A Stubborn and Rebellious Bible: Modern Jewish Scripture, Troubling Texts, and the Recovery of Rabbinic Hermeneutics

Filler, Emily, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Ochs, Peter, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

This dissertation takes as its basis the much-theorized modern “return” of the Hebrew Bible to a central place in Jewish thought and practice. While the Bible had certainly never lost its unique and exalted status in the Jewish tradition, it is undeniable that modern Jewish thought is marked by a commitment to reestablishing the Bible as a foundational text for modern Jews.

Part I of the present study considers the ways in which four modern Jewish thinkers - Moses Mendelssohn, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Martin Buber, and Franz Rosenzweig - have envisioned the Bible as a unique means of Jewish communal renaissance. I analyze these thinkers’ attempts to employ the Bible for ethical and political ends, as well as the potential interpretive and theological challenges evoked by the presence of violent or otherwise troubling passages and themes in their sacred text – particularly when the violence in question is commanded by God.

In response to these ethical and interpretive challenges, Part II of this dissertation serves as a constructive response to these enduring questions. Drawing upon the corpus of classical rabbinic literature – Midrash, Mishnah, Gemara - I argue that this literature’s unique hermeneutical and relational character can provide tools to allow modern Jewish readers to engage in sustained interpretation of violent or otherwise ethically troubling texts without requiring the reader either to endorse a given text as normative or to deny the Bible’s sacred status.

As such, this study contributes both to the intellectual history of modern Jewish thought and biblical interpretation and to a broader conversation about biblical ethics, normativity, and divinely commanded violence. It also seeks to theorize the ethical import of classical rabbinic literature’s famously distinctive formal features, and to draw connections between this literature and the fields of Jewish philosophy and ethics.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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