“Biblical Narrative and the Formation of Rabbinic Law” by Jane L. Kanarek

JaneKanarekJane L. Kanarek. Biblical Narrative and the Formation of Rabbinic Law. New York, NY: 2014, 212 pp., $62.99 (hardback on Amazon).

Jane L. Kanarek (Assistant Professor of Rabbinics at Hebrew College) argues that “biblical narrative is embedded in th heart of rabbinic lawmaking enterprise and is, in fact, inseparable from it” (1). Drawing on classical rabbinic sources, such as the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, the Mishnah, Midrash Halakhah and Midrash Aggadah, Kanarek explores how rabbinic literature integrates rabbinic law and biblical narrative. The integration is distinct from Jubilees in that rabbinic integration utilizes different exegetical methods. Rather than law and narrative operating as two autonomous realms, Kanarek argues that, in rabbinic literature, they exist dialectically (13).

Following her introduction, she explores the exegetical tradition of Isaac’s binding. She focuses on the Akedah as a legal source for rabbinic literature, namely the the type of knife that should be used for ritual animal slaughter (31). The Akedah is reframed in rabbinic sources in an interpretive web of narrative’s dialectical existence with law in biblical literature.

Chapter 3 traces the distinct rhetorical strategies of Palestinian and Babylonian text in Rebekah’s betrothal. For both traditions, she clearly demonstrates that both retellings are contextually grounded, integrating biblical narrative with rabbinic law for a rabbinic law-narrative. This provides “a realm for imaging, enacting, creating, and performing rabbinic law” (105).

Towards a more complex rabbinic web, Chapter 4 argues that the dismissal of an obvious prooftext is actually “a more complex exegetical route [that] leads to richer law and creates more legal meaning” (107). As a test case, she explores exegetical traditions around Joseph’s mourning (Genesis 50:10) and rabbinic shiv’ah. The exegetical approaches of the Yerushalmi and Bavli permit them to attain more meaning through reading biblical narrative and rabbinic law together.

Chapter 5  examines the “rabbinic definition of an assembly (‘edah) as consisting of a quorum of ten people” through Palestinian and Babylonian traditions (139). However, in contrast to previous chapters, he analysis yields results that the Bavli and Yerushalmi provide fragmentary textual traditions. Essentially they fail to fully integrate and anchor a quorum of ten – as rabbinic law – into biblical narrative.

She sums up her books fairly well: “The far-reaching and webbed nature of rabbinic legal reading expands scripture beyond genre into a rabbinic text that is simultaneously law and story. To read scripture rabbinically is to read it as a law-story” (183). Each of her chapter demonstrate a unique aspect of how the rabbis read scripture as a law-story.

Kanarek’s work it important to any student of rabbinic literature and Judaism, as it approach the heart of Jewish tradition. Her examination of the interplay between rabbinic law and biblical narrative comprises a wonderfully succinct argument that assists the reader in recognizing the exegetical approach of Amoraic rabbis. Although the audience is fairly limited, as rabbinic and Judaic studies comprise of a small group of people, those who are to and desire to engage with historical traditional uses of the Hebrew Bible most surely should read Kanarek’s publication. As for future potential of the study, especially as it regards my areas of interest, comparison of rabbinic law and narrative integration with ancient Near Eastern law and narrative integration (or relationship) may be a fruitful future endeavor.


“Revelation & Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition” by Benjamin D. Sommer

Revelation & Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition by Benjamin D. Sommer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015, xviii + 419 pp., $50, cloth.

*I would like to express my gratitude to Yale University Press for providing me a review copy.

With the presence of biblical criticism seemingly undermining Jewish religiosity, Benjamin D. Sommer argues for a shift in modern Jewish though in order for Judaism to flourish. A professor of Bible at Jewish Theological Seminary, formerly he was director of the Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies, a fellow of the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization at New York University Law School, the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies, and much more. All in all, his background permits him to speak with authority about how Jews might begin to understand revelation and authority at Sinai in light of modern biblical criticism.

Central to his argument is the participatory theory of revelation, namely that revelation in Judaism occurs “as the result of a dialogue between God and Israel”, reflecting “Israel’s interpretation of and response to that will [of God]” (2). And Sommer contends that, with regard to biblical criticism and the authority of the Bible (note that “Bible” is only in reference to the Hebrew Bible), “the tension between them need not be a fatal contradiction” (10). Chapter One distinguishes between the Bible as an artifact for biblical critics and as Scripture for religious Jews and Christians, and argues that it must be both artifact and Scripture. Sommer recognizes that because biblical criticism illuminates the Bible as “a motley accumulation of historically dependent, culturally relative textual scraps” (18), it has created disconnect between the Bible and Judaism. Yet, the illumination of the Bible as “culturally relative textual scraps” effectively recovers voices of ancient Israelites, Jewish voices of the past. Thus, his strategy explores how to read the Bible as artifact and Scripture, allowing the bible to contribute to discussion of authority, and revelation, and later Jewish thought.

Chapter Two examines maximalist and minimalist approaches to analysis of what happened at Sinai, with a primary focus on the ideas Franz Rosenzweig and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the participatory theory of revelation. Both Jewish thinkers have suggested that the Bible and Jewish tradition are responses to God’s act of revelation. Sommer’s primary analysis is rooted in basic recognition of the nature of praises to Baal, albeit brief discussion, and of the various textual sources present in Exodus 19-24, especially focused on the ambiguity as to whether or not Israel heard the law giving at Sinai. The four positions present in the documentary sources demonstrate self-contradictory opinions. His discussion of Midrashic interpretations and the medieval biblical commentators draws out the minimalist and maximalist interpretations of the Sinai revelation in regard to the textual sources, noting preference for E “in which the people did not hear God’s voice speaking actual words” (79). Following, Sommer discusses Maimonides’ minimalist position by demonstrating that, in Maimonides’ theology, Moses authored the law rather, not God. His brief, yet detailed, discussion of Hasidic rebbe Menahem Mendel of Rymanov emphasizes that “revelation was not verbal” (94), raising questions of the Torah law’s origins and the nature of “God’s commanding but nonverbal self-disclosure” (95). Having traced the participatory theory of revelation through the minimalist traditions of Maimonides, Rymanov, and E, and the maximalist positions of D, he continues into Chapter Three.

Chapter Three explores minimalist interpretations of the participatory theory of revelation, examining the nature of non-verbal revelation. Sommer’s demonstrates through medieval Jewish thought that, for many, revelation is an act of translation, noting medieval Jewish thinkers who articulated that “prophets (non-Mosaic) received a message from God, but the formulation of that message in human language was left to the individual through whom God sent the message” (102). Because prophecy as translation is already explore extensively in medieval Jewish though, he explores how modern thinker expanded and applied prophecy as translation to Moses, especially through the works of Heschel and Rosenzweig. He especially emphasizes Heschel’s approach to prophecy as translation as correlational theology, tracing it through kabbalistic, Hasidic, modern, and ancient thought. Having established prophecy as translation in Jewish thought, he supports it by drawing out the discussion of heavenly and earthly Torahs, which Sommer shows to be prevalent in Jewish thought through Midrash Tehillim, Bereshit Rabbah, etc. He relates the distinctions between heavenly and earthly, Heschel’s Gebot and Gesetz, to ancient Near Eastern prophecy and its mixture of human and divine elements. Thus, “the bold notion of revelation that we find in the work of… Rosenzweig and Abraham Joshua Heschel recapitulates one of the most ancient Jewish understandings of revelation and the law” (120). Upon establishing this distinction between heavenly and earthly Torah in Jewish through, he proceeds to argue for no distinction between the bible and Jewish thought.

Chapter Four presents Sommer’s primary claim: “there is no Written Torah; there is only Oral Torah, which starts with Genesis 1:1” (147). Prior to defense, he indicates implications for Jewish canon, namely its large matrix of rabbinic literature that has long conceptualized the dynamics of Oral Torah and revelation in many ways. Drawing on rabbinic literature and inner-biblical, midrashic exegesis, he elucidates the complex dynamics of tradition and Scripture. Put succinctly, “tradition created scriptures; the new scriptures required interpretations; the new interpretations were passed on, becoming traditions in their own right; some of these traditions became scripture” (166). In this light, Sommer argues, Written Torah should be part of Oral Torah. By considering Written Torah as part of Oral Torah, imperfections may be taken seriously even as it is embraced as authoritative.

His push for a shift in theological understanding carries implications as to whether or not the Sinai revelation ever ceased, which is the focus of Chapter Five. Sommer draws this out through the Pentateuch sources; especially D. D’s use of “today” encompasses the idea that religious meaning is reserved for an eternal now. Modern Jewish thought of Heschel and Rosenzweig echo the voice of D “enough to make one believe that the voice from Sinai never fully came to a stop” (205). Foreseeing the issue many may have with opening Jewish tradition so broadly, Sommer indicates that not all innovations are necessarily legitimate.

Chapter Six examines the implications with regard to his argument for Written Torah as Oral Torah. First, the broad scape of Jewish tradition is dialogical in nature, ranging from the Pentateuch to rabbinic literature. Following, Sommer considers this dialogical reading of scripture as tradition to be centrifugal in nature, noting that “openness to multiple viewpoints that are left as they are without harmonization is characteristic of rabbinic culture, but it dates back to at least the time of the Pentateuch’s compilation” (224). And while dialogical tradition contains those who have sought centripetal readings, multiplicity of these traditions indicates necessity for centrifugal reading in Jewish tradition. Continuing with emphasis on Rosenzweig, Sommer responds to Rosenzweig’s statement that R is the most authoritative tradition in the Pentateuch by emphasizing importance of P, D, E, and J as individual and unique Jewish traditions. Additionally, he disagrees with Rosenzweig’s attempt to primarily accentuate biblical unity in Jewish theology, but rather accentuates the disunity. Sommer then notes that a peshat, or modern critical reading, is equally important to midrashic interpretations “because they enable us to hear religious teachings that might otherwise have been neglected” (235). The implications points towards the nature of Scripture as flawed and the non-existence of “Jewish biblical theology”, but simply “Jewish theology”.

In conclusion, revision of this aspect of Jewish law is not rupture, but continuity enabling Jewish tradition to endure. Such innovations and continuations need not be a hindrance and tension in Jewish theology. Rather they should be welcomed as the interpretation of Gebot (infallible, heavenly voice) into Gesetze (fallible, human translation). Thus, according to Sommer’s appropriation of the participatory theory of revelation, Jews create Torah through centrifugal tradition and dialogue as law is revealed at Sinai within communal settings.

Above all, Sommer clearly and beautifully explores the dimensions of Jewish tradition that permit for a shift of Written Torah to Oral Torah. His unique emphasis on the centrifugal orientation of Jewish theology permits it to maintain relevancy to religious Jews. And his call for a shift in theology, towards Oral Torah only and Jewish thought only, is necessary in a Western world which tends to de-emphasize religiosity via biblical criticism. Sommer expertly considers the validity of biblical criticism, re-evaluates Jewish thought and tradition, and revives past Jewish thought to show the continuity, value, and relevance of his argument.

There are, however, two minimal critiques of his argument. First, Sommer’s analysis of Pentateuch sources in Chapter Two fails to recognize and discuss the socio-political, historical drive of each source. Such discussion is important because, while his argument does recognize the value of Jewish tradition, it fails to respond to a major source of critique against the Bible’s place in tradition. Perhaps his answer would be that the Bible is fallible, as he clearly believes. Even so, the issue of socio-political situation for Pentateuch sources should have been addressed.

Secondly, Sommer draws on D’s use of “today” to demonstrate that the Sinai revelation occurred in the eternal now, which he then relates to Rosenzweig and Heschel. Yet, with a peshat reading, D does not press for an eternal now because the idea of something occurring “to this day” occurs not only in relation to speech through the Bible. It also occurs with presence of monuments (Josh 4:9, 5:9, 8:29), names of locations (Jug 18:12), tribes (Jud 21:6), and many more contexts. Thus, in order to more fully dialogue and come to terms with modern scholarship, Sommer should have explored the dimensions of “today” through the Bible.


Regardless of these two critiques, minor points which would have at least sharpened his argument, Sommer presents a full and rich discussion about Jewish tradition and thought. His work establishes an approach to religiosity for Jews that takes seriously claims of biblical criticism. Furthermore, his revival and emphasis on Jewish thought regarding the relationship between Oral Torah and Written is unique in the sense that it offers direction and positive continuation of Jewish theology. Especially for those researching Jewish thought and theology, Sommer’s work is indispensable as a resource for the history, development, and trends in Jewish thought. His work is even more so exceptionally important for religious Jews attempting to maintain religiosity without abandoning biblical criticism. Beyond Jews, the framework Sommer proposes may even hold value for protestant Christians. Overall, Revelation & Authority by Benjamin Sommer is an incredibly unique call for theological revival, encouraging Jews to be part of participatory revelation at Sinai for today and ages to come.

“Creation and the Persistence of Evil” by Jon Levenson

Though published 1988, Jon Levenson’s “Creation and the Persistence Evil: The Jewish Drama of Omnipotence” still breaths invigorating and lively words into the hearts and minds of modern readers who seek to understand Yahweh in the ancient context of creation. From the outset, he approaches the issue of God’s mastery over the universe from a Rabbinical Jewish perspective. That’s not to say that he only uses Rabbinic sources; rather, after observing the ancient Near East context of creation, he seeks to see how those ideas are reflected within Rabbinic literature. The first section of the book is structured around understanding how God is master in regard to creation, pointing out that it ultimately comes down to creation as “the emergence of a stable community in a benevolent and life-sustaining order” (12). Following, Levenson explores the “character”, if you will, of Chaos through the lens of the Hebrew Bible, drawing out the role of Chaos in sustaining Order and the power and reality of unchecked evil. Of course, the religion of ancient Israel expects that, eventually, God will win in that final future battle. In other words, while God’s enemies last, “YHWH is not altogether YHWH, and his regal power is not yet fully actualized. Rather he is the omnipotent cosmocrater only in potential” (38).

After briefly summarizing the previous chapters, he explores the later development of Israelite thought in regard to evil, which, based on Psalm 104, seems to be the development of God’s absolute power. However, in the midst of that absolute mastery over creation, evil is still persistent. Tracing strands important to his tradition, Levenson spends the next three chapters exploring the interrelations between seven days of creation, the temple as a microcosm of creation, and the driving purpose behind Sabbath. In synthesizing these observations, it’s observed that the cultic life of Israel was structured in such a way as to be Order within a world of Chaos. “It is through obedience to the directives of the divine master that his good world comes into existence” (127).

Transitioning into more practical issues of this exploration of the persistence of evil and God’s mastery over the universe, Levenson briefly explores the dynamics of lordship and submission in regard to how God is omnipotent. Levenson suggests, based on his developed argument, that mankind is both autonomous and heteronomous to God. Importantly, he notes that there should be no distinction between the two as it was in the ancient world, no dichotomy. With that strand, he proceeds to explore and explain these two aspects of covenant, provided by God, in terms of obedience and argument. As he puts it, “an innocent sufferer makes just claims against God and, upon submitting and recanting, comes to know anew the justice and generosity of his lord” (155). Levenson concludes that too often people attempt to make life, creation itself, a anthropocentric issue; rather, it is a theocentric issue in which evil persists, but God maintains the Order.

Levenson’s unique approach to understanding creation and the persistence of evil in biblical thought is unique because it expands beyond the realm of theological traditions. It approaches Genesis on its own terms and follows the close ties between various aspects of biblical thought. Most importantly, though, he is clear about explaining why it matters for the average Joe. His study is not an ethereal work of scholarship that goes over the head of the reader. Rather, it is a down to earth and easy to grasp study of why Genesis matters and how any person should read it. For Jews and Christians, it explores the idea of how God is master, how God is omnipotent. For me, his study and conclusion were satisfactory because it answered questions that have rolled around in my mind for years, questions no person has fully answered.

In conclusion, Levenson’s exploration of the persistence of evil is an excellent read for any serious student of biblical studies, whether scholar, student, or lay person. Although it may be a challenge for the lay person, it is definitely worth the read, as it will further a solid understanding of Scripture and also provide spiritual nourishment for relating to God’s mastery over the universe. Of the plethora of biblical literature I’ve read, Levenson’s “Creation and the Persistence of Evil” by far stands as the number one book to this day. It’ll be hard to find a book that has had such an impact on my very being.