by Yoel Schaper
I decided to ask Rabbi Francis Nataf, a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker. He is the author of the Redeeming Relevance series on the Torah as well as a plethora of articles covering a variety of topics published in places such as Jewish Bible Quarterly, Times of Israel, and Torah Musings. His articles as well as his audio lectures can be found on his website.
Rabbi Nataf is a genuine intellectual; I have followed his work for several years. It seemed appropriate to ask him about traditional and modern Jewish Bible scholarship.
You published several volumes in your “Redeeming Relevance” series on the books of the Torah. What are the goals of these books and what motivated you to write them?
When I started, I noticed that one generally had to choose between sophistication and relevance, something which is in sharp distinction to historical parshanut [exegesis]. Chazal [the Sages] and the classical commentators attempted to be serious scholar-artists and still give over messages that would be broadly appreciated and understood. I am not the only one who is trying to show that the Torah can be studied with rigor and creativity in a way that is widely accessible - but I feel that there is still not enough being done in this respect. Along with redeeming relevance by showing that it can be serious and sophisticated in our time, I have always tried to open the world of parshanut to the reader/student and to show people that parshanut is ultimately meant to be a realm of personal engagement with the text - giving one's own answers to the questions that come out of the text.
As Jews studying Torah, we place much emphasis on classical commentaries such as Rashi, Ramban and Sforno. Not only did these commentators live in completely different times and cultures than our own, but they also did not have access to modern historical, linguistic and literary methods when explaining the text. In your opinion, what value do these classical commentators have for a modern reader?
First of all, we learn how to play the game from the masters. Parshanut comes with rules, conventions and techniques. It is not a free-for-all and if one wants to engage in it, and not just react to the text, then one needs to study how the best have done it. Secondly, these people were literary and religious geniuses. The most important questions of the human condition are fairly constant, and we want to know how the best minds in Judaism have dealt with them, especially when it is refracted though the Divine text.
I am a student of Nechama Leibowitz, and she was very influenced by the New Criticism and was attracted more recently by the thinking of Stanley Fish. In these approaches, knowing the background of a piece is fairly secondary. Meir Weiss has already pointed out that knowing the contemporary circumstances of a piece of work can actually make us lose its larger scope and vision. I think that is very true. I recently read Conrad's classic Heart of Darkness and there is a whole literature about why he didn't make it more clear that he was talking about a virtual Holocaust in the Belgian Congo. Without taking anything away from that Holocaust, and I really mean that - perhaps it would have been more important to impact on that situation. But by not doing so, he made the book something that speaks to the human condition more broadly and thereby a literary classic, and I think that is exactly what he wanted to do. The actual situation was secondary. This is how Jews have traditionally read the Bible and it is what gives the Bible its elan.
The big question in all of this is authorial intent, which is probably the biggest question in the study of literature, more generally - do we care what the author meant? However, I already pointed out in my first book, that if we accept Divine authorship of the Torah, this problem becomes less relevant, meaning that God could conceivably intend every valid and possible interpretation that would come out of the text, and He certainly does not need to be limited to the Bible's contemporary culture, assuming that He was not speaking through it primarily to the generation that received it.
As a Rabbi and Bible educator, what are your views on Biblical criticism and the documentary hypothesis? To what extent, if any, can they play a valuable role in our Judaism?
Academic scholarship can be helpful in certain contexts, but I find that it is not generally coming from the same head that Jews use to read the Bible. The documentary hypothesis makes sense, if one is not coming in with any prior assumptions, but the whole notion of not coming in with prior assumptions or sympathies is increasingly challenged in most fields of study - and rightly so. I am speaking about scholarship in Ancient Near East Studies where most of Bible study is done in the universities. The field of Bible as literature on the other hand is taking up where our tradition leaves off and can easily be in conversation with us.
In that respect, I have often quipped that I would take Robert Alter's redactor over James Kugel's God any time. Though the former is a Conservative Jew, as a scholar of literature, he "gets" the Jewish conversation with the Bible in a way the ostensibly Orthodox Bible scholar doesn't seem to fully understand. All that being said, knowing about the realia and especially the languages of surrounding cultures can be useful in our conversation with the text and it is something that I find myself dipping into in some of my essays. For example, understanding what putting one's head to the ground might have meant in ancient cultures helped me to better hone in on what that might have meant in the case of Moshe and the spies, in an act that has remained unclear in the traditional commentaries.
When commenting on Biblical passages, the Sages in the Talmud and Midrash often deviate from the literal meaning of the text, freely adding all kinds of extra-Biblical information that may seem far-fetched and anachronistic. What kind of Rabbinic methodology should we be aware of when learning Midrash?
One has to be aware that there are - largely speaking - two different modes in Midrash. This comes out very clearly in Rashi and other classical parshanut. One is interpretive and the other is purely homiletical. The parshanim are mostly interested in making use of the first. (As a side note, Chazal are wary of categorization and so don't usually tell us which mode they are using. Likewise, the Gemara rarely tells us if something is de'oraita [Biblical] or de'rabbanan [Rabbinic], a drash [law derived from Biblical text] or an asmachta [memory tool], etc. The reason that bothers us is that most of us think like Greeks, and have been doing so for centuries.)
The rabbis were not shy from recasting Biblical characters in contemporary terms - in fact, we all do that. We don't know what Avraham was actually like, nor can we. But we can know what someone, described in the way he is described and acting in the way his actions are narrated, would be like today. But again, we are hung up about being objective, and so we bristle at the thought of recasting an ancient character in our own terms. Chazal were much more comfortable with themselves than we are with ourselves.
What trends do you see in contemporary Orthodox Jewish Biblical studies and what direction would you like it to take?
There are many trends in many directions and that attests to the growing interest in Tanakh [Bible]. So that is certainly a good thing. By virtue of their novelty and the resources invested, the Gush school seems to be getting the most attention. A lot of good work is being done there and they certainly deserve much of the credit for the popularization of Orthodox Tanakh studies in our time. At the same time, I have some issues with some of the general parameters of the school. I wrote about this at greater length last summer in Jewish Action, but in a nutshell, the biggest issue I have with them is that there is not enough of a religious message that comes through their parshanut.
What books and authors would you suggest be read by those who would like to be more intellectually engaged with the Hebrew Bible? What about their scholarship makes you recommend them?
If someone wants to understand how it works, one should certainly begin with Nechama Leibowitz. Rabbi Stan Peerless has a short and readable introduction to her methodology and that is a good place to start. There is a much longer book on her methodology that she co-authored in Hebrew, put out by the Open University. I would also recommend reading the Introduction to The Bible from Within by Meir Weiss, which contextualizes how contemporary literary Bible study fits into the recent history of general literary criticism. When I gave an advanced seminar on methodology, I also assigned sections of Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. All of these writers show the profound method that exists in the Biblical text and of those who have respectfully grappled with it.
As far as contemporary books that engage the reader in creative parshanut, there is a great deal available depending on one's tastes. Some will find Avivah Zornberg's work engaging and others will prefer Hayyim Angel. And then there is a whole slew of authors in Hebrew. Amnon Bazak and Elchanan Samet are among some of my favorites. While there is much that I like, there is little, however, that I can recommend without any reservations besides my own series, though I am sure I can find something not quite right even there. There is one teacher who I am a big fan of, who I find gets it completely right methodologically, and that is R. Zvi Grumet. Though I disagree with the actual thesis there, I would strongly recommend his book, Moses and Path to Leadership as an example of creative, rigorous textual analysis that is not afraid to deliver a powerful spiritual message.
Read and listen to more of Rabbi Francis Nataf's work on his website.