Sunday, April 02, 2006

What about the Talmud?

This essay, by Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, put online on Gil Student's Yashar Books Open Access site makes me wonder how she would have reviewed the Talmud.

Some of her criticisms of the Conservative movement's Etz Hayim Torah commentary are valid. The halacha l'maaseh (practical halacha) commentary indeed doesn't reference any of the process that is so important to Conservative scholarship, and even sounds so absurd that it looks like it written by a committee.

Her primary gripe is that the commentary (and the Conservative movement in general) should have ignored modern textual scholarship in favor of a “traditional” reading of both pshat (literal meaning) and drash (figurative meaning), because to include modern scholarship leads to inconsistency. She says that you can't have a midrashic view of halacha without accepting the traditional view of a unified pshat. Among other things, the CJLS effectively denies the basis of its own authority. To ignore modern scholarship (as she proposes) leads to cognitive dissonance and inconsistency as well, it just doesn't come out in the open. Like their Orthodox peers, Conservative Jews would either talk about it quietly in dark rooms, or simply pretend it doesn't exist or have any validity.

She never mentions my biggest complaint about the Etz Hayim: It's such an expensive book — why did they print it on such cheap paper?

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Comments:
Hmm, I haven't read it because, well, the Etz Chaim doesn't interest me much (and I hate it's halakha l'ma'ase column) but I am tired of O attacks on critical scholarship. (I'm also tired of R/C attacks on halakha). You are correct. OTOH, I'm also tired and frustrated w/ the C movement (ah, I'm glad I live in Jerusalem)

And what about the pocket version of Etz Chaim? It's much cheaper.
 
OTOH, I'm also tired and frustrated w/ the C movement (ah, I'm glad I live in Jerusalem)

I express similar sentiments (and on some issues, probably for different reasons), but, given the choices, I don't think the pastures are any greener in the Orthodox movement.

I haven't seen the pocket Etz Hayim. As far as I understand it, its primary purpose is to replace the aging Hertz Chumash in shuls, so, a pocket version is probably an afterthought at best. The trouble is that books used in shuls tend to have their pages flipped at least once every week. Publishing on cheap paper means they won't last long.
 
Just looked at the essay. As far as I can tell, the author's logic forbids anyone who does not believe in Torah Misinai to make any halakhic decision, ever, because it would be intellectually dishonest in one way or the other. Not impressed.

Pocket chumash? The Conservative movement still hasn't produced a pocket siddur! (At least, not one that can fit in a normally-sized pocket.)
 
the Travel Sized Etz Chaim. So, it's not pocket sized but it's much more portable than the "regular EC." It's missing the essays, which are actually published in another seperate guide.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0827608047/sr=8-2/qid=1144081176/ref=pd_bbs_2/102-4577440-7301758?%5Fencoding=UTF8

And Lawrence, there is the old Sim Shalom in small size and the USCJ did publish a mincha guide (though I think it leaves out Tachanun and it requires the Imahot).

And AC - who is talking Orthodox? I'm a nice post-Denominational Jew. O is going too far right and C too far left, there is a huge gap in between.
 
The small sized Sim Shalom doesn't quite qualify as "pocket sized" either (unless you've got humongous pockets), but it's no larger than any of the other complete Hebrew-English siddurim I've seen. The only real pocket sized siddurim I've seen are either incomplete or Hebrew only.

who is talking Orthodox? I'm a nice post-Denominational Jew. O is going too far right and C too far left, there is a huge gap in between.

It was more a statement of the present alternatives. Most of the institutions of learning where our scholarship comes from are denominationally affiliated (with a few exceptions).

I still haven't been convinced that Conservative Judaism isn't as conflicted as it always has been.
 
Of course. And you're right. Looking historically now I'm not as convinced that CJ isn't as conflicted as always but the tent was bigger before the RW left after the ordination of women. As Rabbi Roth said, he hasn't grown RW (which I'm not sure if that's 100% true) but the RW left, which he still loses sleep over.
 
It's such an expensive book — why did they print it on such cheap paper?

Paper is evil. What ever happened to nice, good, old-fashioned qelof?

מר גבריאל הסופר
 
DH: As I mentioned last night, I think you're too hard on the halakha l'maaseh section. It's not supposed to be a comprehensive presentation of conservative halakha; it's supposed to introduce the average Conservative shul-goer (who is extremely ignorant) to some of the connections between modern-day Jewish practice and the Torah. Some of the comments are indeed silly and were obviously written by a (somewhat conflicted) committee, but that's pretty much inevitable when you're trying to serve a population as diverse as the Conservative movement.

Don't get me wrong -- I have scholarly or ideological issues with practically every page of the commentary. But I'm glad that the movement's leaders decided to publish the book rather than waiting for all their differences to be ironed out (i.e. forever). The Conservative movement was desperately in need of an up-to-date synagogue chumash, and the one that they got isn't half bad.

Now, for some comments on the article proper...
 
Hmm. I wrote a very long comment on the article yesterday, and it seems that it didn't publish. Frustrating, but perhaps just as well. If I want people to read my comments, I should probably keep them down to a reasonable length. Here is a summary:

1. Early in the article, Rossman-Benjamin states that Wellhausen originated the Documentary Hypothesis, which divides the Bible into four sources. I don't know why this misconception is so prevalent. The four sources were identified well before Wellhausen wrote his Prolegomena to the History of Israel. This is pertinant because Rossman-Benjamin later argues that the Conservative movement made its own bed, so to speak, by adopting a crticial method formulated by an outspoken opponent of Jewish "legalism." Wellhausen's anti-Judaism did affect his scholarship, but it has no bearing on the identification of the sources per se.

2. The article sets up a sharp dichotomy between the assumption that the Torah is the word of God and the assumption that it was written by human beings influenced by their socio-historical setting. This is simplistic. Most critical scholars of the Bible from Wellhausen's time to our own were religious individuals and viewed the Bible, in one way or another, as sacred text. Rabbi Joel Roth, a prominant Conservative thinker cited several times in the article, views the biblical authors J, E, P, and D as prophet-like figures who filtered divine will through their own individual lenses. The rabbis of the Talmud likewise channeled God's will, developing a legal system based on a midrashic reading of the text. One can question the historical accuracy of rabbinic interpretations of the Bible and still maintain that it is God's will that we uphold the system. I have my own objections to Joel Roth's approach, but it is not inconsistent or intellectually dishonest, as the article implies.

3. Notwithstanding the above, while the Conservative movement has accepted historical criticism of the Prophets and Writings since its inception, it has yet to unambiguously embrace the Documentary Hypothesis. This is reflected in the Etz Hayyim commentary, to its detriment. The comment on Deuteronomy 12:8, cited on page 12 the article, is a good example. The commentary notes that the verse contradicts Leviticus 17 and states that "modern scholars assume that Deuteronomy was not aware of Leviticus 17, which they assign to a different source." There is no mention of the historical implications of this critical insight (which are major), because that would entail actually naming the sources and discussing their nature and origins. At the same time, there is no discussion of traditional Jewish interpretations of the material, because that might suggest an acceptance of rabbinic exegetical methods. The result is totally unenlightening.

4. I still like the Etz Hayyim chumash. I also respect Rossman-Bejamin, who, for the most part, clearly did her homework. I am putting a link to this discussion in my blog.
 
elf says:
I also respect Rossman-Bejamin, who, for the most part, clearly did her homework.

The main problem (as I see it) with her scholarship is that, while it purports to be an attempt to start a dialogue, it is talking past the Conservative movement. The "review" of Etz Hayim is essentially a review of a Conservative publication from an Orthodox rhetorical perspective. The Conservative movement hasn't rejected a perfect and consistent position in favor of one that is inconsistent for the fun of it. The Orthodox position may be more consistent with an average of traditional understandings, but is highly inconsistent with modern scholarship.
 
The "review" of Etz Hayim is essentially a review of a Conservative publication from an Orthodox rhetorical perspective.

Partly. It's also a critique of the Conservative position based on its own inconsistencies. Your response is the right one, imo, but that doesn't mean that the inconsistencies don't need to be addressed.

If you're implying that Rossman-Benjamin is being a bit smug by suggesting that this should start a "dialogue" between Orthodox and Conservative leaders, then I agree. Obviously, disputing the most cherished principles of contemporary Conservative Judaism won't encourage such dialogue. However, the argument is lucid, and it would be nice if Conservative leaders responded be re-examining and clarifying their positions.
 
elf --
However, the argument is lucid, and it would be nice if Conservative leaders responded be re-examining and clarifying their positions.

As a movement, this is not possible. The Conservative movement is irreconcilably divided between its traditionalist and reconstructionist camps. The big-tent position is to embrace pluralism. It goes hand-in-hand with confusion.
 
Fair enough. As individuals, then, Conservative thinkers should respond to these challenges.
 
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