What Counts as a Jewish Text?

Some case studies to help us decide.

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The case of Song of Songs is instructive. Song of Songs, which certainly counts as a Jewish text, is not a typical Jewish text content-wise: God is completely left out of it. However, its later interpreters claimed that it was all about the central Jewish experience of God and Israel. Which is to say that in determining what is a Jewish text, it is often interpreters who may come along centuries after a text was written who determine its Jewish status.

Take the case of the writings of Spinoza. At the time he lived, he was excommunicated by the rabbinic authorities because he rejected religious claims of eternal truths in favor of reason. But at different times and in different places, Spinoza has been resurrected as a Jewish writer. During the French revolution, for example, Spinoza's claim that a state should not be grounded in a given religion, but should allow citizens to make the choice of what religion to believe--what we call separation of church and state--was used by Jews to claim they could be good French citizens and still be Jews.

Similar to Spinoza's fate is the books of the Maccabees, the four books retelling the revolution that the Maccabees led to free Israel from the Syrian Greeks. The Rabbis did not include these books in the Hebrew Bible; the books of the Maccabees are included, however, in the Christian Bible. Are they Jewish texts? The Rabbis of the Talmud, famously, only bring up the holiday of Hanukkah in the middle of a discussion about Shabbat. There they do not even mention the stories of rebellion told in Maccabees, and instead they tell the story of a jar of oil that was meant to last one day miraculously lasting eight days. With historical hindsight, we can suggest that the Rabbis of the Talmud did not include the books of the Maccabees as part of the canon because the books suggest armed revolution against the authorities, and for a group of people living under Roman rule, extolling these qualities may have been dangerous. Instead, the Rabbis focus on God's miraculous power to make the jar of oil last eight days. However, in our time, we can most certainly see the books of the Maccabees as Jewish texts.

What makes them Jewish? And for that matter what makes any text Jewish? As we have already seen, it is not necessarily the content of the writing that makes a Jewish text. Rather it is what the interpretive process does with the texts. The Maccabees have become, in our day, important historical figures, so we understand the books as Jewish texts. Early Christian writings, even by authors who may have understood themselves to be Jews, would be outside the realm of Jewish texts because of the strict division between Judaism and Christianity.

When we come across theologically difficult texts, we also see that content is not the issue in determining their Jewishness. The Bible itself is the most theologically difficult document I can think of: the strict reward and punishment system of Deuteronomy, the God of akedat Yitzhak (the binding of Isaac) who asks Abraham to sacrifice his first son-- this is a problematic vision of God. But we can safely say the Bible is a Jewish text. Agnostic texts are not an issue, either. Primo Levi for example, was an avowed agnostic, but I would classify his writings as Jewish writings, and his poems as Jewish texts. His experience of being in the concentration camps and writing about it from an explicit Jewish viewpoint makes his texts Jewish, even though he was an agnostic.

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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).