Review: Approaching Transition

Featured Articles - Home, Online-only articles

Gishat HaTemurot [Hebrew], edited by Hezi Cohen and Aviad Evron (Maggid Books, 2019), 288 pages
Reviewed by David Curwin

In the decades following the onset of modern biblical criticism, and its acceptance in academic circles, the two main approaches of Orthodox thinkers were either to challenge its scholarship or to ignore it entirely.

The first prominent Orthodox scholar to not outright reject or ignore biblical criticism, but rather cautiously integrate some of its findings into his understanding of the Bible as a divine document, was Rabbi Mordechai Breuer  (1921-2007). Instead of claiming that conflicting biblical passages indicate different authors (the position of the documentary hypothesis), he asserted that they reflected different aspects of divine voices – what became known as shitat ha-behinot, “Aspects Method.”

R. Breuer’s approach was revolutionary, and allowed religious students of the Bible, who were confronted with theological challenges in their study, to maintain both their faith and their intellectual honesty.

One young student influenced by R. Breuer was R. Avia Hacohen. Hacohen, who married Breuer’s daughter Elisheva, taught Tanakh in the now-defunct Yeshivat HaKibbutz HaDati on Kibbutz Ein Tzurim. In Ein Tzurim, Hacohen began to expand upon, and even challenge, his father-in-law’s theory. He developed his approach together with the Rosh Yeshiva of Ein Tzurim, R. David Bigman, and one of his students, R. Hezi Cohen.

Bigman and Cohen went on to teach at the sister yeshiva of Ein Tzurim in Kibbutz Maale Gilboa. There, Cohen formalized Hacohen’s approach, applying it to more and more biblical passages, and named it gishat ha-temurot, “the transitions approach.” Unlike Breuer, who said the Torah could speak in two equal, but distinct, voices, Hacohen proposed that the divergence between these two voices reflected a path, indicating progress—or transition—in a particular direction.

Recently, Cohen, along with his colleague Aviad Evron, compiled a collection of Hebrew essays using this approach, into Gishat HaTemurot: A New Method of Interpreting the Torah . The book contains 11 essays, with contributions from Hacohen, Bigman, Cohen, and others.

[Watch the Hebrew book launch for Gishat HaTemurot here (July 16,2019).]

The book opens with an introduction by Cohen explaining the Temurot approach, which includes a review of other methods used to understand conflicting biblical passages. First and foremost is the approach by the talmudic Sages. They did not deny such contradictions, including in the 13 hermeneutical principles, “two passages that contradict one another.” The approach of the Sages was to find harmony when confronted with conflicting passages, and to attempt to resolve them through midrashic interpretation. Since, at least in the halakhic realm, the Sages were interested in how the law should be followed in practice, the midrashim would often say that one passage was referring to a particular scenario, whereas the “opposing” passage would apply under different circumstances. This approach was applied in each specific case, and could not be used to explain overall trends throughout the books of the Torah.

In more recent times, other methods of biblical interpretation have become popular in Orthodox circles. In addition to Breuer’s Aspects Method, two other approaches discussed by Cohen are the Historical-Legal approach, and the Literary approach. The Historical approach looks at archeological and historical evidence, and attempts to resolve conflicts by assigning divergent passages different historical perspectives. In the past, a major pioneer of this approach was R. David Zvi Hoffmann (1843-1921), and today is found frequently in the teachings of R. Yoel Bin-Nun and R. Yaakov Medan. The Literary approach, instead of looking for help outside the Bible, tries to solve apparent conflicts within the text, by explaining them as literary devices. Two prominent, contemporary advocates of this method are R. Elchanan Samet and R. Yonatan Grossman. Both methods are used extensively by the teachers at Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Herzog College, and they can be used concurrently, so perhaps it is better to refer to them as techniques instead of distinct methods or approaches.

While Cohen does not disparage the use of these techniques, he does note their limitations. In their efforts to refute any claim of multiple authorship, and their aim to harmonize the text, they can delve into the realm of apologetics. These approaches can also avoid the need to understand the bigger picture, by focusing on the specific conflicts between passages, without dealing with the more theologically fraught problems brought up by looking at the differences between the biblical books as a whole. Cohen doesn’t provide examples of areas he finds the Herzog approach lacking, and I’m not sure he really could – he’s claiming that those techniques focus on particular conflicting passages, but don’t satisfactorily explain why Deuteronomy differs from other books as a whole.. Technically, this critique could apply to any analysis offered by those who champion these methods without making reference to overall trends in the books under discussion.

Breuer’s Aspects Method avoids these pitfalls, but as we’ve seen, it remains insufficient for the followers of the Temurot approach. Those followers point out that the Torah itself includes evidence of a developmental approach. As Cohen writes elsewhere, in an essay in English (in The Believer and the Modern Study of the Bible, p. 355), laying out the framework of his approach:

According to this model, Torah legislation underwent changes: the original law was replaced by a new one according to changing realities, the need of the hour, and the ethical and spiritual level of the world at that time. This model can be seen explicitly in the law of basar ta’avah (meat of lust). Initially, God commanded that all meat must be slaughtered on the altar (Lev. 17). During the preparations before entering the Land of Israel and the transition to a centralized ritual, this early law was annulled, and meat was allowed to be slaughtered for consumption alone (Deut. 12:15).

The theological implications of this approach are significant. They are discussed in two essays in the book by the Roshei Yeshiva of Maale Gilboa, R. Bigman and R. Yehuda Gilad. Bigman takes on the weighty questions of whether God can change His mind, and if the laws of the Torah can change. If one presumed that God’s decisions and His laws were immutable, then the Temurot approach, proposing transitions in the laws of the Torah, would be unreasonable. However, Bigman shows that both of these divine revisions occurred within the Torah itself, including examples from the passages describing the Flood and of the Daughters of Zelophehad.

R. Gilad finds support for the approach from the writings of both Maimonides and R. Kook. Maimonides famously claims that God gave Israel these particular commandments because of their spiritual and political state at the time the Torah was given. R. Kook, when approaching the question of whether vegetarianism should be viewed as an ideal, also acknowledged that the commandments of the Torah do not reflect our final aspirations; rather, we should be continually progressing to higher moral ground.

The lion’s share of the book is dedicated to essays showing how the Temurot approach can be used to understand the tensions found between different passages in the Torah (this book focuses on the halakhic sections of the Torah, although Cohen points out it can be used to analyze narrative portions as well).

Four essays compare passages in Exodus with their parallels in Deuteronomy. Hacohen compares the laws of the female Hebrew slave, Cohen the laws of Passover, Bigman the laws of the firstborn animal and cooking a kid in its mother’s milk, and Evron the laws of tefillin. All of these passages present significant conflicts in the instructions given in each book. And the Temurot approach is used by all to explain that the nation had developed politically and spiritually in the 40 years in the desert, from a group of slaves leaving Egypt to a free people about to enter their own land. The status of the female slave improved dramatically between Exodus and Deuteronomy, indicating that the people had progressed ethically during that time. The changes described in Cohen and Bigman’s articles reflect the outcome of the transition of worship from geographically disperse to centrally located in the Temple. And Evron, based on an earlier dispute between Rashbam and Ibn Ezra, shows how the tefillin of Exodus were metaphorical, as compared to the physical tefillin of Deuteronomy, displaying the focus on the written word found in the later book.

The next two essays don’t compare texts from different books, but rather adjacent passages in the same book or even conflicts found in one passage. Cohen finds in Deuteronomy evidence of an earlier law allowing testimony from only one witness, and Hacohen and Bigman, in a joint essay, disassemble the laws of the Sota in Numbers, finding an earlier law assuming the guilt of the woman, and a later one where her innocence could be proved. While the difficulties in the texts in these essays are apparent, I found the Temurot approach here less convincing. Unlike the earlier essays, which demonstrated distinct progression from one book to another, these two essays require the reader to accept that these verses, despite being found in the same biblical book, are actually the product of interweaving of prior, theoretical laws. They therefore do not seem to be aligned with the basic premise of the Temurot approach, and these admittedly difficult textual issues would perhaps be better served by the historical or literary methods.

While all of the previous essays demonstrated spiritual advancement from earlier laws to later ones, in Cohen’s final contribution he actually provides evidence of regression. He asks the intriguing questions of why the Ten Commandments omit mention of animal sacrifices, and why the only positive ritual commandment found is that of the Sabbath. He claims that this transition is due to the people’s insistence, after their experiencing God’s revelation on Sinai, that Moses acts as an intermediary between them and God. Had they maintained their direct relationship with God, refraining from work on the Sabbath would have sufficed as a way of mirroring God’s actions. But their retreat from such a connection led to the need for the laws of the tabernacle and sacrifices as a way of providing a physical manifestation of God’s presence. This need eventually led to tragedy in the story of the Golden Calf.

As Cohen writes in the introduction, the gishat ha-temurot is an approach, not a method, and therefore does not come to replace any of the existing methods and techniques of interpreting the Torah. That said, one unique facet of this approach is that it dovetails gracefully into the world of the Oral Torah. By comparing two distinct laws, and seeing the trajectory from the earlier to the later one, the Sages of the Oral Torah could be inspired to follow the same vector when determining the halakha in the generations to come. So while appearing at first glance to be the most revolutionary of the methods of biblical interpretation, the Temurot method may actually be the one most aligned with the history of Jewish law.

David Curwin is an author living in Efrat. His recent Tradition essays can be accessed here.

[Published on October 23, 2019]

1 Comment

  1. David Bar-Cohn says:

    Fascinating and thought-provoking. Thanks for writing this review.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *