Review of Angel, Hayyim J., Revealed Texts, Hidden Meanings. Finding the Religious Significance of the Tanakh

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Angel, Hayyim J., Revealed Texts, Hidden Meanings. Finding the Religious Significance of the Tanakh (Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Publishing House 2009). Pp. xiii + 261. Hardcover, US $ 25. ISBN 978-1-60280-128-8

This volume is a collection of twenty chapters each of which may stand on their own, but are unified by a common methodology. The twenty chapters/studies are: (1) “From Black Fire to White Fire: Conversations About Religious Tanakh Methodology”; (2) The Yeshiva and the Academy: How Can we Learn from One Another in Biblical Scholarship”; (3) “Torat Hashem Temima: The Contributions of Rav Yoel Bin-Nun to Religious Tanakh Study”; (4) “Review Essay: A Modern Midrash Moshe: Methodological Considerations”; (5) “The Genesis-Exodus Continuum: What Happens When They Are Viewed as a Larger Unit”; (6) “One Book, Two Books: The Joshua-Judges Continuum”; (7) “‘There is No Chronological Order in the Torah’: An Axiom in Understanding the Book of Joshua”; (8) “The Positive and Negative Traits of Gideon as Reflected in his Sons Jotham and Abimelech”; (9) “Hopping Between Two Opinions: Understanding the Biblical Portrait of Ahab”; (10) “Prophecy as Potential: The Consolations of Isaiah 1–12 in Context”; (11) “Jeremiah’s Confrontation with the Religious Establishment: A Man of Truth in a World of Falsehood”; (12) “Jeremiah’s Complex Portrayal of the Periods of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah”; (13) “The Uncertainty of the Principle of Repentance in the Books of Jonah and Joel”; (14) “Zephaniah’s Usage of the Genesis Narratives”; (15) Rabbi Yuval Cherlow’s Interpretation of the Song of Songs: Its Critical Role in Contemporary Religious Experience”; (16) “Introduction to Kohelet: Sanctifying the Human Perspective”; (17) “The Literary Significance of the Name-Lists in Ezra-Nehemiah”; (18) “The First Modern-Day Rabbi: A Midrashic Reading of Ezra”; (19) “Ahaz and Hezekiah in Kings and Chronicles”; and (20) “Manasseh and Josiah in Kings and Chronicles.” The essays are preceded by a Foreword by Shalom Carmy and the author’s Introduction, but concludes with no indexes. (The book contains some instances of obvious repetition [cf. pp. 238–39 and 254, for instance], but this feature allows each chapter to be read as a stand alone unit and is not a distraction.)

The titles of most (but not all) of these chapters (see, for instance, chapters 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 17, 19, 20) could have appeared as titles of essays in any “mainstream” journal devoted to the academic study of the Hebrew Bible. The same holds true for most of the subtitles (e.g.,“Alliances in Kings and Chronicles,” ”Reward and Punishment in Kings and Chronicles”). Yet these essays were not written for the readership of these journals, nor would one expect to find them printed in them.

Instead this volume is a very good example of the kind of readings of the Tanakh—not the academic or secular HB or the Christian OT—and analyses of particular texts that have emerged from within the perspective of a particular group within Orthodox Judaism. Readers of Tradition: A Journal of Jewish Orthodox Thought are well acquainted with the approach of this group— Rabbi Shalom Carmy who wrote the Foreword to this volume serves as the editor of Tradition—and so are readers of the Hebrew language journal Megadim. This approach to the Tanakh, however, is not widely known outside some, mainly Orthodox, Jewish groups. Even main figures identified, despite their differences, with this exegetical method (e.g., Rabbi M. Breuer, Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, Rabbi Angel, R. Shalom Carmy) are rarely known outside these groups.

The volume was written, at least in the main, for a specific “in-group” readership and their “religious Tanakh learning,” so they may enter, as Angel writes, “God’s palace through the living, fiery words of Tanakh” (p. 14). Since this is a very readable volume it may serve as an excellent introduction for anyone who wishes to learn more about this faith-based exegetical approach, the readings it creates, and the opposition it faces from some other contemporary Jewish Orthodox thinkers and groups. At a time in which “Reception History” studies are gaining prominence, this volume provides a window into a world of contemporary biblical reception, some present modes of reading the Tanakh and even constructions of the pragmatic status of the text of the Tanakh, which are seldom discussed in “reception studies.” (The book also contributes to understanding the debates within Orthodox Judaism today, but this is beyond the scope of a review in this journal.)

Although the individual chapters deal with the particular issues mentioned in their titles, the volume is clearly methodologically centered. It not only reflects a constant awareness of its own methodological approach, but also (and often) explicitly deals with methodological issues. The analysis of particular texts serves not only to advance a point about the texts themselves, but in the context of the volume as demonstrations of the potential that exists in the methodology that brings them forward.

Angel and others refer to their methodological approach as “literary-theological.” To a large extent, it represents a kind of neo-peshat. It is intensely and explicitly theologically committed. Angel writes, for instance, “[t]he intellectual pursuit of meaning in our sacred texts should be wedded to our desire to connect to God through those texts” (p. xi). It is deeply grounded in Orthodox Judaism, its tenets (e.g., Torah min ha-Shamayim “Heavenly [composed, revealed] Torah”; belief in which is a matter of halacha) and worldview (hashkafa) and not surprisingly it is involved in the—at times harshly debated discussions—that characterize the discourse of contemporary Jewish Orthodoxy. This methodology never intends to be “neutral” or “detached”; to the contrary it is meant to develop a (Jewish) religious learning of the Tanakh that involves at the core a passionate commitment to God, the Jewish tradition and law and the Tanakh (on the latter see below).

Because this methodology is so explicitly and unmistakably theological and because it is meant to be “transformative,” these readings and the style in which they are expressed clearly differ from what one would expect in a piece in this journal or any mainstream academic journal. Two examples suffice to illustrate the point. Angel concludes one of his chapters with the following statement: “Kohelet teaches us how to have faith from the human perspective, so that we may grow in our Fear of Heaven and observe God’s mitzvot in truth” (p. 201). The tendency to include some concluding “doxology” is, of course, not an innovation of these Jewish thinkers (see H. Yavin, “Modern ‘Doxologies’ in Biblical Research,” J. Neusner, B. A. Levine and E. S. Frerichs [eds], Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987], 271–80), but it is pronounced in this book and present today (almost) only in theological works. Another example is found in the very sympathetic way in which Angel expounds R. Breuer’s position that critical, academic scholars are indeed correct when they claim that the Torah could not have been written by one, single person; but fail to recognize that only God could have written it in the way it is, with all of its multiple aspects and meanings. (The divine origin of the Torah is not a matter open for discussion in Orthodox Judaism; see b. San 99a, the 8th. principle of Rambam; and among recent, respected poskim, see, for instance, Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 4.24; Yoreh De’ah 3.114 [easily available through Bar Ilan Response]).

The approach is theological, but also “literary,” in the sense that it pays attention to the text of the Tanakh and emphasizes its importance. From the perspective of these authors, since the Tanakh is prophetically inspired, it must be taken seriously. This means that although the traditional Jewish commentators provide a “lens” to read the text, these commentators cannot be taken to be “the text,” and, needless to say, that the Tanakh cannot be used to advance any idea, worthy as it may be. In fact, Angel writes “the text must stand at the center of inquiry, in which case we have done our best trying to anchor ourselves in what the Tanakh is trying to teach us rather than just accepting something because it ‘feels’ right” (p. 9, emphasis mine).

Like the methodology of N. Leibowitz—which may be seen as a forerunner of this approach—the approach advanced by Angel and other (Orthodox, Jewish) “literary-religious” exegetes is interested in a careful reading of the text. But Leibowitz focused far more on what the traditional medieval commentators thought. Moreover, and most importantly and highly debated within Jewish Orthodox thought today, the present-day commentators who follow the “literary-religious” approach exemplified in this volume take the position that their religious study of the Tanakh should take into account and interact with the results of historical, archaeological, literary, and other secular studies, including contributions by critical biblical scholars, Jews and non-Jews alike, provided that these are not incompatible with their theological commitment, or if they are, that these contributions be helpful to develop arguments and readings compatible with Jewish tradition and contribute thus to a better understanding of religious truth. This being the case, proponents and practitioners of this “literary-theological” method engage not only with the Sages and Medieval commentators, but also with critical, secular scholarship (both “historical” and “literary”) and often cite it with approval. Even a cursory reading of Angel’s endnotes clearly shows this feature. It is not by mere chance that the language of many of titles of the chapters in this volume (see above) is so similar to that of essays in critical, secular scholarship. Moreover, Angel explicitly and repeatedly argues for this type of engagement, against the critics of this approach among the Jewish Orthodox intellectual elites. This said, there is an unbridgeable gap in the way and extent to which this “literary-theological” approach assumes and claims the “historicity” of the biblical texts and of its “historical” characters (see, for instance, pp. 38–39). In this sense it stands much closer to present-day religious/theological approaches common among Christian “fundamentalist” (or “conservative”) circles, whose literature they do not engage or mention, than to the secular, academic scholarship they do mention. (The multiple reasons for this emphasis on historicity in many contemporary, Jewish and Christian religious communities is the topic to which a lengthy monograph can be devoted; in any event, it cannot be addressed in this review.)

It goes without saying that one does not have to share the worldview and theology of Rabbi Angel to appreciate the value of this book. This volume was written by an experienced Rabbi and teacher as a teaching tool for a particular group. It will be helpful to those for whom it is intended. For other readers, it will provide an opportunity to learn about a type of Bible reception/reading with which they may not be well acquainted. This volume will help undergraduate students in secular educational institutions—particularly, but not only in Religious Studies departments —and the general public to gain access to the Tanakh as read and understood today within some circles in Orthodox Judaism. In other words, these readers will see how the Tanakh is a “living Bible” to these circles. Reading this volume, will allow these undergraduate students (and other readers) to become keenly aware of the similarities and dissimilarities between their Bibles and the Bibles of these Orthodox Jewish circles.

This book exemplifies the potential and limitations of engagement between secular scholarship and “traditional” religious groups committed to their faith in general and in particular, Jewish Orthodoxy. It draws attention to the existence of “Tanakh theology” among some circles of Orthodox Jews and its main attributes—a point often debated. Finally, it also provides a window into contemporary debates within Jewish Orthodoxy.

Ehud Ben Zvi, University of Alberta