotheism and conception of prophecy, with its emphasis on God’s transcendence and the “apostle-prophet” model, connected to this rational stream of thought.[45]

Kaufmann also engaged with the ideas of Jewish nationalist thinkers. Particularly, the ideas of Ahad Ha’am (1856–1927) and Simon Dubnow (1860–1941) strongly influenced Kaufmann.[46] Much of his writing from 1914–1928 critiqued their nationalist conceptions of Judaism and Jewish history. He maintained that the extraordinary endurance of Jewish national consciousness in exile could be attributed solely to Judaism, rather than external factors such as gentile animosity or an objectified national will to survive.[47]

Kaufmann believed strongly in the power of religion, arguing that it absorbed all aspects of Hebrew national life and strengthened the nation’s will to exist.[48] The importance Kaufmann ascribed to religion in shaping Jewish destiny linked to Wilhelm Dilthey and Max Weber’s phenomenological and socio-historical interpretation of religious history.

Both Unorthodox and Influential

Kaufmann’s ability to provide comprehensive historical interpretations made him a notable figure in biblical studies. Through a socio-historical analysis that placed Israelite religious ideas and literature in their original historical context, as he understood it based on the biblical text, his exegetical approach sought to provide an alternative paradigm to the dominant views of biblical scholarship. While working within historical criticism and acknowledging many of its results, Kaufmann developed his own reconstruction by re-examining some of its foundational assumptions, such at the relation between Torah and prophecy.

Kaufmann’s approach incorporated Jewish rationalism and nationalism—both so prevalent in his intellectual context—as he used a phenomenological methodology to confirm the biblical depiction of Israel’s religious development. Overall, his exegetical framework built upon many of the foundations of critical biblical scholarship, while challenging what he saw as its misguided tendencies.

Published

June 10, 2024

|

Last Updated

June 17, 2024

Footnotes

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Dr. Aly Elrefaei is a post-doctoral researcher in the Theology Faculty at Georg-August University in Göttingen, Germany, where he completed his Ph.D. in Religious Studies. His current research focuses on Arabic versions of the Story of Ahiqar. He is the author of Wellhausen and Kaufmann: Ancient Israel and Its Religious History in the Works of Julius Wellhausen and Yehezkel Kaufmann (De Gruyter 2016) and Eschatology in the Old Testament (in Arabic; Noor Publishing 2017).