podcast hiatus

October 27, 2022


Thanks to those who have asked – the podcast is on hiatus for the time being.

You can still find the previous 2 years worth of podcasts here (click “older entries” if you need to, or simply search for them in the sidebar). Subscribe by email, if you haven’t already, to follow the writing I post here.

Meanwhile, subscribe to my new Torah Talk blog on Substack or follow it in a shorter version on the Times of Israel website with this RSS feed.

At my new Bible Guy blog, also on Substack, I’m reading the Bible carefully and closely, starting with the story of creation in Genesis 1. Please do join me there too!

And don’t forget to learn Biblical Hebrew with me!

Wisdom Literature

May 30, 2023

One of the courses I most loved to teach — one I didn’t teach as often as I would have liked — was a course called Wisdom Literature.  At one of the places I taught, this course was called “Making Peace with Reality.”  Elsewhere, it had a more specific description, one that offers you the simplest possible definition of the term: “Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job.”

We’ll come back to coping with reality before this post is finished.  Right now, let’s have a look at why those three biblical books fall under the rubric of Wisdom Literature.  The key is a verse from Jeremiah.  His enemies are scheming to get rid of him, but (as he quotes them in Jer 18:18) they are not worried that they will lose anything by no longer having to listen to him:

There will be no loss of teaching [תורה] from the priest, nor counsel [עצה] from the sage, nor oracle [דבר] from the prophet.

If you like, this is the abbreviated biblical discussion of epistemology: how we know what we know.  There are three sources of knowledge:

• תורה [torah], the traditions that our priests hand down to us.

• דבר [davar], the word of God transmitted to us via God’s prophets.

• עצה [etzah], the advice that a sage can give.

A “sage” in the Jeremiah verse is a חכם ḥakham, someone “wise” as this word would be translated when it’s an adjective, and wisdom is חכמה ḥokhmah.

Where do these three kinds of knowledge come from?

Prophecy comes directly from God to the prophet in real time.  There is no more immediate way for a person who is not a prophet to gain knowledge than this.  That is why Jewish tradition says that a slave-girl — the lowest social rank they could imagine — saw more at Mount Sinai, when the Torah was given, than Isaiah or Ezekiel ever experienced.  This kind of knowledge is divine.

Tradition comes from God as well, but not in real time.  It is passed down (according to this Jeremiah verse) through the priesthood, and they provide it to the rest of us when necessary.  This kind of knowledge is called torah, a word that due to the Greek Bible is often translated into English as “law,” but which really means “teaching” or “instruction.”  Because of its original source, this kind of knowledge is also divine.

Wisdom is different.  Wisdom is human.

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In an earlier day, “wisdom” might have been called “philosophy” in English.  It encompasses all of human thought about the world, ranging from technical skill to the most profound questions about existence.  It’s by no means non-religious, but it focuses on the ways human beings can use their own minds to understand reality — and, at its most profound, how to “make peace” with the reality we experience.

Most of the books of the Bible fall into the categories of history or prophecy or belles-lettres (what we today would call “literature”).  All of these are focused on God’s role in the world and more specifically on God’s relationship with the Jews (“Israel”).  Even the love poetry of the Song of Songs is in the Bible because it is traditionally reinterpreted as being religious poetry.

But three biblical books, the ones I mentioned at the top of this post, aim the focus in the opposite direction.  Let’s discuss them in turn.  (You can read more about them in “Voices of the Wise,” Chapter 7 of my book The Bible’s Many Voices.) As we’ll see, they all connect wisdom to religious belief, but in three very different ways.

Proverbs explicitly states, in its first words after naming the book as “the proverbs of Solomon,” that its purpose is to get people “to know wisdom [לָדַ֣עַת חָכְמָ֣ה la-da’at ḥokhmah]” (Prov 1:2).  Indeed, before the collection of proverbs begins in chapter 10, the first nine chapters of the book are poems in praise of Wisdom, personified in Proverbs 8–9 and again in Prov 31:10–31 as a woman.

We’re told in 1 Kings 5 that “God endowed Solomon with wisdom and discernment in great measure” (v. 9) and that he “composed three thousand proverbs” (v. 12).  For present purposes, the point is to say that the proverbs in the book of Proverbs are understood to be epitomes of wisdom, “knowledge in a nutshell.”  The most trite-sounding of them, if you slow down and spend time with it, can open up a profound discussion about values.

Indeed, Proverbs presents itself as a book of instruction, and it is generally assumed that it is largely composed of material that was used to train an educated class of ancient Israelites, perhaps even the scribes who were responsible for transmitting the Bible itself to us.  This is “mainstream” wisdom, which presumes and accepts the standard beliefs of religion and does not explicitly challenge them.  Proverbs announces from the very start that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7).

Ecclesiastes (or Qohélet, as the book and the character who speaks it are called in Hebrew), does challenge those beliefs.  It is the one book of the Bible where we really do feel that we are meeting an individual speaking directly to us about himself, albeit from behind a sort of mask.  The key word of the book is הבל hevel, a word that literally refers to “gas” or “vapor,” something one cannot really get hold of.  (That is also the Hebrew name of Abel in Genesis 4, which tells you his parents did not give him that name.  Stay tuned to my Bible Guy blog on Substack for more discussion on that point.)  It’s the word we know from the King James translation as “vanity of vanities,” but we don’t use the word vanity this way in English any more.  The best short, accessible explanation of what Qohelet is talking about I know of is Lisa Wolfe’s on the Bible Odyssey platform, where university scholars of the Bible present their work for the public.

The basic platform of the book of Proverbs is that honesty is the best policy.  It’s intelligent to do the right thing.  The opposite of righteous is not “evil,” but foolish.  Qohelet, however, doesn’t think intelligence, or human effort of any kind, guarantees good results.  What makes his book wisdom literature is that Qohelet describes how he has tried to live in the wisest possible way, but the nature of the world frustrates his attempts.  Eventually, the voice that begins and ends the book, having presented the words of Qohelet to us, concludes, “Fear God and keep His commandments” (Eccl 12:13).

Job has an individual voice as clear as that of Qohelet — but we don’t get the feeling that we are learning anything about the writer who is speaking to us.  He is a brilliant writer; I call him the Beethoven of the Bible.  But don’t ask me anything about who he was or when he lived.  (I do think that he lived after the return from Babylonian exile, since according to the scholar of Hebrew language Avi Hurvitz the prose story that frames the book is written in Late Biblical Hebrew.  I present that work in more depth as the conclusion to my LBH series on this blog.)

Everyone knows that the book of Job discusses, in broad terms, the problem we call in English “when bad things happen to good people.”  The Hebrew expression is terser: צדיק ורע ללו tzadik v’ra lo ‘someone righteous who has it bad’.  There are many ways to understand the book, yet the amazingly intricate, even learned poetry that makes up most of the book cannot obscure the basic plot of the easily readable story that frames the poetry: Although Job is righteous, bad things happen to him because God wants to win a bet.  This is not an explanation of how to be wise, nor of a search for wisdom, but a drama that calls the things wisdom examines into question.  I’ve written in my Many Voices book that I read the book of Job like a symphony, and to me its center is the 2nd movement, the “adagio” of Job 28, where we read, as in the other two books, that “Fear of the Lord is wisdom” (Job 28:28).

There are two final points I want to make in this post, and then I’ll stop. Otherwise I’ll be tempted to teach the entire semester’s worth of material in one ultralong session.

• There are other parts of the Bible that seem to be influenced by the wisdom literature or by “wisdom attitudes” — that is, looking at the world with the help of the human mind, not necessarily to the exclusion of prophetic oracles or priestly tradition.  The most important of these for me is the book of Deuteronomy.  As I discuss in my book Theologies of the Mind in Biblical Israel, to me it seems that Deuteronomy came directly out of the “mainstream” wisdom tradition that we find represented in the book of Proverbs.  If, as I think, the author of the Holiness Code was trying to combine a priestly perspective with that of Deuteronomy, we might expect to find traces of “wisdom” in the Torah as well.  I look for them particularly in H (Leviticus 17–26), in the Joseph story, and in Genesis 2–3 and its story of the Tree of Knowledge.  There are wisdom psalms as well, for example Psalm 19.

•   Because wisdom is human and not divine, Wisdom Literature even in the Bible itself can look to the equivalent material in other cultures for perspectives on how to live, small picture and big picture alike.  Ecclesiastes is well-known for quoting from the Epic of Gilgamesh, and though it’s less well-known, Proverbs 22:17–23:14 seems to be a Hebrew writer’s version of the Egyptian “Instruction of Amenemope.”  One might want to call some of the Bible’s legal texts wisdom literature in this sense, since they adapt and revise laws from the ancient Near East that were written to cope with some of the same social and economic situations that faced the Israelites.  It’s clear that the laws of Exodus 21­–23 (“The Covenant Code”) are a continuation of the Babylonian legal tradition we find in the Code of Hammurabi and elsewhere.  But that’s a post for another time.

Ruth & Shavuot

May 24, 2023

My Jewish readers will know that the festival of Shavuot begins on Thursday evening, and that it’s traditional as part of the Shavuot observance to read the book of Ruth. So the various online sources that offer Jewish learning tend to pay a lot of attention to Ruth at this time of year.

My friends at thetorah.com are no different, and this year they are featuring an article by Jonathan Rabinowitz called “The Dark Side of the Book of Ruth: Sexual Harassment in the Field.” I’m happy to say the article spends a lot of time with some of the work I’ve done on that subject, starting with an article for the Brandeis Review (when I was still a graduate student) on sexual harassment in the ancient Israelite workplace. Don’t miss the companion torah.com essay by Adele Reinhartz pointing out something else I’ve been saying for years: Ruth sells the tickets, but this is really “The Book of Naomi.”

Rabinowitz’s essay links to the journal article I eventually published in ZAW (and here is the link again). You can also find some of my work on Ruth on the Bible Odyssey platform and on the Israeli 929 chapter-a-day Bible site (along with a couple of other articles by me).

Don’t forget to …

follow the weekly Torah reading cycle with me

follow my close reading of the book of Genesis

learn Biblical Hebrew with me

• watch / listen to interviews with me here and here

buy me a coffee to go with my cheesecake!

Wishing everyone a חג שמח chag same’ach!

Purim 5783

March 7, 2023

Because the authoritative Journal of Jocular Studies has not yet been digitized and some of its authors are looking for their articles, here are two issues from the glory days of the Journal:

JJS for Purim 5750

JJS for Purim 5751

Paragraphs & Semi-Paragraphs

February 13, 2023

I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that the verses the Bible is divided into are Jewish, but the chapter divisions are Christian.  The verse divisions date at least to the time of the Mishnah (ca. 200 CE); the chapter divisions are 1,000 years newer than that and were not adopted by Jews for another 250-300 years.  However, the Jewish system also divides the text into larger sections than verses.

For example, it’s well known that the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, comprising the Torah/Pentateuch, are divided into 54 sections so that reading continuously will let you finish the entire Torah over the course of a year.  There are 54 sections and not 52 because the Jewish calendar is based on lunar months (like the Muslim calendar) but on a solar year (like the secular calendar that the world has adopted from Christianity) and you sometimes need as many as 54 separate portions.  Most years have fewer than 54 weeks, so some of the readings are combined.  (Look here for a more detailed explanation of the Jewish calendar and here for a convenient online calendar with all the details.)

In this post I’m going to look at the divisions that are one level up from verse divisions.  If you think of a biblical verse as a sentence – which it roughly, but not strictly, is – the next level up would be that of paragraphs.  The Bible, however, has two different kinds of paragraphs, and two different ways of marking the two kinds of paragraphs.

The two kinds are the “Paragraphs & Semi-Paragraphs” of my title.  The visual way of marking them suggests that one is a more significant break than the other; that’s why one of them is only “semi” a paragraph.

The way they’re marked is by leaving space at the end.  With what I’m calling a “semi-paragraph,” you leave a significant space after you finish the verse (or, rarely, in the middle of a verse), but then you continue writing on the same line.  Like this:          With a paragraph, the separation works the same way it does with our English-language paragraphs: you leave the rest of the line blank before you continue writing.  Like this:

If you have ever seen the writing in a Torah scroll, you have noticed this system in action.  Another place to see it is in the kind of book called a Tikkun Kor’im (תיקון קוראים) or simply a Tikkun for short; this is what Torah readers use to prepare to read from a scroll.  You can get a feel for how it looks visually with this handy Wikimedia document.  But some printings of the Bible mark those divisions without the extra spacing.

As I’ve mentioned several times on the podcast, the Hebrew text of the Bible consists of two basic kinds of marks: (1) alphabetical letters, and (2) other marks to help you understand how to pronounce the letters that you see.  In ancient times, as in synagogue Torah scrolls and (now) throughout modern Israel, the letters or “consonants” were all that was needed.  That’s why in Israel nowadays you see relatively few vowel signs except in poetry and in children’s books.

Before the vowel signs and punctuation marks were invented, the letters of the alphabet were used for some of these additional, help-the-reader purposes — and they continue to be used in some ways today.  For example, the “Arabic” numerals used all over the world (warning: those are not the numerals actually used in Arabic today!) are supplemented in Hebrew by using letters as numerals.

In the graphic below, you can see a semi-paragraph followed by a paragraph.  Really it is not about the length of the writing (at least one entire weekly Torah portion, Miketz, has no internal breaks whatsoever) — it is about the length of the break following the paragraph or semi-paragraph.  This is a section of Torah from Num 26:47-51:

But if we look at that same passage in some printed Bibles, we find this:

‏בְּנֵי־אָשֵׁ֖ר לִפְקֻדֵיהֶ֑ם שְׁלֹשָׁ֧ה וַחֲמִשִּׁ֛ים אֶ֖לֶף וְאַרְבַּ֥ע מֵאֽוֹת׃ ס ‎48‏ בְּנֵ֤י נַפְתָּלִי֙ לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֔ם לְיַ֨חְצְאֵ֔ל מִשְׁפַּ֖חַת הַיַּחְצְאֵלִ֑י לְגוּנִ֕י מִשְׁפַּ֖חַת הַגּוּנִֽי׃ ‎49‏ לְיֵ֕צֶר מִשְׁפַּ֖חַת הַיִּצְרִ֑י לְשִׁלֵּ֕ם מִשְׁפַּ֖חַת הַשִּׁלֵּמִֽי׃ ‎50‏ אֵ֛לֶּה מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת נַפְתָּלִ֖י לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֑ם וּפְקֻ֣דֵיהֶ֔ם חֲמִשָּׁ֧ה וְאַרְבָּעִ֛ים אֶ֖לֶף וְאַרְבַּ֥ע מֵאֽוֹת׃ ‎51‏ אֵ֗לֶּה פְּקוּדֵי֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל שֵׁשׁ־מֵא֥וֹת אֶ֖לֶף וָאָ֑לֶף שְׁבַ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת וּשְׁלֹשִֽׁים׃ פ

What’s going on?  For whatever reason, printed Bibles often replace those spaces with two different letters of the alphabet that symbolize the breaks rather than representing them with empty space.  (The right-hand column of that Wikimedia tikkun seems to use both methods.)  The two letters that are used are ס and פ, standing for these two Hebrew words.

ס     סתומה       setumah, “sealed up”

פ     פתוחה       petuchah, “opened”

parashah setumah or “sealed up” paragraph is followed by a break that does not extend to the end of its line, like the break after the census record of Asher in the Numbers text above.  A parashah petuḥah or “opened” paragraph is followed by a space that is open all the way to the end of the line.  In this census data from Numbers 26, the entry for Asher is followed by a semi-break; that for Naphtali, the last entry in the census, has no break after it (!), but it is then followed by the grand total and an open, full break.  As in this example, the smaller break separates smaller units, and the larger break comes at the end of a larger unit, but the rationale is not always the same as a modern editor would use.

You can see an interesting example in the story of creation.  Each of the seven “days” of Genesis 1 and the beginning of Genesis 2 are followed by open (פ) section breaks, making them paragraphs.  But after that we see no space until the two sealed (ס) breaks turning Gen 3:16 into a semi-paragraph of its own, and then another open (פ) break after 3:21.  Like the punctuation marks, which I’ll discuss another time, these two kinds of spaces can serve as a silent commentary of their own, one which the reader must puzzle out.

The Bible as Constitution

October 24, 2022

Here’s a quote from Lawrence Wills’ recent book, Introduction to the Apocrypha (hat tip to Malka Simkovich’s review of it in the Jewish Review of Books): “If different religious traditions grant authority to a Bible as a sort of constitution, the extra texts then indicate a shadow zone where the constitution is negotiated or expanded.” 

The Apocrypha, of course, as Wills’ subtitle explains, are “extra” in the sense that they are “Jewish Books in Christian Bibles.”  They are not considered biblical by Jews and are not really read by Jews (though one of them, Ecclesiasticus or the Book of Ben Sira, is occasionally quoted in the Talmud as if it were part of the Bible).  You can read these books, and more about them from a Jewish perspective, in The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha, by Wills and Jonathan Klawans.         

But the remark got me thinking.  Exactly which religious traditions are they, that “grant authority to a Bible as a sort of constitution”?

My model for a constitution, of course, is our United States Constitution, fashioned a few blocks from where I sit, in Philadelphia.  Do read Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Miracle at Philadelphia for a charming version of the story of how it was created, and then go to the website of the National Constitution Center, a few blocks north of Independence Hall, for a deeper dive.

The U.S. Constitution tells you (in the preamble) what its purpose is, and then outlines the rules for running the country that will go into effect if accepted by enough of the states previously belonging to “the United States of North America,” organized under the Articles of Confederation.  The Bible is nothing like this.

The Bible begins with the words, “When God began to create heaven and earth …” or something of the kind.  (See the current series on my new Bible Guy Substack for an intense discussion of these words, starting here.)  If the Constitution had resembled the biblical model, it would have had to start something like this:  “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another …”  Whoops, that’s the Declaration of Independence.

Speaking just from a Jewish perspective, and about the Jewish Bible (on the differences between Bibles, see here and here), we don’t treat it like a constitution.  Wills does note, in his chapter on historical texts:  “In 1 Maccabees Judaism is sometimes described in political terms, with the law of Moses as a constitution” – using the Greek word πολιτεία.  Jonathan Goldstein’s Anchor Bible commentary notes, “Jewish Greeks, including Philo and Josephus, had no trouble using the Greek word politeia (‘constitution,’ ‘republic,’ ‘citizenship,’ or ‘civic institution’) for the law of the Torah.”

But those Jewish Greeks left little trace in Jewish thought.  If I had to identify a Jewish “constitution,” it would be the Mishnah.  It’s the Mishnah that outlines how Judaism, including the Jewish state it imagined would come back into being, is supposed to work.  The Mishnah gave its shape to the Talmud, and in more complicated ways to the Shulhan Arukh, which might be called the “active” constitution of today’s Judaism — to the extent that there is one.

That leaves a nagging question:  What exactly is the Bible?  That is, what kind of book is it?  What is its function in the Judaism of today, if it is not a constitution?  Is the Bible the constitution, if not of the Jews, then of Protestant or Catholic Christians?

I won’t presume to answer that question, but I’m remembering a story that Daniel Harrington told at Penn, when he, Marc Brettler, and Peter Enns came to introduce their book, The Bible and the Believer.  A Jehovah’s Witness team came to their door when he was a kid, and asked his mother, “Could we talk to you about the Bible?”  His mother answered — her voice, as he reenacted the story, dripping with scorn — “We’re Catholic.  We don’t read the Biiiiible.”  

So I don’t imagine “constitution” is the correct word to describe how Catholics “grant authority to the Bible.”  There’s such a wide variety of Protestantism, about which I know fairly little, that I won’t presume to say whether this is true for them as well.  But I’ll venture so far as to say that if the book tells you not to eat bacon and you eat bacon anyway, that book may be a lot of things, but not a constitution.

That still leaves open the question of what kind of writing the Bible actually is — not intrinsically, but what kind of book the various religions treat it as.  My impression is that Christians think of the Bible as a whole as a message to humanity from God.  Jews, I believe, treat it more as the story of our relationship with God.

Whether it is a message or a story, the Bible is not really a single book – it is a library.  It contains legends, laws, history, poetry, and wisdom.  But you can heft a single volume in your hand and call it a Bible.  What kind of book is that Bible, as a book?  

The easiest, most straightforward, and perhaps most accurate answer to what kind of book the Bible is would be to say:  It is a Bible.  This may sound tautological, but it isn’t, quite.  Books in other areas of life may be called The Fisherman’s BibleThe Poker Player’s BibleThe Beer Can Collector’s Bible, and so on.  That’s because the Bible is somehow thought of as comprehensive.  Its nature as a collection is what originally made it so.

And a Jewish Bible is actually much more likely to be a multi-volume set rather than a single “book.”  What really happened is that scrolls were replaced by a new technology called the codex, and that created “the Bible.”  Deciding what kind of book a Bible is came afterward.

V’zot ha-Bracha 5782-83

October 18, 2022

This is Torah Talk for the week of October 16th, 2022

Deut. 34:6 

He buried him [וַיִּקְבֹּ֨ר אֹת֤וֹ] in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beth-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day.

The “him” who was buried is Moses – but who buried him … and how?

This week’s handout: 54 V’zot ha-Bracha 5782-83

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Ha’azinu 5782-83

October 4, 2022

This is Torah Talk for the week of October 2nd, 2022

Deut. 32:2   May my discourse come down as the rain [כַּמָּטָר֙],

                      My speech distill as the dew [כַּטַּ֖ל],

                      Like showers [כִּשְׂעִירִ֣ם] on young growth,

                      Like droplets [וְכִרְבִיבִ֖ים] on the grass.

If you are a Bible translator, you must translate the word רְבִיבִ֖ים.  Most translators are just guessing at what it means – but Raanan Eichler really knows.

This week’s handout: 53 Ha’azinu 5782-83

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Vayelech 5782-83

September 27, 2022

This is Torah Talk for the week of September 25th, 2022

Deut. 31:1  Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel.
Did he really?  He was already speaking to them!  So where did he “go”?  The Dead Sea Scrolls may have the answer.

This week’s handout: 52 Vayelech 5782-83

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Click here for more links or to contact me.

Follow Michael’s new blog!

September 22, 2022

On the Jewish calendar, we are about to start a new year – and that means we’ll soon be starting the Torah all over again with the book of Genesis.

On “Torah Talk” it goes by in a flash. But now I’m starting a new series that will begin with an extremely slow and close reading of the first story of creation, in Gen 1:1-2:3.

Please join me over at my new Bible Guy site! Thank you!