Analytic Theology

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Isn’t It About Time to Update the Tanakh?

November 11th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

DAVID KRONEMYER: The “Old Testament” (“Tanakh” is a much better term, because it avoids a pejorative comparison with the “New Testament”) most likely was written between the 10th century BCE and the 6th century BCE. The events it purports to relate, of course, occurred much earlier. “[W]ithin that varied Hebrew literature spanning a millennium which we laconically call ‘the Bible,’ a succession of anonymous authors created the most distinguished corpus of historical writing in the ancient Near East,” Yerushalmi, Y. H., Zakhor – Jewish History and Jewish Memory 12 (1982).

But there is something very interesting about the Tanakh, which is, the history it relates comes to a dead stop around the time the Jews return from exile in Persia, circa 600 BCE. This “sealing of the biblical canon” occurred approx. 100 CE. It had at least two consequences: “For the first time the history of a people became part of its sacred scripture,” Yerushalmi, op. cit. at 15; and, “[A]fter the close of the biblical canon the Jews virtually stopped writing history, Yerushalmi, op. cit. at 16. They didn’t start doing so again, until the 16th century CE – a space of around 1,500 years.

Although it too purports to relate historical events, the New Testament definitely does not pick up the Tanakh’s history, where the Tanakh leaves off. “The New Testament is designed as a prism through which its precursor text is to be read, revised and interpreted. … The New Testament usurpation of the Hebrew Bible constituted a kind of trauma that prevails among Jewry,” Bloom, H., Jesus and Yahweh – The Names Divine 45 (2005).

Yerushalmi offers several theses why the Jews “virtually stopped writing history.” I have extrapolated these from Zakhor, op. cit. In some instances, I have been able to find direct quotes to back up the thesis; in other cases, it’s my interpretation of the text. These are not presented in any particular order, and there may be (and probably are) theses I have missed. They range from the mundane, to the profound. With those caveats:

1. There is no requirement that a culture be concerned with its history.

2. It is unclear whether history has any “ultimate” or “transcendent” meaning. In particular, contemporary history is a “realm of shifting sands.”

3. History has no social utility, and Judaism does not need to “prove its validity to history.”

4. The period chronicled by the Tanakh is particularly significant, because God revealed himself during its course. Among other things, he exhorted the Jews to “remember,” as a religious imperative.

5. It was necessary to chronicle the events of this period if the “memory transmitted by the fathers,” including the Covenant he made with the People of Israel, was to be passed down to subsequent generations.

6. Subsequent writers didn’t want to tamper with the Tanakh’s “coherent narrative.” The Tanakh is more than “an authoritative anthology of sacred writings.” Rather, “For the first time the history of a people became part of its sacred scripture.” The Tanakh therefore enabled the Jews to “regard themselves as a nation,” because they were defined in something more than “purely religious terms.” Post-Tanakh historical events are contingent; Jews believe that “divine providence is not only an ultimate but an active causal factor in Jewish history,” and they also believe “in the uniqueness of Jewish history itself.”

7. Furthermore, the Tanakh is part of the glue holding Jews together. The Tanakh comprises an “atemporal law” that has removed Jews from the “flux of history.” “Of all histories, that of the Jewish people has been the most refractory to secularization because this history alone, as a national history, was considered by all to be sacred to begin with.” Whereas Christendom is “eternally on the way,” the Jewish people alone experience “eternity in the midst of history itself.”

8. Subsequent Jewish writers, for example, those of the Talmud, were too busy. “[T]hey were engrossed in an ongoing exploration of the meaning of the history bequeathed to them,” rather than writing down their own history.

9. Jews themselves are too busy. “[T]he primary Jewish task was to respond finally and fully to the biblical challenge of becoming a holy people.”

10. Any additions to the Tanakh might inadvertently derogate from its primacy (and, derivatively, the covenant between God and Israel). “In its ensemble the biblical record seemed capable of illuminating every further historical contingency.” Nothing else really is “relevant;” the Jews “had all the history they required.” “What had happened long ago had determined what had occurred since, and even provided the fundamental explanations for what was still transpiring.” “[E]ven major new events” can be subsumed to “familiar archetypes.”

11. There are no criteria to evaluate new works that might be additions to the Tanakh.

12. Jews may be embarrassed by their history because they are “indolent.”

13. The Hebrew language is not a good one to write history in; it is insufficiently “polished.”

14. Adding anything to the Tanakh might encourage “messianic activism,” such as the Bar Kochba revolt in 132 CE.

15. Writing down history might encourage “nostalgia for a vanished Jewish past.” yle=”">

16. Historians are arbitrary in what they write about, and they could impose their own predilections and biases. “The notion that everything in the past is worth knowing ‘for its own sake’ is a mythology of modern historians.”

17. History is too gruesome. What happened in between the fall of Masada in the second century and the return to Zion in the late nineteenth century is a “nightmare best forgotten.”

18. We might feel guilty about the past. “One could assemble an entire anthology of Jewish pasts in the modern world, some sublime, others pathetic and crippling.”

19. Only by transforming the Tanakh to the status of “ritual and liturgical” would it have any “real chance for survival and permanence.” In this way, the events of the Tanakh become “reactualized.” “[H]istory has as yet no intrinsic value, but is still completely subordinate to traditional concerns.” Indeed, Jews might not “need” history to begin with; “[I]t is not modern Jewish historiography that has shaped modern Jewish conceptions of the past. Literature and ideology have been far more decisive.”

20. Prior to the Spanish expulsion of 1492, there were no “historical crises” that might have stimulated historical writing.

21. Historical Jews did not recognize historiography as a “legitimate and recognized genre” of writing. “Historical works of any kind” were held in “relatively low esteem.” Reading them is a “frivolous waste of time” that “could otherwise be devoted to the serious study of sacred texts.”

Yerushalmi’s theses, as we might call them, present several issues. The main one is that what he’s saying could apply just as well to any other point in time. If they’re not unique to the Tanakh era, then they lose their probative force and validity. Indeed, several of them sound a lot like some kind of ex post facto justification or rationalization.

Even more puzzling is Yerushalmi’s emphasis on “oral tradition” or “collective memory,” by which apocryphal stories are handed down through the ages. “The modern effort to reconstruct the Jewish past begins at a time that witnesses a sharp break in the continuity of Jewish living and hence also an ever-growing decay of Jewish group memory,” Yerushalmi, op. cit. at 86. And: “The decline of Jewish collective memory in modern times is only a symptom of the unraveling of that common network of belief and praxis through whose mechanisms . . . the past was once made present,” Yerushalmi, op. cit. at 94.

For me, at least, the concept of “collective memory” is particularly incomprehensible. Is it some kind of quivering protoplasm, hovering over us in the sky? The closest analogy I can think of is the Internet, but that is a creature of recent times. And, the biggest problem with the Internet is not so much its ability to store and archive information, but rather, the discrimination and discernment mechanisms that must be devised in order to tease useful information from it. If the Internet means it no longer is realistic to think anymore in terms of an “oral tradition,” it still doesn’t solve the problem of “collective memory.” All that such a notion possibly could comprise is a collection of individual memories. Yerushalmi commits himself, from an epistemological standpoint, to the concept that collective memory is something like a set comprising the intersection of all of the sets of individual memories. But this can’t be right, either, because all of us selectively remember events, making individual memory unreliable. Yerushalmi himself acknowledges “how short and fickle human memory can be,” Yerushalmi, op. cit. at 10. Then, there is the question of how to decide what to remember, what are the criteria for including individual memories into the collective group memories, and how do they metamorphosize into that state. I can’t imagine how one might extrapolate from individual experiences, into the sense of memory, or continuity, Yerushalmi envisions.

People don’t “live in history,” or live with a sense that they are “making history.” Rather, they just go about living their lives. “The present is the filling of a moment of time with reality; this is experience, in contrast to the memory of it … This filling up with reality is what persists continuously and always as time progresses, though the content of experience is constantly changing,” Dilthey, W. (ed. Rickman, H. P.), Pattern and Meaning in History 98 (1962 ed.). “Historical thought is of something which can never be a this, because it is never a here and now. Its objects are events which have finished happening, and conditions no longer in existence. Only when they are no longer perceptible do they become objects for historical thought,” Collingwood, R. G., The Idea of History 233 (1946).

As a consequence, we might be – and probably are – “making” history, without even knowing it. This unquestionably is what happened to the Talmudic and midrashic scholars. They simply were living in their own time, and did not understand its significance.

Regardless of these epistemological nuances, the simple fact of the matter is that history hasn’t ended; we’re not somehow stranded in time. The Tanakh’s emphasis on events that happened thousands of years ago is fine, so far as it goes; I certainly don’t advocate doing away with it. However, a focus on that period alone tends to overemphasize their historical significance, especially in relationship to events that arguably are as, if not more, impactful. Like the Holocaust, for example. In this way, the preeminence of the Tanakh inadvertently derogates from the importance of other events.

Isn’t the need for subsequent generations to remember, say, the Holocaust, as important as the memory, say, of the Golden Calf? I’m not saying that people will forget
the Holocaust overnight. But, there are many important events in any type of history that slowly recede into oblivion. It’s nobody’s fault, they just get submerged under the crushing weight of time’s forward march. The Tanakh has prevented this from happening to the early events of Jewish history. But what will be around in, say, 5,000 years, to ensure the recollection of other events, as well?

In Jesus and Yahweh – The Names Divine, Mr. Bloom suggests (in effect) that a modern updating of the Tanakh might include authors such as Freud, and Kafka. I don’t think this is a good idea. Rather, I think it needs to be freshly written from scratch, probably by a specially-appointed committee of eminent scholars. It shouldn’t be an anthology; nor should it be a history, per se, just like the Song of Deborah isn’t history. It might be written in the same style as the Tanakh, though this isn’t a necessary requirement; it certainly shouldn’t be written in iambic pentameter. So, let’s get on it, OK?