October 10


The anniversary of the death, at the Biblically symmetrical age of 77, of Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, the "Ga'on" of Vilna who led the Mitnagdim against the Ba'al Shem Tov's Hasidim and contributed more than seventy books to traditional Jewish scholarship.

For such an orthodox man, so convinced of the Torah's origins "min ha shemayim" ("from the heavens"), of its absolute and unchallengeable legitimacy as an ethical and moral code, it is remarkable to find how open he was to such modernities as the natural sciences. 

More than open, he insisted that mathematics, for example, and geography, zoology, even botany - yes, even astronomy - were prerequisites for the development of an intelligent mind, inside and outside Torah. He is accredited with founding textual criticism, at least insofar as Torah study is concerned, but I dispute this, or at least demand a careful definition of such accreditation - Spinoza, for example, died a half a century before Zalman was born, Thomas Hobbes thirty years before, and the earliest schools of Biblical Criticism coincided with his own years of scholarship. Co-founding may be more precise.

But from the perspective of orthodox Judaism, the claim is not without legitimacy - even discounting the Talmudists, Rashi, Maimonides, a thousand other Jewish scholars in the centuries before him. Their purpose was exegesis, which explains the Word of God to mortal men; and exegesis is not precisely the same as textual criticism, which may well go a touch further than explaining the Word, by commenting on the Ambivalence and the Ambiguity, the Context and the Sub-Text, and even the occasional Mis-Spelling and Grammatical Error as well. His commentary is nonetheless entirely Torah from the inside, a search for proof of what is already believed, even amid the textual problems. He would not have approved of Spinoza or Hobbes, nor the more recent Rabbi Louis Jacobs, and certainly not of Eichhorn*, Bultmann, Dibelius, me for that matter in TheBibleNet, diluting the ineffable with archaeology and comparative mythology, reducing the sacred God-script to mere literature.

* I could have named any of many Bible scholars, but Eichorn was irresistible, simply because: Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, born October 16th 1752, Dörrenzimmern, Württemberg, died June 27th 1827 - another fragment for "A Journey In Time" that didn't happen because I didn't know it at the time. The best known of the textual critics are probably Graf and Wellhausen. Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius are more recent, Dibelius 1883–1947 and Bultmann 1884-1976. For more on the Higher and Lower Critics, click here. For TheBibleNet, click here.

As to the quote in the illustration at the top - it seems to me that this offers an alternate version of, or may even be a conscious response to, the concept of "yetser ha tov" and "yetser ha ra", the key reason why Christians may speak of Judeo-Christianity as though the two were merely parent and child, but Jews never do, because they know we come from different families. 

"Yetser" means "inclination", and the "tov" and "ra" are the "good" and the "bad". But good and bad inclinations in a human being are matters of personal, individual choice, rooted in Free Will, in Autonomy from the Interference of the Deity, whose job was Creation, and remains on-going Creation, and contains Death in all its many forms, but does not include accepting the abrogated responsibility of human beings for the things they wish they hadn't done, nor claiming any credit for their good decisions. If the Universe is determined by the divine participants of the Battle of Good versus Evil, then there are no "negative habits" for us to "overcome"; there are only "fate" and "destiny", whether astrological determination, or genetic. Christianity may fight the battle of Good v Evil until it achieves stalemate or agrees a draw; what Zalman is elucidating is a very Jewish position, in which the struggle - the jihad in the comparable Islamic - takes place, and must take place at every moment of our lives, inside the hearts and souls and most especially the brains of each of us.

And if that paragraph is indeed a reasonable paraphrase of Zalman's statement, then he is not only one of the co-founders of textual criticism, but a precursor of Nietzsche and the Existentialists, and of the work of the Behavioural Psychologists as well.

Zichrono livro'ach - ז- may his memory be a blessing.

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