Letters, Winter 2024

Reconstructing the Bible

I’d like to take issue with Ethan Schwartz’s recent essay “You Say You Want a Revelation” reviewing Edward Feld’s The Book of Revolutions.

Feld did not wing it or merely “read between the lines,” as Schwartz states. Feld cleanly lays out evidence that for those who wrote the Torah, “the decision to be inclusive, to incorporate vying ideologies and legal sources in a single work, had lasting effect. The editing of the Five Books ensured that though there was a broad direction pointing to a common Jewish life, there was not a single, right pathway to that life, even though many would try to formulate a single-minded summary of Torah.” Specifically, Feld describes the self-conscious efforts of the “Josianic revolution” to reclaim the lost memories of the ancestral faith and then to recast the memories to be accessible to a new generation. He presents contrasting medieval and modern philosophical interpretations of Deuteronomy, explaining how its original tension of exclusiveness and admiration for common humanity were refashioned by the prophets (and later composers of our prayers.) And Feld passionately describes how the Holiness Code enunciates a vision of achievable justice and service to God, and that influences the more recent debates on Torah’s realism versus idealism.

Feld argues that one must read for the ambiguities, overlapping stories, recomposed legal codes, and direct cultural borrowings to grasp that the Torah was an attempt to meld the many Israelite peoples and schools of thought into a unified endeavor.

I urge Mr. Schwartz to more closely track the sequence of Feld’s argument and evidence so that Schwartz more accurately describes the nuances that Feld has so well presented.

John S. Schechter
South Hadley, MA

I was taken aback by Ethan Schwartz’s review of my book, The Book of Revolutions: The Battles of Priests, Prophets, and Kings That Birthed the Torah (“You Say You Want a Revelation,” Fall 2023). It seemed to me that he was using it as a foil for his argument and so missed much of what is interesting in the book and much of its subtlety.

Schwartz dismisses my scholarship by declaring that all biblical historical texts are artifacts of the Second Temple, writing, “Today, most scholars instead recognize that all these texts reflect the agendas of the later scribes in the Second Temple period who curated and updated them throughout a long, continuous process of transmission.” Yet earlier in his review, arguing with other authors, he notes that much of the Covenant Code was written in the shadow of Babylonian legal codes—that is, that they reflect a cultural world much earlier than Second Temple times.

Similarly, the verse “Whoever sacrifices to a god other than Adonai shall be proscribed” (Ex. 22:19) reflects a First Temple condition in which Israelites believed that their God was to be worshipped exclusively but did not deny the existence of divinities worshipped by other nations. The verse is critical for my argument that the Covenant Code represents a moment of national revolution in Israel. This central verse is clearly not an artifact of Second Temple times; rather, it represents an earlier outlook.

Further, I show how the verse “When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you nevertheless raise it with him” (Ex. 23:5) was reworked in Deuteronomy and that one can therefore demonstrate earlier texts and later revisions. These early texts are examples I give of the theological and ethical revolution I argue for. Is Schwartz claiming that these verses are Second Temple reworkings? I don’t think he could defend such a position. One has to be subtle in deciding what materials might reflect early Israelite and First Temple writings and Second Temple editing and not subsume everything with grand and magisterial statements.

In this vein, Schwartz accuses me of using the early prophets to justify my historical story, arguing that the historical books of the prophets are unreliable because they are the work of Second Temple scribes. Yet twice he asserts that the Deuteronomic Code is essentially the product of the Josianic revolution, as I and most biblical scholars do. What is his source for this, other than the reports in Kings and Chronicles?

I would not deny that these texts are edited in Second Temple times; even by its own account, Kings is edited after Israel’s subjugation by Babylonia. But what I do argue is that one can use them with care. I myself point to the way their ideological agenda led to historical revisionism in some cases. But, as I also argue, if we throw them out completely, then we are left with a historical blank—we can say nothing about biblical history. While that radical position is indeed adopted by some, I believe that it is mistaken; that with careful analysis, with attention to archaeological findings, and with reference to the documentation in surrounding cultures, one can attempt some historical reconstruction. And that is exactly how I proceed in my book.

Schwartz begins his review by saying that contemporary theologians do not offer an adequate thesis squaring the circle of Torah, biblical scholarship, and revelation. What I offered in The Book of Revolutions is a notion of Torah as the many-layered human attempt to translate into law prophetic teaching. This view preserves both the idea of revelation and our modern understanding of historical development. Second, I argue that the Torah—even as Schwartz would have it, the work of Second Temple scribes—preserves three distinct views of the meaning of the law. These different approaches have had a continuous and distinct history in Jewish thought, something I trace in my book. The appeal of Torah is precisely the several distinct theological approaches the Torah offers for understanding religious obligation. In this view, the differences in the Torah are not contradictions to be resolved but different ways of seeing our ethical and religious responsibilities that speak to the complexity of human beings, all three of which offer us important theological perspectives. It’s regrettable that Schwartz ends his essay implying that it is only his kind of biblical scholarship that can offer us “revelation,” thus denying the signal contribution of any approach other than his own.

Edward Feld
via email

Ethan Schwartz Responds:

Unfortunately, Rabbi Feld’s response to my review reflects the same misunderstanding of contemporary Bible scholarship that plagues the book itself. I did not say (and do not believe) that the Hebrew Bible was written whole cloth in the Second Temple period or has no relation whatsoever to historical events during the First Temple period. Rather, I said that the Bible was reworked sufficiently thoroughly in the Second Temple period as to limit (not preclude!) our ability to use it for reconstructing First Temple history. This is suggested by the compositional patterns in the Bible itself and in analogous noncanonical Second Temple literature.

Feld’s response shows that he has conflated relative dating (how literary sources relate to each other) with absolute dating (how literary sources relate to history). He writes that a certain law in the Covenant Code “was reworked in Deuteronomy and that one can therefore demonstrate earlier texts and later revisions. These early texts are examples I give of the theological and ethical revolution I argue for.” This is a claim about relative dating, and it is certainly correct. The problem is that his argument about a series of revolutions depends upon mapping this relative dating onto absolute dating—that is, saying when in history the Covenant Code and Deuteronomy were written, not just which came first. There is precious little evidence with which to do so in a historically responsible manner.

Feld rightly observes that I myself affirm one claim of absolute dating: that Deuteronomy originated with Josiah’s reform. He alleges that in doing so, I’m employing a double standard, making claims of absolute dating when it suits me but criticizing Feld for doing so. However, there is quite a bit of daylight between how we each approach this argument. For me, it is simply the strongest inference from the data—plausible, even compelling, but at the end of the day, still basically speculative. For Feld, it is so rock-solid that it may explain the essential framework and purpose of Deuteronomy within the canonical Torah. My approach to Deuteronomy can accommodate the (entirely reasonable) possibility that the Josiah story is a literary creation in the “found text” genre. Feld’s cannot.

Whereas Feld celebrates what he describes as the pluralism of the redacted Torah, he accuses me of “implying that it is only [my] kind of biblical scholarship that can offer us ‘revelation,’ thus denying the signal contribution of any approach other than [my] own.” In fact, I implied no such thing. I said that Jewish readers of critical scholarship may still experience this scholarship as religiously meaningful even without shoehorning it into neat unifying theories. The problem isn’t that Feld identifies diverse perspectives in the Torah. I’m a Bible scholar, after all—doing that is my whole job. The problem, rather, is that Feld pegs the fundamental meaning of the relationship between those diverse perspectives on understandings of Israelite history and biblical composition that are, at best, severely outdated.

The truth is that, on some level, I am sympathetic to Feld’s frustration. I, too, wish that it were possible to reconstruct preexilic Israelite history confidently! But the question isn’t what we want. The question is what the evidence supports. Feld’s argument goes beyond the evidence. He objects, “If we throw [the Bible] out completely, then we are left with a historical blank—we can say nothing about biblical history.” To be clear, we can say more than nothing about biblical history—but, alas, far less than Feld would prefer. Being a critical scholar means accepting such limitations. It is Feld’s failure to do so that makes his book a work of apologetics, even as he (rightly) embraces the Bible’s human authorship.

Unsanctioned Translation

I read with great interest Yitz Landes’s perceptive essay on the new translation of the Mishnah (“Mysterious Mishnah,” Fall 2023). Landes mentions that the first Jewish-authored English translation of at least part of the text was published by David Aaron de Sola and Morris Jacob Raphall in London in 1843. There’s an interesting backstory to that translation.

Raphall is largely remembered today for the proslavery sermon he delivered to his Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York in January 1861 in the thick of the secession crisis. (I discuss this episode at length in my forthcoming book about American Jews, the struggle over slavery, and the Civil War.) Raphall is often depicted in discussions of the episode as a typical hidebound traditionalist, but the story behind his Mishnah translation complicates that view.

As a rabbi in Birmingham, England in the 1830s and 1840s, Raphall often stood alone. Reformers rejected his insistence on keeping Judaism more or less the same as it had always been, while traditionalist leaders tended to be uninterested in cultivating popular knowledge of secular subjects. Many feared and opposed the translation of sacred texts whose meaning and interpretation they had so long controlled. When the religious establishment refused to publish Raphall’s Mishnah translation, a wealthy, Reform-minded shipper stepped in and printed it without Raphall’s knowledge—even worse, he inserted a preface calling into question the divine authority of the text. Raphall appeared guilty of an unwarrantable challenge to rabbinic authority. The translators had to print a public letter disavowing the “anti-Judaic principles expressed in the preface.” The controversy likely helped push Raphall to decide he would leave Europe entirely. Like many of those who would become his fiercest antagonists, rabbis like Isaac Mayer Wise and David Einhorn who laid the foundations of American Reform Judaism, Raphall found he needed a freer field in which to labor for his vision.

There’s also the interesting fact that George Eliot drew on Raphall and de Sola’s Mishnah translation in her research for Daniel Deronda.

Richard Kreitner
Beacon, NY

Terrifying Integrity

It is fortunate that, given the makeup of the American electorate, the goals of the Integralist movement aptly depicted by Cole S. Aronson (“The Integralists and Us,” Fall 2023) are unlikely to be achieved, so long as this country remains a constitutional democracy. Since the integralists aim to overthrow the very foundation of our country’s tradition of religious toleration, which has lain at the core of our inheritance of individual freedom, prosperity, and civic peace, their policies would be antithetical to the outlook not only of nearly all non-Catholics but also, I suspect, that of most Catholic Americans as well.

A word must be added here regarding Harvard law professor Adam Vermeuel’s caricature of the alternative to integralist jurisprudence as a value-neutral approach to interpreting our country’s laws and Constitution. No serious legal scholar maintains that it is possible for judges’ understanding of what is just and beneficial not to enter into their textual interpretations. But originalists (of whom I am one) insist that their interpretations be constrained by a plausible reading of what the text says. As Alexander Hamilton explains in Federalist no. 78, the whole purpose of allowing federal judges to rule on the constitutionality of federal and state laws is to preserve our governing text against infringement by other branches of the government—not to substitute their will for the constitutional will expressed by the elected branches.

The  integralists join their (political) opposites,such as Berkeley law dean Erwin Chemerinsky (author of Originalism: Worse Than Nothing) in wanting judges to simply remake our system of government, without any legal warrant, to impose what Chemerinsky calls their “values”-that is, their arbitrary moral preferences-on a recalcitrant populace. It is that approach to the Constitution that gave us such legal monstrosities as the invention of  Constitutional “rights” to abortion and gay marriage that are nowhere contained or hinted at in that document, along with a host of other “progressive” (not truly liberal) demands, such as the right to disseminate pornography, or to be protected against nondenominational expressions of faith in God, that I believe has driven integralists,  rightly disgusted by the moral decay they see around them, to a similarly nonliberal extreme.

For a well-reasoned account of how the Constitution provides a solid grounding for religious liberty without succumbing to the demands of militant neutralists, I recommend the recent book by two distinguished Catholic legal scholars, Michael W. McConnell and Nathan S. Chapman, Agreeing to Disagree: How the Establishment Clause Protects Religious Diversity and Freedom of Conscience. A long-standing originalist literature, including Walter Berns’s Freedom, Virtue, and the First Amendment and Harry M. Clor’s Obscenity and Public Morality, refutes the claim that originalism entails a strict neutrality in judging the merits of alternative ways of life (such as, for instance, polygamy).

David Lewis Schaefer
Professor Emeritus of Political Science
College of the Holy Cross

The Lives of Lispector

To truly understand why Clarice (nee Chaya) Lispector is regarded as Latin America’s greatest woman writer (“‘I Am an Object Loved by God’: Rereading Clarice Lispector,” Fall 2023), one has to know something of the childhood traumas and early maternal object loss she suffered and attempted to overcome through her art. Psychoanalysts see the artist creating a world of his or her own to escape from an unbearable reality. Art becomes a private religion to master and self-heal trauma. Clarice’s father, coming from a family of religious scholars, was barred from a career in mathematics, much like Clarice was barred at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in a purge of Jewish journalists in Brazil. Her mother was gang-raped by Russian soldiers in Ukraine and infected with syphilis before Clarice was born, and Clarice was conceived according to the folk belief that pregnancy could cure a woman of venereal disease. Her mother died when Clarice was nine, and, unsurprisingly, a year later she claimed a desire to write. Thus Clarice was beset by a life of unremitting guilt, addiction to sleeping pills (oral longings), and a near reclusive withdrawal from the external world, where she fell asleep with a cigarette, setting fire to her apartment and severely burning much of her body and writing hand—an attempt to self-punish and expiate guilt through self-mortification.

Max Mulberg 
via email

I enjoyed Julia Kornberg’s excellent profile of my mother, Clarice Lispector. In reference to the fact that Clarice made no mention of the Holocaust in her letters during the war, I would like to clarify that diplomatic personnel were directed not to write letters with any war-related information, including the Holocaust and other humanitarian issues, so if intercepted there wouldn’t be details of positions.

Kornberg notes that my father was a lawyer, which is technically true; however, he never worked as a lawyer, since he was aiming to prepare for diplomatic service, which was a hard public selection with many examinations. In Brazil in the 40s, a student would go to law school if he or she didn’t go to engineering or medical school or go on directly to become a government employee. That is why my parents met in law school, even though Clarice never worked as a lawyer.

Paulo Gurgel Valente
via email

The History of Memory

I am responding to Sonya Michel’s review of My Hijacking: A Personal History of Forgetting and Remembering (“Memory and Terror,” Fall 2023), not to argue about irreconcilable narratives but rather to correct a number of errors and then to reflect briefly on that irreconcilability.

First, Michel writes that “the planes targeted were not just randomly chosen but all departing from Israel.” In fact, of the five planes hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in September 1970, only two departed from or stopped in Israel: the TWA flight and the foiled El Al flight. The Swissair, Pan Am, and BOAC (British) planes did not depart from Israel, nor did they stop there.

Second, Michel writes, “When her own research reveals that the hijackers were lying when they assured their captives they intended no bodily harm, she backs away.” Though Michel believes she understands the intent of my captors to lie and to harm their hostages, my research reveals that our captors offered their frightening messages to the world as the strategy of a hostage-taking mission, while their internal policy was (in the words of a PFLP leader) “not to hurt any civilian hostages, but to keep them only for exchange.” Nor do I back away. Rather, I write: “I find it fully plausible that the commandos never intended to make good on their threats to blow up the planes with the hostages inside. Yet that logical conclusion sits uncomfortably next to so much of what I learned in the course of reconstructing the experience. . . . Thinking back on the whole ordeal fifty years later, a fellow hostage put it this way: ‘It could have gone a thousand ways.’”

Michel writes in her article, “After the captive men and boys were removed from the plane, some of the women worried that they would be raped. Hodes retrospectively dismisses these fears as the product of stereotypical views of Arabs.” On the contrary, I do not dismiss those fears, nor do I mention stereotypical views of Arabs. Rather, I write: “With only women and children remaining, further anxieties surface. Most of our captors are men. Armed men engaged in warfare historically spell danger for women.” Moreover, I describe in detail a scene in which women hostages on the plane appealed to the women among our captors, who in turn vehemently warned their men against inappropriate behavior.

Michel also writes, “She fails to mention that the same [press] coverage inadvertently ended up giving the PFLP precisely the attention it was seeking.” In fact, I write, “By some measures, the Popular Front gained support after September 1970”; I quote the president of the University of Notre Dame: “No longer can the plight of the Palestine refugees be swept under the rug,” he said, and I quote the London Times, which noted “a gain in public awareness of the Palestinian case,” adding that “even some Israeli organizations . . . cautiously acknowledge that the Arabs may have scored some propaganda points.”

Michel argues that I do not focus on “the subsequent lives of the civilians who had been captured.” In fact, I write: “Repercussions kept their own timetable, and some of the hostages faced mean demons: apathy, dread, anxiety, depression, rage. Parents lived in fear for their children, and children felt afraid to be alone. Extroverts became introverts, and some just felt numb for a long time. Some who at first felt emotionally stable later developed serious symptoms, sometimes years later.” I then go on to discuss acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Finally, Michel writes that the term “commandos” (which I employ, along with “captors” and “hijackers”) was “the one with which they flattered themselves.” In fact, researching the book, I was interested to find that the mainstream US press in September 1970 did not consistently use the word “terrorists” but rather “guerrillas” and “commandos”; for example, a New York Times headline from September 10, 1970, reads, “Popular Front Most Militant Commando Group,” and a Washington Post headline from the next day reads, “The Commandos in Perspective”; likewise on September 30, ABC Evening News announced that “British authorities today released Leila Khaled, the Palestinian commando who was arrested when she tried to hijack an El Al plane.” As for “terrorist,” it is a term that scholars debate, one with shifting definitions, and historians must consider who applies the label to whom.

Aside from the above, there are many aspects of historical context in which Sonya Michel and I disagree. Anticipating such disagreements from some of my readers, I write in My Hijacking: “By the time my parents toured Israel with the Martha Graham Dance Company in the mid-1950s, Israeli and Palestinian perspectives had already hardened into virtually irreconcilable narratives,” and “the old irreconcilable narratives held firm over the years too. Where Israel’s supporters saw generosity rejected in negotiations, supporters of Palestinian rights saw the most meager of unjust compromises.” Different sides continue to tell histories of the same time and place in entirely different ways. Indeed, I thank Sonya Michel for a review that so clearly demonstrates the tragic endurance of those irreconcilable narratives—evident once again in the terrible October violence and the current terrible war. If readers wish to read the book, they will decide for themselves where their own hearts and minds stand.

Martha Hodes

via email

Sonya Michel Responds:

I appreciate Martha Hodes’s response to my review; I find, however, that she continues to equivocate in ways that obscure broader historical truths. While Hodes is correct, that only two of the five hijacked planes departed from  Israel, the broader significance of the selection of flights is that, no matter their origins or intended destinations, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine used the planes and their passengers as bargaining chips with the State of Israel. Moreover, as I point out in the review, the terrorists did distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish passengers on the planes they seized. Regarding the intent of the PFLP to harm or not harm the hostages, why does Hodes credit the PFLP’s private statements over their public ones? As she herself concedes, “threats of violence are necessary to attempt a hijacking”, yet she ends up equivocating about whether or not those of the PFLP were “fully plausible”. If she truly rejected terrorism, she would argue that even implausible threats are morally abhorrent.

Hodes rejects my comments on her treatment of her and other hostages’ fears of rape. Yes, she describes how two of the female terrorists warned their male counterparts against sexually harassing female hostages, but then she uses these efforts to praise the PFLP more generally for embracing gender equality. “The women were our allies, and in the Popular Front, women held power,” she writes, implying, presumably, that in this sense the PFLP was more progressive than American society at that time. Moreover, this anecdote acknowledges that the male terrorists did present a sexual threat to the female hostages.

Hodes also denies that she criticizes the hostages for holding stereotypical views of Arabs. Yet she implicitly does just that when she faults an “old woman” in her row for crying out, “‘I hope it’s not the Arabs!’” and likens the woman’s response to “1970 narratives of anti-Semitism [that] tended to invoke not ‘Muslims’ but ‘Arabs.’” Hodes’s argument here is particularly revealing. She points out that in fact the Popular Front was not “Muslim-Jihadist” but “Marxist-Leninist,” as though that would have somehow made them less threatening. Even if the frightened captive was able to make that distinction, she would have had good reason to fear being hijacked by any group of Arabs at that moment, when the entire Arab world was arrayed against Israel. More generally, Hodes seems willing to denounce Muslims, especially Jihadists, for becoming terrorists (“The 9/11 hijackers were different from our hijackers,” she writes), while implying that Marxist Leninism was justified in opposing Zionism.

In terms of the press coverage, the fact that the president of Notre Dame ended up acknowledging “the plight of the Palestine refugees” only serves to confirm my larger critique of using terrorist methods to draw attention to the condition of populations in crisis, when other methods are surely available. And despite her recognition that terrorism does cause harm, Hodes refrains from rejecting it clearly and unambiguously.

Hodes argues that the term “commandos” was commonly used at the time, but whatever label the hijackers’ press contemporaries used to refer to them, it was Hodes’s choice as a historian to decide what to call them, and this, in turn, reflects her position within the scholarly debate. Clearly she does not think of them as terrorists and thus criminals, whereas I do. There is no need to repeat the politically loaded euphemisms used by journalists writing at the time.

Finally, Hodes is correct that we subscribe to different “irreconcilable narratives,” but simply because they are different does not mean that they are equally valid, and as historians, we should be able to judge them on intellectual grounds. Moreover, at this particular moment, it is essential that we also draw out the moral and political implications of the narrative we choose. The upshot of My Hijacking is that Hodes refuses to criticize the use of terrorism in 1970. In my review, I assert that the PFLP’s success then “led to further acts of terrorism, even more lethal, including the Munich massacre two years later.” I might, of course, have mentioned 9/11—and now would have to include the Hamas attack on Israel in October 2023.


Suggested Reading

From Pittsburgh to the Holocaust

From Pittsburgh to the Holocaust

Jonathan D. Sarna

Journalist Mark Oppenheimer visited Pittsburgh thirty-two times and conducted 250 interviews to get the story of the Tree of Life massacre right. “Years from now,” Jonathan Sarna writes, “when people want to know what happened … this is the book to which they will probably turn.”

No Joke

Ruth R. Wisse

Sigmund Freud loved Jewish jokes and for many years collected material for the study that would appear in 1905 as Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. An excerpt from Ruth Wisse's new book No Joke: Making Jewish Humor.