April 9, 2024
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An Examination of Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman’s Book, ‘Ani Maamin’

In many ways, this book is an anthology of various essays and articles that Joshua Berman published in other places (plus lectures he gave for Torah in Motion) that he has brought together to present the layman with his take on how to understand the Bible. It is a less scholarly version of Berman’s earlier work “Inconsistency in the Torah” (Oxford University Press, 2017), which was previously reviewed by Simcha Rosenberg in JBQ, 46:2. Like Cassuto before him, Berman takes aim at Bible critics for not applying their own rigorous standards of criticism to the theories they heartily embrace. In doing so, his book offers a learned dismissal of the in-vogue methods of source criticism typified by Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis. He instead reads the books of the Bible and other ancient texts as is, and thus proposes a fundamentally different way of understanding the Bible.

Berman’s book actually consisted of two separate parts with little to no interaction between them. In the first part, he lays out his theory for understanding the Bible within its Ancient Near Eastern context. This part of the book advocates for a bold new approach toward looking at the Bible. Although this part of the book is more hermeneutical and scholarly, it is still presented in a way that it is readable to the layman without getting too technical.

The second part of this book discusses Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith, especially focusing on his eighth principle that has often been understood to mean that the entire text of the Torah was given to Moses. In this part of the book, Berman traces the history of the acceptance of those principles within the Jewish community, and ultimately attempts to reduce the value of the 13 Principles of Faith to their apologetic effectiveness.

Berman opens his discussion on how the Bible must be read by citing Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed,” which views many of the Torah’s commandments, especially those related to ritual sacrifice, as helping wean the Jews from the practices of pagan idolaters. Maimonides cites from what he understood were ancient pagan (Sabian) texts to paint a picture of what sort of rituals those pagans engaged in, and explains that the Torah intends to help the Jews turn away from those particular practices.

For Berman, the takeaway from Maimonides’ discussion is that if one wants to truly understand the Torah’s intent, one must understand it in its Ancient Near Eastern context, which means that one must be familiar with similar works written in the same time and place as the Torah to better appreciate what the Torah means to do. Berman duly notes that even those classical commentators who strongly disagree with Maimonides’ view on sacrifices (like Nahmanides and others) do not criticize him for his reliance on what was assumed to be ancient pagan texts. This shows that they too acknowledge the value in understanding the Torah in its Ancient Near Eastern context.

While Maimonides’ endorsement of this approach is limited to using those sources to help clarify one’s understanding of the pagan cults that surrounded the early Israelites, Berman cites Gersonides as extending this approach to even understanding a literary feature of the Torah: Gersonides notes that when recording the details of the instructions for constructing the Tabernacle and its implementation, the Torah heavily engages in seemingly needless repetition. Gersonides accounts for this repetition by suggesting that it reflected a literary style that was in fashion in ancient times. What Berman draws from this is that Gersonides was sensitive to the fact that the Bible must be read as a product of its own time and place, and that we cannot impose our own contemporary literary conventions on the Bible. While we might find repetition messy or tedious, Berman notes that in ancient texts it was indeed a common literary device like Gersonides suspected.

Before proceeding with his endeavor, Berman cautions the reader with a caveat: He notes that reading the Bible in its Ancient Near Eastern context is not the only reading possible. It is, rather, one of multiple dimensions by which the Bible may be read. In making this point clear, Berman invokes the rabbinic concept of shivim panim la-Torah, that there are 70 ways to interpret any aspect of the Torah. Thus, his particular reading is just another one of those multiple possible readings and should not displace or replace any of the other traditional ways to read the Bible.

Berman lays out his approach by first discussing the narrative sections of the Bible, asking whether they are actually historical or were even meant to reflect a historical reality. He warns the reader that we cannot impose our modern definitions of “truth/fact” and “falsehood/fiction” on an Ancient Near Eastern text in whose milieu such concepts did not yet exist. (It would be interesting to consider whether Berman’s assumptions are belied by Jan Assmann’s concept of the Mosaic Distinction, according to which it is the Bible itself that introduces those concepts to religious/cultic discourse.)

Instead of viewing the issue of the Bible’s historicity as a black-and-white, yes-or-no question, Berman urges the reader to see this question in shades of gray. Essentially, Berman argues that the stories in the Bible are composed of a core nucleus that reflect an actual historical reality, but upon which rhetorical embellishments were overlaid. He brands this ancient genre “exhortative,” for its basic facts might be rooted in reality, but the purpose of the text is really to convey certain lessons based on the historical events that it relates and exhort its readership to undertaking or not undertaking certain actions.

In supporting this contention, Berman adduces several instances in which details of certain Biblical narratives (like direct quotes in dialogue or exact numbers of people in a group) were not meant to be understood as reflecting the historical reality of the stories they tell. Instead, those details are types of symbolic metaphors and allegories that appear in the text for their exhortative value in bolstering the overarching lesson of the story. If the purpose of the text was to relay historical information, then those details might be considered false and inaccurate. But since the purpose of the text is actually exhortative, these details are still valuable. Essentially, Berman understands that in the ancient world, relaying what we would call “homiletics” or even “propaganda” was considered excusable if it furthered the general cause of the exhortation.

Taking this idea a step further, Berman explains away narrative inconsistencies between the first four books of the Pentateuch and the Book of Deuteronomy by arguing that they were said in different contexts. In a brilliant analysis of Deuteronomy, Berman finds similarities between that book and texts of vassal-client treaties in the Ancient Near East. At the Plains of Moab, when the Jews were on the cusp of entering the Land of Israel, they needed to “renew their vows” with God (so to speak) and reaffirm their commitment to the Sinaitic Covenant. The Book of Deuteronomy served to spell out the exact terms of that agreement.

Berman’s expertise in ancient epigraphy allows him to realize that these sorts of ancient treaty texts typically had a historical preamble that narrated the history of the relationship between the parties signing the deal, and that subsequent treaties between the same parties never consistently told the exact same story to introduce the terms of their agreement. Important details in those historical narratives would commonly fluctuate depending on the exact context of that particular treaty. These texts could also be branded exhortative in nature, as their purpose was to affirm or reaffirm commitments, while the historical elements were merely used as background, framing the context of the agreement.

In the same way, argues Berman, the historical narrative about the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, their receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, and their subsequent failings were reframed in Deuteronomy with a specific exhortative context in mind, and thus understandably might differ from the details found in the earlier books of the Bible. In some ways, Berman has Moses, whom he acknowledges wrote Deuteronomy, contra prevailing notions in academia, play God’s “hype man,” as he puts a different spin on historical facts for the purpose of upholding the covenant.

Berman then turns to the problem of legal inconsistencies in the Torah. He tries to resolve this issue by attempting to dispel the reader of the notion that the Torah’s laws are meant to be a code of statutory law to be applied as written. Instead, he urges the reader to view the Torah as a sort of common law corpus that presents a set of Divine values and principles, many of which were in opposition to Ancient Near East society (for example, the Bible’s destratification of society and its relatively egalitarian agenda) that allows future judges to make ad hoc legal decisions in each situation based on those values.

In a lecture titled “Aspiring to Kedusha” that addresses the calls to introduce Biblical criticism into Yeshiva University’s curriculum, the late Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik (1917-2001) explicitly rejected the notion that the Torah’s laws ought to be characterized as common law. He understands the fluid nature of common law to be on par with the fluidity of paganism, which tends to be customized to its adherents’ whims. Instead, Rabbi Soloveichik understands Halacha to reflect a sort of highly nuanced statutory law that calls for different rules in slightly different situations. Berman does not consider this possibility but instead presents statutory law as totally inflexible, which leads him to read the Bible as in a different light.

In the second part of his book, Berman ostensibly removes his “professor” hat and puts on his “rabbi” hat to discuss Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith. Nonetheless, certain academic assumptions pervade this section of his book, such that it is not merely a rabbinic dissertation but a critical analysis. It is almost like a separate book and has to be treated separately. In fact, the two halves of the book never reference each other.

The upshot of this section is that the whole concept of Principles of Faith in Judaism were only formulated in response to certain outside stimuli. In particular, he argues that Maimonides’ eighth principle about the entire Torah’s Mosaic origins was originally intended to counter Islamic claims that the Jews falsified the Torah. Berman shows how in Jewish communities where this libel was not in play, many prominent rabbinic commentators continued to assume that certain parts of the Pentateuch were post-Mosaic. This part of the book really deserves its own separate review. Instead of reviewing all his arguments in that section, I will suffice with quibbling over two small errors that appear therein:

On page 196, Berman writes that Rabbenu Hananel “wrote a brief commentary on the Torah, most of which was lost until the 20th century.” In fact, Rabbenu Hananel’s commentary on the Torah remains effectively lost. Rabbi Charles Ber Chavel (1906-1982) compiled quotes cited in the name of Rabbenu Hananel from various sources, and published them in Mossad HaRav Kook’s Perush Rabbenu Hananel al ha-Torah. It is this work that appears in the Torat Chaim edition of the Pentateuch, not Rabbenu Hananel’s actual commentary.

In a footnote on page 223, Berman refers to the commentary of Maharik to Hilchot Terumot 11:1, and identifies Maharik as the 15th-century Italian sage, Rabbi Joseph Colon ben Solomon Trabotto. While Trabotto did actually pen a commentary to some sections of Maimonides’ laws (published by Eliyahu Dov Pines in 1971), he did not write on the laws of Terumot. Berman apparently meant to refer to the oft-cited commentary known as “Mahari Corcos,” written by Rabbi Joseph Corcos (d. after 1575), who was born in Spain and, after the expulsion, moved to Egypt and then Jerusalem.

As the work of an ordained Orthodox rabbi and leading Biblical scholar, Joshua Berman’s book is an attempt to seal the great fissure between traditional Judaism and academic Biblical scholarship. Does Berman’s work actually bridge the gap between the two fields that James L. Kugel (another Orthodox Jew who is a prominent Bible scholar) has written “are and must always remain completely irreconcilable”? That question we leave to the reader.

Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein is a member of the RCA and currently works as a freelance writer/editor/translator for research in Torah-related projects. He authored the books “God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry” (Mosaica Press, 2018) and “Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew” (Mosaica Press 2014) and can be reached via email at [email protected].

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