The Jews and the Bible
By Jean-Christophe Attias, translated by Patrick Camiller
Stanford University Press, 256 pages, $22.95
The greatest irony of the Bible is that it stands for the opposite of irony — certitude, transcendence, holiness — yet it is filled with nothing but irony. A truly bizarre anthology of contradictory texts is regarded as inerrant. The text is wrapped in traditions that at once venerate and contradict it. It is the preeminent cultural possession of the Jewish people, yet has only tenuous connections with Jewish religious practice.
A study of the Jews’ peculiar relationships with the Bible, Jean-Christophe Attias’s “The Jews and the Bible” is an excellent companion to the recent crop of books on the Bible’s construction, such as those by Michael Satlow, Joel Baden, and Timothy Lim, reviewed last year in these pages. These scholars tell us how the Bible came to be; Attias focuses on how it came to be regarded. Its subject is not what the Bible is, but what it is said to be.
Attias writes that his book is also “a freer, more sinuous, more meditative path that sets out to inform, instruct, and enlighten.” Which is to say, it is French.
“The Jews and the Bible” capably sets out some of the ironies to which I have just referred. Even the names of this — well, not quite a book, but The Book, perhaps — are instructive. TaNaKh, an anagram of three parts. Mikra, that which is read. Its boundaries are indeterminate and contested, its content canonized late. Only with the invention of the printing press do variants finally disappear. The Masoretic scribes emend the text with kri and ketiv, pronunciations that flatly contradict the written text. The Bible is littered with “manifest duplications, contradictions, and inconsistencies” (the Ten Commandments, which are neither ten nor commandments, being the most well known, especially the two different versions of the injunction to remember and/or keep the Sabbath).
And yet, this manifest hodgepodge of sources has been regarded for two thousand years as the word of one author. Not universally — Attias reminds the reader that the commentator Ibn Ezra himself suggested that some parts of the Torah were written by Joshua, and not dictated by God — but perhaps definitionally. The Bible is that which is sacred, even though it is the most manifestly jumbled text with which we are familiar.
After a brief excursus into the material culture of the Bible (which I found less engaging than most of the book), Attias builds upon these and other “paradoxes.” “Paradoxes” is, perhaps, the most common word in “The Jews and the Bible” — though I might prefer “ironies,” not without reason. The Bible, Attias acknowledges, is necessary for Jewish identity — but not sufficient for it, and not in uniform relationship either. Secular and religious, Ashkenazim and Sefardim, women and men, contemporary nationalists and contemporary liberals all relate to the Bible differently, often in direct opposition to one another.
Yet the Bible is often given second place. The Passover story told at the Seder, for example, is quite different from the Exodus as told in the Bible. Jewish law is observed as it is described in the Talmud and Halacha, not in the biblical text. (Boil a kid in its mother’s milk, anyone?) And the preeminent form of Jewish study is of Talmud, not Tanach. Attias wisely spends little time on the cliché that Jews are “people of the book,” but much of his book is a complication of that oversimplification.
Indeed, whatever Jewish “paradoxes” exist in the relationship of the Jews to the Bible, the Christian ones are even more pronounced. Jews have the Bible, say Christians, but do not understand it. Yet the way to understand it, they say, is to deny its literality, since the “Old Testament” is important, but only because it foretells the New. Yet even as the Jews take the Bible too literally, they set it aside in favor of the Talmud.
Jews partly agree: The written Torah, they say, is indeed unintelligible without the oral Torah. Thus, in fighting over the meaning of the Bible, no one claims the literal text. Writes Attias, “the Jews thus took back the Bible of which Christians claimed to dispossess them, but they did so while intransigently reaffirming the supremacy of the Oral law.”
Indeed, Attias notes, the only Jews who conform to Christian literalist stereotypes are the Karaites. Apart from them, the Bible does not exist apart from its layers of tradition and commentary. Attias again: “The commentary is always a ‘supercommentary’, a commentary on a commentary.” Remember, Attias says, what a page of Mikraot Gedolot looks like: a tiny island of text surrounded by a sea of commentary. And remember what Levinas said: “The Jew is he who has no direct relationship to the Bible.”
It was only in the modern period that, under the influence of Protestantism and secularism, such directness was attempted. The result, Attias says, was “disastrous.” Defined by historicism, biblical criticism removed all layers of “tradition” and summarily demolished all the myths about the Bible. They sought to “discover things about the Bible, not from it.” And the result was “the Bible humiliated.”
Yet also the Bible uncovered. The rejection of biblical tradition was accompanied by an explosion in academic Jewish studies and literary studies of the Bible (another irony, since traditionalists had denigrated the literary quality of the Bible and the relevance of such attributes in general). And the Zionists at once scorned the Bible as normative moral code and reestablished it as cultural (and, for settlers, political) touchstone.
One gets the sense, though, that this kind of naked, direct reading is beside the point. “Only ‘sacred writings’ make your hands dirty – not the works of Homer,” Attias writes. “This is a radical difference of nature, not degree.”
So what, then, is the Bible, the book not to be read, the jumble venerated as sacred?
Attias addresses this question at the beginning and the end of “The Jews and the Bible.” In the introduction, he writes, “The Bible is the book of childhood,” and recalls memories of his father, a nonreligious Jew, introducing Attias to it, and eventually writing a commentary on it. In the epilogue, Attias returns to this theme, now telling of Sigmund Freud’s father giving him a family Bible, and of Freud contributing to the death of the biblical “Heavenly Father” post-Auschwitz.
This seems right, even profound. Those of us raised religious, even if not particularly piously, often have fond associations with the Bible. I remember my first one, a thick, illustrated paperback called “A Child’s Bible.” Even now, I hesitate a little to cast doubt on this “book of childhood” — which perhaps explains the voluminous and vitriolic comments the Forward received in regard to my last review of biblical criticism. We are attached to our beloved childhood friend, and the sense of security it brought us. We don’t want to peer behind the curtain and learn that our “Father-Book” is a fraud.
Of course, it isn’t a fraud, really. It was never meant to be seen with its crown and robes removed. Just as the nakedness of the fathers is the primal sin of Genesis, so the nakedness of the Torah is taboo. What is the truth onto which we project our dreams of the father figure? We’re not meant to know.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.