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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, 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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Warranted Assertability: Thinking In Jewish IV

Warranted Assertability: Thinking In Jewish IV

Warranted Assertability: Thinking In Jewish IV

Yesterday I was listening to a video made by the Chabad Lubovich dealing with the long-time metaphysical question: Is the existential (material) world real? This question is embedded in the notion that there exists either a material world or a spiritual world, one or the other but not both. The claim being made by Yanki Tauber, the authority on the video, made an argument that was strangely postmodern in its methodology and scope but failed on the evidence relied upon to make the argument in the first place. That he relied on evidence that, at best, could be considered self-serving, helps make his case to those who already believe that the evidence is, at its core, true and must be accepted without question but it fails to convince those of us willing to question the validity of such evidence based on the idea that the assertions made are not warranted.

What do I mean by warranted assertability? The term is a construction first identified by the Pragmatist and philosopher of education, John Dewey. What Dewey argued was, in a nutshell, that many people make all kinds of assertions about what is or is not true. Think of all the assertions made about the recent debacle of the Mayan Apocalypse; so many assertions were made by so many people, all of which proved to be untrue. On the other hand, scientists and astrophysicists, when asked about the possibility of the world ending were in agreement that the Mayan Apocalypse was simply poppycock, that there was not one scintilla of verifiable evidence to support such a claim and were universal in their dismissal of those who made unwarranted assertions. For Dewey, the only valid assertions that are made are those in which verifiable evidence is rigorously examined to ferret out flaws and only when there is a general consensus about the veracity of that evidence; only then can one be said to make a warranted assertion. This not to say that warranted assertions are permanent solutions. New evidence requires new analysis. When it fits the prevailing model, it is included within that model as an extension but when it contradicts the prevailing model, that model must be reexamined in its entirety and a new model emerges from the new data.

Listening to Yanki Tauber, the first place he turned to was the book of Deuteronomy in which Moses, in his final sermon to the Israelites says, not once but twice, “There is nothing other than God.” If this statement is true, then the material world, according to Tauber, is a lie because there can be nothing else in the universe other than God. Yet, here we are. There can be no doubt that we live in a material world. What, then, is the material world? Is it a reflection of the spirituality of God in material form or is the material world here so that human beings may discover spirituality for themselves? A big mystery, yes? Tauber continues by referencing the writings of the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad Lubovich in the 18th century, proceeding to closely read several of the Alter Rebbe’s writings that address the problem of the existential world. I don’t want to engage in an analysis of Tauber’s continuing argument, one I found quite interesting; my quibble is with one piece of evidence that Tauber relies on to make his argument which, I believe, is an unwarranted assertion and, therefore, the entire argument fails.

That piece of evidence is contained in his first assertion, that there is nothing other than God. Here is the problem. Tauber, like all other Orthodox Jews, believes that the Torah is the revealed word of God whose authorship cannot be questioned. Using such a source as evidence, however, becomes problematic in the face of scholarship focusing on biblical authorship since the middle of the 18th century, beginning with Spinoza. Such scholarship includes linguistic analysis, literary analysis including the analysis of mythology preceding the collection of stories contained in the Five Books of Moses, analysis of contradictions contained within the text and comparison to recently discovered textual material such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. In addition, biblical text doesn’t necessarily line up with the archeological record of neighbors such as the ancient record of Egypt or Mesopotamia. Taken as a whole, it seems clear that the Torah was composed by men (Bloom suggests that it was composed by a woman in the court of King Solomon and/or King Rehoboam of Judah, his successor, he calls simply ‘J.’ While admitting to the speculative nature of his conclusions, his analysis falls clearly within the bounds of literary scholarship thereby carrying some weight). The Torah and the remainder of the authoritative Jewish Bible which includes the Prophets and other writings, was, on this view, redacted over time from the 10th century BCE to the end of the 4th century BCE. While the Torah remains the most important text for Jews, it is not the revelation that is claimed by the Rabbis of the Mishnah. As an article of faith, Orthodox Jews accept the first Mishnah found in the Pirkei Avot / The Ethics of the Fathers (the only book of Talmud that has no Gemara as commentary) which reads:

Moses received the Torah form God Who revealed Himself at Mount Sinai and conveyed it to Joshua; Joshua conveyed it to the Elders; the Elders conveyed it to the Prophets; and the Prophets conveyed it to the Men of the Great Assembly…

These words were written by one member of the Great Assembly, Judah the Prince, who decided for the sake of continuity that the oral tradition or oral Torah should be written and accessible to all who come to study. What interest me is that the entire thought is self-serving, proclaiming that those in charge are rightfully in charge because of the sequence of conveyance from Sinai to the present day of the Torah, the Prophets, the other writings through and including the Mishnah and the commentary that follows. No, this is not evidence, rather it is self-indulgent language designed to eliminate the competition and is, therefore, unreliable.

All that being said, the mere fact that Tauber relies on a specific idea that there is nothing outside of God, does not reduce the remainder of his argument as he analyzes textual material that comments on the very idea of the existential world and the potential for the underlying reality. Tauber reads this material closely, pointing out both the development of the Alter Rebbe’s argument over time but also responds to the contradictions contained within that argument. This work, while still turning on the original text from Torah, is far more relevant and, in fact, far more postmodern that even Tauber realizes. Close reading and analysis of textual material, whether inside of a context or outside of the generally accepted context is exciting and certainly peaked my interest. In the end, Tauber draws spiritual conclusions (he is after all a rabbi) based on an existential pursuit of an ethical life; an idea that draws us closer to a spiritual life. God himself needs the material world so that his ethical demands be met by otherwise than God.

This analysis is not substantially different that the analysis that Levinas puts forth in Totality and Infinity and other works. Levinas insists that the existential world, the material world, the world in which we share as sentient beings, creates conditions wherein human beings seek an understanding of the Absolute Other, the ineffable infinity that is nothing but a mystery. That the Absolute Other is reflected in face-to-face connections with the uniqueness of the specific other (human being) if, and only if, that connection is mutually made without reservations and without expectation of reciprocation. It is in the embracing of the uniqueness of the other that one sees mirrored the face of the Absolute Other. This is another way of saying that the existential world holds the potential for understanding a simulacrum of the world of the Absolute Other (a spiritual world if you will)

The former is achieved using a methodology mirrored in Jewish Texts while the latter is achieved using the tools of Western philosophy. Since I understand the tools of philosophy I am attempting to explore the very intricate methodology Jewish thought. I believe that knowing both will make me a better thinker if only because I’ll have two distinct approaches to tackle the same problems.

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