What Counts as a Jewish Text?

Some case studies to help us decide.

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What counts as a Jewish text changes through time. Texts that earlier generations have excluded are affirmed later. As the Psalmist says, "The stone which the builders despised has become the cornerstone." Conversely, texts that are perfectly acceptable or mildly challenging to earlier generations can create theological problems that prompt modern people to exclude them. In the past, publishers had a role in determining which Jewish texts would survive; if the publisher thought enough people would buy a book, it would be published and survive. Now, practically anything can be published either in print or electronically. If, as Rabbi Judson asserts, communities validate texts as Jewish, which community will assess and affirm or disaffirm the Jewish texts of the internet?

In determining what "counts" as a Jewish text I would begin with a historical debate the Rabbis of the Mishnah (a primary document of Jewish law from the early third century) had about this very question. They grappled with the following:

what is a  jewish text"That day you seemed to me a tall palm tree and your breasts the clusters of its fruit. I said in my heart, let me climb into that palm tree and take hold of its branches. And oh, may your breasts be like clusters of grapes on a vine, the scent of your breath like apricots, your mouth good wine. That pleases my lover, rousing him even from sleep. I am my lover's he longs for me only for me."

The preceding quotation may seem like it comes from an erotic romance novel. But of course it is from Song of Songs (7:8-11, translation by Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch), one of the books that comprises the Ketuvim (Writings), the last section of the Hebrew Bible. Ostensibly the Song is a poem about the sexual awakening of a young woman and her lover--not the kind of material one would presume to find in the Hebrew Bible.

The Rabbis puzzled over whether this poem should be considered part of Holy Scripture. The Mishna (Yadayim 3:5) records a debate about the sanctity of the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. Rabbi Yose says there is a dispute about whether Song of Songs qualifies as sacred scripture. He does not articulate what the debate was about, but we can guess it was the sexual nature of the story. Rabbi Akiva, though, ends the debate by saying that there has never been a debate about the sanctity of the Song of Songs, it has always been clear. In fact he says, "The entire universe is unworthy of the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel. All the Ketuvim are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holiest of all."

Commentators coming after the Mishnah tried to understand how it was that this erotic poem became part of the canon, and caused the revered Akiva to proclaim it the holiest of writings. The answer they give is that the book should not be read in a straightforward manner as a love poem at all. It should be read instead as an allegory to depict the relationship of God to the Jewish people. Ibn Ezra writes, "God forbid that one construe this as a love song or as anything but a metaphor."

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Rabbi Dan Judson

Rabbi Dan Judson is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth David in Canton, MA. He is the co-author of two books, The Rituals and Practices of a Jewish Life:  A Handbook for Personal Spiritual Renewal (Jewish Lights Press, 2002) and Meeting at the Well:  A Jewish Spiritual Guide to Being Engaged (UAHC Press, 2002).