The Selection and Exclusion of the “Sources of Judaism”
A New Compilation of the Works that Represent Judaism as Culture
The idea that the ancient culture of the Jewish People is in urgent need of consolidation was first raised over a century ago. Ahad Ha'am drew attention the the need to publish an encyclopaedia of Judaism, a “ Book of Jewish Knowledge”, which he called Otzar Yisrael – The Treasury of Israel, and even took practical steps toward the funding and realisation of his idea. Bialik went a step further, with his ambitious project of “consolidating” (kinus) the original bodies of Jewish literary works. Bialik presented the kinus project in an essay entitled “The Hebrew Book”, in which he listed the treasures of Jewish literature throughout the ages, in Hebrew, Aramaic and other languages employed by the creators of Jewish culture. He asserts that most of the works produced by Judaism are not accessible to readers. This state of affairs, writes Bialik, demands a renewed project of literary consolidation, known in Jewish tradition as hatimah (compilation).
Bialik, stressing the indispensability of such processes of selection and exclusion, notes three such undertakings in the course of Jewish literary history. First came the compilation of the books of the Tanakh (Bible) – representing millennium of literary activity – as “Holy Scripture”; second the compilation of the Mishnah, “a faithful and multi-faceted reflection of Jewish lifestyles and cultural patterns in the centuries that followed the canonisation of the Bible”; and finally, the compilation of the Talmud, the repository of centuries of “Halakhah and Aggadah”. The task of compilation fell to the sages who “represented the people and were faithful to its spirit”. Selecting certain works, however, naturally entailed excluding others. Those works that were well-loved and significant to the members of those generations, the best of the nation's literary output, were collected, redacted and compiled, while the remainder were excluded. The task of compiling and consolidating the best and most worthwhile sources for generations to come, alongside the rejection and exclusion of those considered less worthwhile constitutes, in Bialik's opinion, “clearing the way for a new literary era”, like a tree that must be cleared of its old fruit before new fruit can grow. There are those who claim that the process of exclusion has resulted in the loss of many works. Bialik argues that exclusion is not censorship, since such decisions are made as a matter of course by life and circumstances. Cultural reality selects works worthy of preservation, while relegating those that are unworthy to the basement of oblivion. Sages who seek to compile these selections must do so in accordance with the process of “natural selection”, which has its own preferences. Sometimes, Bialik notes, excluded works – previously termed “apocrypha” - are reinstated, returning from the sidelines to the center of cultural interest. Certain beraitot (extra-mishnaic texts) for example, were restored by the sages of the Talmud – a process that could also have occurred with regard to the extra-biblical or “external” literature of the Second Temple Period. In evaluating the literary works of the past, we must also consider those excluded in previous eras that might have contemporary value. Bialik also addressed the difficulties presented by the fact that Jewish culture was and is multi-lingual. He proposed a new translation of the best Jewish works written in other languages, as well as original Hebrew texts extant only in translation. The treasury of Jewish culture includes all works imbued with “the nation's holy spirit”.
Bialik did not envision an anthology, but rather a republication of the best of Hebrew literature, preferably as complete works. The model that stood before him was that of the Bible, which comprises some thirty works of various kinds – mythology, historiography, poetry, fiction, philosophy, proverbs and books of wisdom – some as old as a thousand years at the time of their redaction. Most of these works appear in their entirety, although the Bible also includes an anthology of prophetic works, entitled Terei Asar (the twelve Minor Prophets). Bialik's program was based on literary units, primarily by genre. He envisioned thirteen such units: 1) Tanakh (Bible) – including the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, with commentary, variant readings and introductions; 2) a selection from the Alexandrian literature, translated into Hebrew; 3) a new translation of the complete works of Flavius Josephus, with an introduction; 4) a popular edition of the Mishnah, vocalised (with “dots”) and elucidated; 5) the Aggadah found in the Talmud and Midrashim, id.; 6) philosophical works relevant to contemporary readers; 7) a selection of poetry and piyutim, with detailed introductions and a history of Hebrew poetry; 8) an anthology of the mussar literature; 9) the “visionary and philosophical” part of the Kabbalah; 10) an anthology of the best of Jewish homiletics; 11) Hassidic works – a selection of writings, sermons and tales; 12) oral and written popular literature; 13) a selection of modern literature, entire volumes of the works of the best authors.
Bialik set to work, and the publishing houses he founded - Moriya and Devir – put out a number of series, including: Bible stories for children, vocalised and elucidated Mishnah, Sefer Ha'aggadah (The Book of Legends) – organised by subject, with Hebrew translations of legends originally in written in Aramaic, volumes of Hebrew poetry from Spain – particularly the works of Solomon ibn Gabirol, and volumes of the great works of modern Hebrew writers. Bialik saw only the literary side of the kinus project, ignoring all other aspects of Jewish culture, such as music, architecture, painting and sculpture. Although he did address linguistic divergence, and consequently, the “margins” of Hebrew literature, he failed to fully appreciate the extent of these margins. For example, he ignored works rejected by the Jewish rabbinical canon, such as the works of heretics, Karaites, Sabbateans, etc. He also failed to address works by non-Jews on Jewish topics. He was certainly unable to relate to pre-biblical mythology in Hebrew and other Semitic languages. Our Hebrew and Jewish culture is far more extensive in time and place than Bialik could imagine. It is more extensive in time than any other western culture, stretching without interruption from ancient times to the present day. For many generations the Jewish religion has stood at the centre of our culture, and its “library” is undoubtedly the primary component of Jewish culture. The importance of religion is thus central, but by no means exclusive. Jewish religion is certainly a part of the totality of Jewish culture – constantly changing and evolving, giving rise to many different streams over the course of thousands of years. One who is not involved in the debates that have divided and continue to divide the various streams within Jewish religion, can appreciate and respect all of the achievements of the Jewish spirit over the ages, in all its different facets and tendencies: primaeval paganism and pure monotheism, Sadducean Hellenism and Phariseeism, Hassidism and its “mitnagdic” opponents, philosophical rationalism and kabbalistic mysticism. Furthermore, a secular reading of Jewish sources, inasmuch as it is free of prejudice, affords greater depth of understanding than religious readings, limited by tenets of faith and presuppositions regarding the sanctity of the texts. Jewish tradition itself offers many opportunities for deeper understanding of its sacred texts, but only within the strict framework of religious belief.
Jewish culture is vast, bound only by the ethnic and national limits of Jewish existence – defined, in turn, by its manifestations of Jewish culture - resulting in a somewhat circular argument. Jewish existence and Jewish culture are, in fact, two aspects of a single essence. Defining Jewish existence is an act of culture, and the continuity of Jewish existence is determined in the field of cultural creativity. Jewish culture thus draws upon many different languages, spoken and written by Jews at various times, in the many different lands in which they resided. The premise that Jewish religion is the essence of Judaism would necessarily limit Jewish culture to its religious elements, which are but a part of our Jewish culture. The Jewish “library” is thus far greater than the “library” of the Jewish religion. Beyond the immense corpus of religious texts, we also find pre-biblical works, Jewish works rejected over the ages by the rabbinic establishment, ancient secular works – of which few have survived - as well as numerous modern works ignored for the most part, by Orthodox Judaism. We are the only people to have preserved the Hebrew language for thousands of years, rendering the spiritual legacy of the ancient Hebrew peoples, including the pagan myths of Mesopotamia, and particularly the Hebrew epics of Ugarit, an intrinsic part of our culture. The works of Jewish sects rejected by the rabbinic establishment and acting outside the framework of their halakhic authority, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, early Christian writings, Jewish-Hellenistic works in Hebrew and Greek, the works of the Karaites and the Sabbateans, the works of excommunicated philosophers, the rich and extensive body of secular literature created in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, in Spain and Italy – drinking songs, love songs and even “lewd songs” - are all integral parts of our culture. Even the culture of Jewish heresy, extant only in the works of its religious opponents, is a respectable part of our culture. The vast body of secular Jewish culture, created over the past two and a half centuries, in all areas of life and art, in Hebrew and other languages, by Jews and on Jewish subjects, in Israel and the diaspora - culture with which the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and most Orthodox Jews are unfamiliar - also occupies a very respectable place in our Jewish culture, and certainly belongs in the Jewish “library”.
Any attempt to present such a vast and long-standing culture, in all its facets and manifestations, must employ both synchronic and diachronic methods, with regard to the culture itself and its cultural surroundings. It must delineate the centres of gravity of Jewish culture, as well as its outermost boundaries, maintaining a correct sense of proportion. The relationship between core and periphery – beyond the conventional boundaries of Jewish culture - is the statement, the supreme idea that unites Jewish culture in its entirety.
The historical continuity of Jewish culture is apparent in the central themes that recur, time and again, throughout its history – themes such as the figures of Moses, David and Elijah, the idea of messianic redemption, the status of women, etc. These and other themes appear and reappear in various forms, reflecting the distinctive approaches and conceptions of each period and each individual author or artist, within the wider context of the culture of the Jews.
The division of Jewish history into periods should, in my opinion, follow the principles established by the historian Simon Dubnow, based on the migration of the centers of Jewish authority and the accompanying shifts in linguistic dominance. The first period, for example, stretches from its beginnings, in the second millennium BCE, to the year 200 CE, during which time the center of Hebrew and Jewish culture resided in the Land of Israel, and the dominant language was Hebrew – although a significant body of literature composed toward the end of this long period was in Greek and Aramaic, in the diaspora. The beginning of this period saw the creation of the ancient Hebrew myths, followed by the biblical and extra-biblical literature, the Mishnah, the historiographical works of Flavius Josephus and the ground-breaking philosophical works of Yedidyah (Philo) of Alexandria. It is in this period that the books of the Bible were translated into Aramaic and Greek, beginning their dissemination to every people and tongue. It is worth noting that the Bible was compiled only a few years before the compilation of the Mishnah, in the second century CE.
The second period, using Dubnow's method, is the period of Babylonian ascendancy, extending from 200 to 1000 CE. The primary languages of Jewish thought and literature during this time were Aramaic in Babylonia and the eastern Jewish diaspora, and Greek in the lands of the west: Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. By the end of this period, Arabic had become the dominant language of Jewish culture. This period marked the beginning of the immense project of halakhic interpretation, rooted in the Mishnah of the previous period, and continuing to this day. It also saw the development of the piyut (liturgical poem) and aggadic midrash. Hellenistic-Byzantine Jewish culture reached the height of its splendour during this period, constructing synagogues in the Greek style, adorned with works of plastic art, such as frescoes, mosaics, etc.
The third period of Jewish culture - from 700 to the end of the fifteenth century - includes all of the classic Jewish works of the Muslim Empire. This period saw the development of Jewish philosophy - theology for the most part - influenced by Muslim and Christian thought; kabbalistic mysticism, further development of the piyut – comprising new and original poetic and linguistic forms. The end of this period witnessed a decline in the authority of the rabbis, and the rise of a culture of heresy, as reflected for example, in the lost work of Hiwi al-Balkhi - who posed two hundred questions regarding contradictions he had found in the bible – karaitic literature, religious and secular poetry and philosophy, philological and exegetical works, works of kabbalistic mysticism – all written in Hebrew, Aramaic or Arabic. The same period saw the rise of the Jewish centers in Italy, and the founding of the Ashkenazi center in the Rhinelands, which also made enormous contributions to the religious and secular culture of the Jewish People.
During the fourth period, which lasted until the mid-eighteenth century, the center of Jewish religious and cultural authority passed to Eastern Europe. This period produced works of philosophy and kabbalistic mysticism, homiletics, exegesis, legends and popular literature, in Hebrew and Yiddish, Ladino, Arabic, as well as other languages spoken by Jews in the various lands of the diaspora.
The fifth period extended from the mid-eighteenth century to 1880 - the year that marks the dawn of contemporary culture. This period, which laid the foundations for all streams of contemporary Judaism, produced Hassidic and Haskalah literature. It was in this period that Jewish cultural activity transcended the boundaries of normative Judaism, extending to the literature of the peoples among whom Jews lived. Hebrew literary works were joined by great works in Yiddish, German and Russian. From this point on, the bulk of Jewish creative endeavors lied in the realm of Jewish secularism.
The final three periods will represent Judaism in the twentieth century, in all its many forms and languages. The sixth period is that of the turn of the century, from 1880 to 1920, the period of national rebirth and the period of the Jewish socialist movement, and the meteoric rise of Yiddish culture. The seventh period – between the world wars - saw the development of a vast body of Jewish culture in European languages, the creation of Jewish culture in Palestine, and the appearance of Jewish culture the New World, primarily in English, but also in Hebrew and in Yiddish. The eighth period, from 1940 to the present is the period of the Holocaust and contemporary culture, created in in the diaspora and in Israel where, for the first time, Hebrew is the mother tongue of writers and readers alike.
The boundaries of Jewish culture today extend far and wide. Hebrew literature is translated into dozens of languages, and its authors are known throughout the world. The best of world literature is translated into Hebrew, becoming part of general Israeli culture. Jewish literature is written all over the world, in many different languages. Jewish musicians, including many Israelis, play a central role in contemporary musical culture. Artistic media once foreign to Jewish culture are now an integral part of Jewish creative activity. Hebrew theater, for example, with no previous dramatic tradition, is now an important part of Jewish culture. So, too, dance and the plastic arts - such as painting, sculpture and architecture – that were distant from Jewish tradition over the ages, have come to play a central role in contemporary Jewish culture, and Jewish artists have made important contributions to world culture. Despite its wide-ranging international character, contemporary Jewish culture, in Israel and the diaspora, continues to maintain a strong connection to its ancient Hebrew and Jewish roots.