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Harold Bloom and the Torah’s Authorship: Thinking in Jewish XXV

Harold Bloom and the Torah's Authorship: Thinking in Jewish XXV

Harold Bloom and the Torah’s Authorship: Thinking in Jewish XXV

Harold Bloom is an American Literary Critic, a scholar of Shakespeare and a professor of English Literature. Among his scholarly projects is a strand of religious criticism that includes The Book of J, that can be summarized as follows:

In The Book of J, he and David Rosenberg (who translated the Biblical texts) portrayed one of the posited ancient documents that formed the basis of the first five books of the bible as the work of a great literary artist who had no intention of composing a dogmatically religious work. They further envisaged this anonymous writer as a woman attached to the court of the successors of the Israelite kings David and Solomon — a piece of speculation which drew much attention. Later, Bloom said that the speculations didn’t go far enough, and perhaps he should have identified J with the Biblical Bathsheba. (from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Bloom#Religious_criticism, March 28, 2013)

Ever since Spinoza published his Theologico-Political Treatise in 1670, a work in which he questioned inconsistencies in the biblical texts, European scholars began to uncover specifics of biblical authorship. Five classes of authorship surfaced based on any number of factors including stylistic language use to, in some cases, the naming of God. Grouped as E, P, D, R and J. E refers to passages using the plural name for God, Elohim. P refers to the priestly class author thought to be responsible for much of the book of Leviticus and the last part of Exodus. D, refers to the author of the book of Deuteronomy. R references the redactor of the five books of Moses into a single reasonably coherent narrative. Finally, J refers to the author referencing God as YHVH (mistranslated as Jehovah by 19th century CE German Christian biblical scholars).

The redactor of the Torah, the R author, makes his presence known after the remnant of Israelites return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile to rebuild Solomon’s Temple. The R author weaves together a generally coherent story, fitting in pieces of the other authors, sometimes seamlessly and other times awkwardly, thereby making the Torah the central document of Jewish historiography. Just one of Bloom’s examples helps us understand the task of the redactor. When we first meet Abraham, the patriarch of the Jews, he is introduced by the J author as Abram which, according to Bloom translates as “exalted father.” Later in the narrative, God tells Abram that he shall no longer be called Abram, rather his name shall now be Abraham. Bloom tells us, along with other biblical scholars, that Abraham is introduced by the P author and translates as “father of a host of nations.” The redactor’s task was to take two disperate story lines and weave them together into a single and believable story.

Bloom argues that the bulk of the Torah, especially the narrative stories (as separated from the priestly legalisms mostly found in Leviticus) may be attributed to a brilliant author of the stature of Homer, Shakespeare and Tolstoy and further argues that J was likely an aristocratic woman living in the time of Solomon’s Temple (the First Temple) in the 10th Century BCE. He makes this bold claim based on the use of language and the characters emphasized in her writings. Bloom makes the point that J was not interested in priests, rites of sacrifice or temple cults, rather her emphasis was on heros, great people, men and women, who collectively were the soul of the Israelites. That her stories do not show up in the writings of P written some six-hundred years later during the time of the Second Temple and are repeated without much accuracy or passion by the D author shows a reluctance of the redactor (likely the scribe Ezra) to emphasize the strength of J’s authorship, cannot hide the force of the metaphor of the patriarchs, the story of Joseph, and the heroism of Moses as they mirror that of David and Solomon of her own time.

Bloom argues that J was the first author of the Torah, that her stories contain powerful irony and characterizations. Abram and Sarai, Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Joseph, Tamar and Moses all appear as real and flawed human beings. God himself takes on a role that is also distinctly one of a God in crisis, always wanting to do the right thing but, just as the humans he presides over, cannot help but expose his own flaws.

By the time of Ezra and the destruction of Herod’s Temple in 72 CE, the power of J’s authorship was watered down by the E, P and D authors as well as the redactor’s need to present a post exilic metaphor of utopian perfection. Bloom’s artful analysis brings the richness of J back to life and, unless you cannot give up the ghost of the revelation at Sinai, makes one think carefully about the way one must and should read Torah in the present day. Bloom’s book is an ethical journey through a speculative fictional reading of the Torah, one that makes perfect sense in helping one to understand the many contradictions explicitly contained within the text of the Torah itself. It is a must read.

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