Off the Shelf: Jews and the Hebrew Bible

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Many academic books about the Bible focus on the history and evolution of the work. What is often ignored is the changing relationship between Jews and the biblical texts. That’s one reason why Frederick E. Greenspahn, the Gimelstone eminent scholar of Judaic studies emeritus at Florida Atlantic University and a former professor at the University of Denver, wrote “Judaism and Its Bible: A People and Their Book” (Jewish Publication Society). The goal of his work is “to explore the reality of the Bible’s place in Judaism: how it came to be, how it is used, and how it has been understood.” Greenspahn is interested in behavior, meaning “what Jews do rather than what they say they do.” 

The author does discuss the creation of the Bible, including noting that the people mentioned in the biblical text seem to have no concept of the Bible as we now know it. In fact, he shows instances when major characters broke laws that are listed in the first five books. Although the text refers to readings of undefined sections of the Bible, these are one time events, rather than weekly gatherings as part of a religious service. In fact, during biblical times, the main form of worship was sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem, not attendance at a synagogue. After the destruction of the Temple, the Bible became the central core of Judaism, even though all parts of the Bible were and are not treated equally. Greenspahn notes the importance of the biblical text by quoting the German poet Heinrich Heine, who said that the Roman’s destruction the Temple “made the Bible the Jews’ spiritual and, fortunately, portable homeland.” 

Greenspahn also discusses the different ways the text has been used. These include biblical passages being placed on houses or in amulets as protective magic. Verses were also recited to heal someone ill or wounded, and to prevent bad dreams. The physical scrolls have been kept in private homes or taken on journeys as protection. They were also placed on rooftops when a town was attacked. Selections of the text were quoted in the synagogue liturgy as rabbinic prayer replaced sacrifices. In addition, the text was quoted in study halls and regular readings in the synagogue took place.

Greenspahn notes that the ancient rabbis moved away from strict study of the biblical text, instead focusing on the Mishnah and Talmud, also known as the Oral Torah. That’s because rabbinic practice was very different from biblical practice. According to at least one rabbi, one only needed to know the laws of the Talmud to truly understand what God wanted: the biblical text was not enough. However, interest in the Bible continued and was helped by the many different translations that became available and made it possible for those who did not read Hebrew to understand the text. Greenspahn notes that readings of the Torah in the synagogue context were supposed to include translations so those listening would understand what was being said.

In his discussion of the numerous translations of the biblical text, Greenspahn writes of how those authors often changed the simple meaning of the text, including leaving out problematic parts, or adding explanations based the translator’s theology. Other changes occurred because some words did not have an exact counterpart so words of similar meanings had to be used. Even when there were Christian translations of the Bible available, the Jewish community would often create its own version, although the translators were not above borrowing much of the translation from the Christian one.

“Judaism and Its Bible” is well written and accessible, making it useful for discussion groups or a synagogue class. Although the work is almost 270 pages long, only 140-plus pages form the basic text: the rest includes footnotes, a bibliography and an index. Those make it easier for anyone looking to learn more about the subject to expand their knowledge.