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Reclaiming the Bible as a Jewish Book: The Legacy of Three Conservative Scholars (Yochanan Muffs, Moshe Greenberg, and Jacob Milgrom)

Benjamin D. Sommer


Does the Bible matter to contemporary religious Jews, and if so, how? The question might seem an odd one, but modern Jews have long had ambivalent attitudes toward biblical study. The Bible’s status has suffered from two types of pressure, one long-standing in traditional Judaism and the other relatively recent. The first type of pressure results from the fact that the Bible is not the only sacred book of the Jews, and, on a practical level, it is not the most important one. The Talmuds and other rabbinic books have an important—one can even say, a scriptural—status in Judaism as it has existed for the past fifteen or so centuries. Jewish law as we practice it is set forth in rabbinic texts, not in the Bible. When one wants to know whether a pot or pan is kosher, whether a business transaction is permissible, or what time the Passover Seder must begin, one does not open up a Bible. One turns instead to works of rabbinic literature. Central Jewish beliefs regarding messianism, the resurrection of the dead, and the nature of God find expression in rabbinic and post-rabbinic texts and are mentioned in the Bible barely or not at all. What the modern Jewish philosopher Moshe Halbertal refers to as the “normative canon” of Judaism (the set of rules by which Jews live) is found not in the Bible but in rabbinic literature. What Halbertal calls its “formative canon” (the set of texts whose study helps create, shape and maintain the Jewish community) is found in both, but rather more prominently in the latter.

If Jewish tradition complicates the role of the Bible, then modern biblical criticism— that is, the sort of biblical study carried out by professors in universities, colleges, and seminaries—has thrown that role into question altogether. Biblical criticism has undermined the perception that the Bible is holy, the claim that the Bible has something vital to teach Jews living in every place and any era. During the past two and a half centuries, biblical critics have denied Moses’ authorship of the Torah, asserting that Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy bring together documents that were originally separate from each other. They argued persuasively that these underlying documents contradict each other in regard to details of plot: What was the order in which God created the world? How many of each animal did Noah bring onto the ark, two or seven? How long did the flood last? Where was God located when the Torah was given at Sinai, in heaven or on earth? More importantly, these contradictions also pertain to theological issues: Is God fundamentally transcendent or immanent? Does God punish the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of sinners for the sinner’s crime? Can one see God? The discovery that the laws found in Exodus through Deuteronomy were not in any literal sense Mosaic and the realization that the Torah contradicts itself were greeted with dismay by many Jews, who felt that by making these claims, biblical critics attacked the root of Jewish religiosity.[1] An example of this attitude is a famous statement made in 1903 by Solomon Schechter, the President of the Jewish Theological Seminary from 1902 to 1915 and one of the founders of the Conservative movement in North America. Schechter maintained that “higher criticism” of the Bible (that is, the branch of biblical criticism that analyzes the authorship of biblical books) is nothing more than “higher anti-Semitism.”[2]

As a result, the Bible’s claim to be a sacred text presents a problem for modern Jews. (By “modern Jews” I mean here those who are open to historically oriented, academic ways of studying Judaism.) Because they are not quite able to regard the Bible as revealed or inspired in the manner it was (and is) for pre-modern forms of Judaism, many modern Jews tend to regard the anthology that is the Bible as a historical artifact or as an object of nostalgia. Their relationship to the Bible is ethnic and national in nature, but it is not religious. Jews who subscribe to this approach do not connect the Bible with God, nor do they use it to connect themselves to God. They may accord these texts an honored place as the oldest classical literature of the Jewish nation, but their conception of the Bible does not allow for a serious form of Jewish religiosity. It does not even claim to do so; for proponents of this option (for example, for many secular Zionist thinkers), the Bible is no longer sacred scripture and is not regarded as having been revealed by God to the Jewish people.

Other modern readers attempt to forge a religious relationship with the Bible by temporarily renouncing the intellectual skills they use in other parts of their life so that they can read the Bible with a sort of feigned naïveté. For proponents of this option, studying the Bible as a human, historical artifact would preclude reading the Bible as sacred scripture. Consequently, they may decide that the findings of modern biblical scholarship have to be denied in order to save the Bible as religiously relevant. Alternatively, they may decide that these findings have to be ignored—that is, these Jews may bracket their ability to think critically and their knowledge of history whenever they activate their religious identity. This option is deeply problematic, because it proposes to build Jewish religiosity on a foundation of bad faith, erecting a barrier separating truth from religion.

Both these options display what we might call “either/or” thinking: either the biblical critics are right or the religious readers of scripture are right. But one of the great strengths of the Conservative movement has been its insistence on adopting what we might call a “both-and” approach to Judaism as a whole: the Jew is required to hold on to both sides of a polarity, to accept that there is truth to both sides. Readers of Abraham Joshua Heschel, for example, will recall how often the master theologian of the movement criticizes Jews who only value one side of a polarity. For Heschel, the authentic Jew does not focus on study instead of action, or action instead of study; she does not value spontaneity instead of set structure, nor does she idolize structure over spontaneity but accepts the crucial need for each of these religious values. How, then, should one apply this “both-and” model to the challenges of biblical criticism?



A Threefold Cord

An answer to these two questions emerges from studying the writings of three major biblical scholars who died less than a decade ago: Yochanan Muffs, Moshe Greenberg, and Jacob Milgrom, זכרונם לברכה (may their memory be for a blessing). I would like to suggest that these scholars show that Jews who want to be both modern and religious don’t need to be afraid of biblical criticism (not even the “higher criticism” that so disturbed Schechter), because biblical criticism can enrich a Jew’s commitment to the Bible and its teachings. More specifically these scholars demonstrated that the great Jewish conversations and debates that are so central to Judaism begin already in the Tanakh itself, and not just in the literature of the rabbis such as the Talmuds and the midrashim. They did not solve all the problems presented by biblical criticism—in particular, they did relatively little to address the question of how divine authorship or inspiration relates to the ancient Israelite documents found in the Bible, which is a crucial issue still in need of serious attention. But they did establish that studying the Bible openly and with intellectual honesty can produce results that add depth to one’s practices and learning as an observant, thoughtful, modern Jew.

Yochanan Muffs taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York; Jacob Milgrom, at the University of California Berkeley and also as a frequent visitor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; and Moshe Greenberg, initially at the University of Pennsylvania and, after making aliyah in the early 1970s, at the Hebrew University, as well as at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Jerusalem campus (now an independent institution known as מכון שכטר, the Schechter Institute). These three scholars, all of them Conservative rabbis, were close both personally and professionally for many decades, ובמותם לא נפרדו: the three of them died during the six-month period from December, 2009, to June, 2010. All three were enormously influential in the academic world. Their books, commentaries and articles are regularly cited among biblical critics, both Jewish and Christian. But the full measure of their legacy, I think, is not yet appreciated. In what follows I would like to step back from their work on specific biblical texts and historical questions to talk about how they relate to the larger field of biblical studies and how they helped to transform it. To do so, I will describe the broad thematic aim of their work; I will examine how those aims relate to the academic field of biblical criticism; and I will show how their scholarship was shaped by the approach of Conservative Judaism. In all this, I am not only attempting to appreciate these three great scholars; more importantly, I am using their work as a window into the challenges that biblical criticism poses to modern religious Jews in general and to Conservative Jews in particular, and I employ their writings to exemplify a successful way of responding to those challenges.[3]

These three biblical scholars, in my estimation, shared a single intellectual project. As Jewish scholars, they wanted to reclaim the Bible as a Jewish book, and, as scholars of the humanities, they wanted to reclaim the Bible as an interesting book. To see what I mean by this, it will be helpful to examine how Professors Muffs, Greenberg, and Milgrom reacted against biblical scholarship that preceded them. Thus before I discuss their work, I will need to describe some characteristics of biblical criticism as it existed before the 1970s.



Biblical Criticism Until the 1970s

Biblical criticism as an academic field was originally almost entirely a Protestant pursuit. The field emerged at universities and seminaries in central and western Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Neither Catholics nor Jews were involved in this field in any significant numbers during the first century and a half of its existence. By the mid-twentieth century some Jews became involved in the field of biblical criticism, especially at Israeli universities. But only in the 1970s did significant numbers of Jews begin to join what we might call the guild of biblical critics in North America. Thus the norms according to which modern academics study scripture were almost entirely shaped by Protestant scholars until well into the twentieth century. These norms were dictated by the ways Protestants conceive of scripture—that is, the ways they assumed it is sensible to read scripture and the roles they thought scripture naturally plays in religion and society. It is important to note that Protestant answers to the questions, “Why is scripture important, and what is its function in a religious community?”, differ substantially from Jewish, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox answers to these questions.

As a result, biblical criticism has often made a strong divide between the Bible and Judaism as we know it. The goals behind this divide are varied, and not in all cases objectionable. They stem not only from the ill-disguised anti-Judaism of biblical critics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but from scholars’ admirable determination to avoid anachronistic interpretations. The core of biblical criticism might be described in this way: We biblical critics do not necessarily accept classical Jewish or Christian interpretations of the Bible. Just because Rashi or Augustine said that this passage or that verse has a particular meaning, it does not follow that the original audience of the text understood it that way. Rather than seeing the Bible through the eyes of the rabbis or the Church Fathers, modern biblical critics attempt to see the Bible in the context of its own cultural world, which was the ancient Near East. That is why we biblical critics spend so much time in graduate school immersing ourselves in the languages and cultures of ancient Canaan, Babylonia, Assyria, and so forth. The goal of this immersion is to achieve literary competence that allows us to read texts from the ancient Near East sympathetically, noticing what ancient readers are likely to have noticed and reacting as they reacted. A fundamental goal of the modern scholarly interpretation of the Bible is to distinguish between what the Bible says and what the classical rabbis or the Church Fathers say the Bible says. Now, this is a worthy goal, but many biblical scholars took these goals further, insisting that the Bible is not really a Jewish book at all, and sometimes insisting that it is not a Christian book either. For these biblical critics, it has to be an either/or: since the Bible is an ancient Near Eastern book, it cannot also be a Jewish book. Many biblical critics, both Jewish and Christian, have created a firewall between biblical religion and Jewish culture. These scholars insist that it is illegitimate to use rabbinic lenses to look at the Bible, it is pointless to use rabbinic commentaries, and it is perverse to think about the Bible in terms of classical Jewish ideas or values.

This way of thinking—let’s call it “the firewall mentality”—relates in interesting ways to points of view that predate modern biblical criticism. One of these points of view stems from ancient and medieval Christianity and the other, surprisingly enough, from traditional Judaism. On one level, the firewall mentality is not an invention of the modern world. It is just a new form of anti-Jewish supersessionism—that is, the idea (repudiated by many modern Christians, most famously by the Catholic Church at the time of the Second Vatican Council) that with the emergence of Christianity, the Jewish people are no longer the covenantal community created by the Bible, because the Church has replaced the Jews as the true Israel. At the same time, this mentality meshes well with an attitude common among some elements of rabbinic culture in the Middle Ages and the modern world. That attitude downplayed the importance of biblical study; recall that the curriculum of traditional Eastern European yeshivot, for example, focused almost entirely on Talmud and usually included no biblical study. After all, a correlate to the view that biblical critics shouldn’t look at the Bible as part of Judaism might be that a student of Judaism need not look at the Bible—which matches the reality of many yeshivot rather well.

The Protestant origins of biblical criticism also appear in an aversion to ritual and to physical expressions of religious feeling that typified a fair amount of biblical criticism before the 1970s. Protestant biblical critics made assumptions that Jewish thinkers (and also many Catholic theologians) regard as incorrect or even bizarre. These include the idea that the spirit is religiously superior to the flesh, or even that the spirit it genuinely distinct from the flesh; the notion that grace and law are in opposition to each other; and the assumption that rituals are nothing more than educational symbols, and thus they are basically pointless for people who are more intellectually and spiritually sophisticated. These sorts of prejudices had an enormous effect on the work of the great German biblical critic Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). Wellhausen argued that Israelite religious expression in its earliest and purest form was fresh, natural, spontaneous, and the realm of the individual, but that it later shrank into an artificial set of ordinances and institutions that, in his opinion, typify post-biblical Judaism. This view manifests itself especially in Wellhausen’s influential views of the Priestly document or “P,” which is one of the four documents that, according to the convincing analysis of “higher criticism,” were edited together to create the Torah. (Priestly material is found throughout the Torah and is concentrated especially in the Book of Leviticus, which contains only P material.) Wellhausen regarded P as ritualistic and thus as proto-rabbinic. For him, P lacked a robust notion of ethics; it was radically removed from the inspiring religion of the prophets and was fundamentally uninteresting from a religious (that is, a Protestant) point of view. (I should add that in spite of his negative attitude toward the Jewish religion Wellhausen was not himself an anti-Semite in his political or social views. Further, and even more importantly, most of his work, in spite of its many flaws, is truly brilliant and still worth studying closely and respectfully.)

One final characteristic of biblical criticism to which Muffs, Greenberg and Milgrom respond needs to be mentioned, Biblical criticism has tended to portray the Bible as much less interesting than we usually think it is—less interesting humanistically, theologically, and existentially. We see this, for example, in the obsession that some biblical critics have with etiology—that is, with reading stories in the Bible as attempts to explain the origin of some custom, name, or cultural institution. It is clear that some biblical passages do contain etiologies (for example, the story of how God “passed over” [פָּסַח, pasah] the houses of the Israelites in Egypt provides an etiology for the name of the holiday commemorating the Exodus [פֶּסַח, pesah]), but many biblical scholars either found etiologies everywhere or interpreted stories as if they contained nothing besides an etiology. Thus some critics have claimed that the creation story in Genesis 1 is nothing more than at attempt to explain the peculiar Israelite habit of not working every seven days, or that the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 is just an etiology explaining the origins of the world’s many languages. These kind of critics (and there are many of them still today) regard the Bible as far less profound than many people suppose it to be.



The Response to the Challenge

How might a religious Jew, or a religious Christian, react to these characteristics of biblical criticism? The easiest responses are either to reject biblical criticism, or to reject the Bible as a religious document. Certainly many Jews throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries availed themselves of these options. Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, however, several Jewish and Christian scholars refused to accept the dichotomy according to which one must reject either the Bible or biblical criticism. One sees this trend, for examples, in the work of the great Christian biblical scholars Brevard Childs (who taught at Yale) and James Barr (the Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford, and later a faculty member at Vanderbilt and at Claremont). At roughly the same time literary scholars like Meir Weiss (Hebrew University), James Muilenburg (Union Theological Seminary), and Robert Alter (Berkeley) focused attention on the humanistic depth and psychological sensitivity of the Hebrew Bible’s narrative and poetry. These trends also emerge in a distinctive way in the work of the three scholars I am discussing.

Now with all this background, let us look at what I think are the two core ideas in the work of our three scholars—namely, that the Bible is a book of important Jewish value and a book of important existential value. I will begin with the first of these claims. Muffs, Greenberg and Milgrom believe that it makes sense to study the Bible in a Jewish context, as part of an ongoing Jewish conversation. To achieve a deeper understanding of the Bible, scholars can and should utilize not only modern critical tools such as archaeology and linguistics but also rabbinic midrash, as well as the work of medieval Jewish interpreters (many of whom were themselves superb linguists). Thus all three of them brought the classical Jewish interpreters back into conversations about the Bible among modern scholars. In so doing, they made clear to their colleagues in the academic world that the Bible is (among other things) a Jewish book. At the same time, they demonstrated something crucial to their fellow Jews (and especially their rabbinic and educational colleagues): Jews who want to study the Bible as their scriptures have much to gain by turning to certain modern scholars. A rabbi, an educator or a Jewish layperson who is preparing a devar torah for a minyan or who is preparing to lead a lively Passover seder will often begin by opening up ancient and medieval commentaries on the Bible like Rashi or Midrash Rabbah. The work of Muffs, Milgrom and Greenberg shows that such a person can also profit by looking at the writings of biblical critics who read the Bible with literary sensitivity and theological seriousness. Those biblical critics address some of the same thematic issues that Rashi or the midrash address, but they do so from a different and original point of view; further, they help us see additional religious or ethical themes that the earlier commentators did not discuss.[4]

Jacob Milgrom

These tendencies pervade the work of these scholars. Here I will give just a few samples from their writings, starting with Professor Milgrom. Milgrom is most famous among scholars for his massive three-volume commentary on the Book of Leviticus, by the far the most detailed and important study of the book ever written.[5] (A somewhat uneven abridged version was also published.[6]) He wrote a shorter, more user-friendly commentary on Numbers as well.[7] When one pages through any of Milgrom’s commentaries, it immediately becomes clear that he perceives strong elements of continuity between the Bible and Jewish culture in the same way that modern scholars have long perceived continuities between the Bible and ancient Near Eastern cultures. For this reason, in his quest to understand difficult texts from Leviticus and Numbers, Milgrom utilizes comparisons and insights from both rabbinic literature and literature written in Akkadian, Ugaritic, and Hittite (languages of ancient Mesopotamia, northern Canaan, and Asia Minor, respectively). In turning to each of these types of literature, Milgrom was not innovating. Biblical critics since the late nineteenth century had already shown that Mesopotamian texts such as the Code of Ḫammurapi or the Gilgamesh Epic, to name just two examples, shed light on biblical texts, even though some of those texts were composed as much as a thousand years before the biblical texts. Milgrom continues this scholarly tradition with particular thoroughness and efficacy. And of course it was long the norm for Jewish scholars to use rabbinic commentaries in studying biblical texts. What is distinctive about Milgrom’s work is the way he pursues both agendas on the same page—indeed, even in comments on a single verse, phrase or word. By using insights he gleans from both types of literature, Milgrom places the Bible on a long trajectory that moves backward from the Bible to the ancient Near East and forward toward rabbinic Judaism. Milgrom shows that just as earlier literature is relevant for understanding the Bible (even though some of it predates the biblical texts by a millennium), so too rabbinic works edited a thousand years after the biblical era can enhance our understanding of the Bible. The Bible in many ways grew out of the literary and cultural traditions of ancient Canaan and Mesopotamia, so that tracing the connections from Canaan and Mesopotamia to Israelite literature helps us understand the later texts; by the same token, examining how biblical culture grows into later Jewish cultures also helps us to understand what was latent or potential in the Bible.

Milgrom emphasizes the importance of ethics and values especially in Priestly literature (which biblical critics often call the P document), precisely where biblical critics like Wellhausen argued that ethics and values were absent. This becomes clear, for example, in Milgrom’s understanding of the אָשָׁם, or guilt offering, described in Leviticus 5. Several priestly passages, such as Numbers 15:22-23 and Leviticus 5:14-19, make clear that a person can offer sacrifices to atone for certain sins only if the sins were committed inadvertently. If a person sinned knowingly and on purpose, then the basic principle was that forgiveness was not an option. Thus, Leviticus 5:14-19 gives rules concerning people who committed certain sins by accident and subsequently realized they had sinned; these people are required to offer the אָשָׁם. But that passage goes on to give a rule in Leviticus 5:20-26, according to which even a person who sinned on purpose can offer the guilt offering. (A similar rule appears in Numbers 5:5-10.) Why, Milgrom wondered, is the deliberate or intentional sinner in these passages allowed to offer the sacrifice and receive forgiveness? Because, Milgrom explains, the sinner felt remorse: Leviticus 5:23 addresses the case of a deliberate sinner who “feels guilty” (which is how Milgrom translates the verb וְאָשֵׁם) and confesses. The confession that follows the remorse renders his intentional sin an inadvertent one. Milgrom argues that the term וְאָשֵׁם

involves the self-punishment of conscience, the torment of guilt…[and] refers to psychological guilt…In the Priestly demand for remorse and reconciliation we see the genesis of repentance, the doctrine that will flower into full bloom with Israel’s prophets.[8]


‍Thus Milgrom points out that the idea of repentance shows up in priestly literature, in the frequently-used verb אָשֵׁם. Wellhausen and other biblical critics were wrong to assume that the priestly literature does not speak in terms of ethical values familiar from the prophets. While the priests’ terminology differs from the prophets’, the idea is present. Moreover, Milgrom shows, the priests were distinctive in their emphasis on physical and external expressions of spiritual and internal feelings. The core of the priestly doctrine of repentance was not only theological but even more importantly psychological, because it was sensitive to the needs of the regretful sinner. Guilt and shame can destroy a person from within, but by requiring the sinner to perform a concrete action, P permits the sinner to achieve “a catharsis of conscience”[9] that mere confession by itself might not yield. Thus P’s main thrust in discussing these rituals was not guilt but forgiveness, not strict law but mercy.

Similarly, Milgrom points out that Priestly literature emphasizes the communal effect of individual action. P requires that a person must bring a חַטָּאת offering at the sanctuary after committing certain deeds, some of them sinful and others praiseworthy or morally neutral. Though חַטָּאת is often translated as “sin offering,” it is clear that the purpose of this ritual was not to rid a sinner of his or her guilt, since in many cases the person required to bring the חַטָּאת had committed no sin at all. In fact, Milgrom argues, the חַטָּאת had no effect on the individual who committed the act that led to the need for the offering. Rather, Milgrom shows in a brilliant textual interpretation that utilizes both etymology and close reading, the word חַטָּאת means not “sin offering” but “purification offering.” This offering purifies not the individual who brings it but the altar in the sanctuary, which is a concern of all Israelites. Rather than being about one person’s guilt, the חַטָּאת purifies the altar, which became ritually impure because of some deed the person committed. Ritual impurity in the Bible is not in any way prohibited or sinful; indeed at times it is required or praiseworthy. But when impurity attaches itself to the altar, it can repel God’s presence, because impurity, which is associated with death, is antithetical to the God who never dies. Thus the חַטָּאת’s goal is to alleviate the potentially dangerous effect on the community of an individual’s action; the entire Israelite nation is concerned with the possibility that God might leave the sanctuary if the altar accumulates too much impurity. The person who brings a חַטָּאת does so not primarily for his or her own sake but for the sake of the community as a whole.

Milgrom acts as what we might call a textual anthropologist when he shows us that P’s rituals are a religious and ethical language. Like an anthropologist, Milgrom attempts to observe the world of Priestly ritual and thought from the inside and to describe it sympathetically. (Unlike his colleagues in the Department of Anthropology, of course, he cannot travel to a place where the culture currently exists to observe and describe it, and so instead he takes texts from the ancient culture that concerns him and reads them with great care.) According to Milgrom, religious rituals express core Jewish and humanistic values through symbolic action. These values are congruent with the religious system of rabbinic Judaism. In making these claims, Milgrom was disagreeing with Wellhausen and with pre-1970s biblical criticism generally, first of all by showing that P is religiously interesting. As we have seen, Priestly rituals deal with issues of guilt, forgiveness, and the communal implications of individual action. Elsewhere, he shows that rituals encode ideas about the relationship between religious hierarchy and religious equality, about divine transcendence and immanence, and above all about divine grace. Thus P is not only about outward acts, but about interior, psychological and spiritual states that express themselves through the outward acts. Further, Milgrom disagrees with older biblical criticism in his approach to the relationship between P and rabbinic Judaism. He shows that P is Jewish—that is, that P’s religious world anticipates the rabbis of the Talmudic era not only in its attention to ceremonial minutia but also in the core values the ceremonies express. Here, Milgrom seems at first to agree with Wellhausen, who also regards P as Jewish, but Milgrom takes this characteristic in a totally different direction. For Milgrom, “Jewish” does not mean “committed to childish and meaningless rituals;” rather, “Jewish” means “expressing core humanistic and religious values through ritual.”



Yochanan Muffs

Similar characteristics are present in the work of Yochanan Muffs. I will take as my first example his book The Personhood of God,[10] a work of great depth and subtlety that is nonetheless surprisingly readable. In Personhood Muffs stresses ideas that will make many modern Jews uncomfortable: God, God’s humanity, God’s grace. (Religious Jews committed to Maimonides’ philosophical form of Jewish belief will admire Muff’s decision to focus on God but will be deeply uncomfortable with what Muffs has to say about the deity’s human characteristics.) Against the tenor of some modern religious thinkers, Muffs does not shy away from the Bible’s anthropomorphic conception of God. In fact, he argues, in many ways the Bible’s understanding of God is more anthropomorphic than the concepts of divinity in ancient Babylonian and Assyrian religion. Further (and again disconcertingly for many Jews) he claims that the rabbis’ theology is even more anthropomorphic than the Bible’s. As a result, he makes biblical religion seem less rational, more primitive, and, for many modern people, insufficiently monotheistic. It is here that Muffs delivers his surprise: the personal, emotional God of the Bible is more monotheistic, not less monotheistic than the God of rationalist philosophers. This is because the anthropomorphic, emotional God of the Bible and rabbinic literature is radically free, whereas the fully rational God of the philosophers is predictable, stable, and thus not truly free. A deity who cannot make the emotional, irrational choices the biblical and rabbinic authors attribute to God is not truly omnipotent. Only a God who is completely omnipotent, subject to neither nature no reason, is truly a monotheistic God.

In presenting this argument about the monotheistic God’s freedom, Muffs synthesizes the teachings of two modern Jewish thinkers: Yehezkel Kaufmann and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Kaufmann was an Israeli biblical scholar who spent decades composing an eight-volume masterpiece, תולדות האמונה הישראלית, which appeared, volume by volume, from 1937 to 1956. (This title is usually translated as “The History of Israelite Religion” but could also be rendered “The Generations of Israelite Belief.”) Kaufmann also wrote other works in biblical scholarship and a two-volume study of the social and ideological forces that characterize Jewish history in the Exile, גולה ונכר (“Exile and Alienation”). Heschel was a scholar of rabbinic thought, Jewish philosophy, kabbalah, and Hasidism, but most of all he was a constructive theologian in his own right. Muffs was a disciple of both, though in different ways: as a rabbinical student and later a faculty member at the Jewish Theological Seminary he knew Heschel and studied with him; and, like most Jewish biblical scholars in the second half of the twentieth century, he was deeply influenced by Kaufmann. These two thinkers stand at opposite ends of the spectrum that is Jewish thought. Kaufmann was a rationalist and a historian. In many ways his work on the Bible presents an attempt to historicize abstract ideas from a book written by the Reform Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism (first published in 1919). Kaufmann shows how Cohen’s thesis about the nature of monotheism correctly describes the religious ideas of the Bible. For the Bible, as for a rationalist philosophy of religion, God is absolutely free, separate from the world, and in no way subject to the forces of nature. Heschel, on the other hand, was far less interested in historical explanations for religious phenomena than Kaufmann, and he rejected a purely rationalist account of Judaism or of human nature. In his own theology, Heschel reinterpreted the kabbalistic idea of theurgy, the idea that God was dependent on humanity and especially on the Jewish people’s observance of mitzvot. Heschel contended that God, like a person, has emotional needs and desires and that God can grow and change over time. One would have assumed then, that the ideas of an arch-rationalist and historicist like Kaufmann can no more be synthesized with those of the mystically inclined Heschel than sodium can be combined with water.

But Muffs presents a nuanced version of Kaufmann’s thought that is more supple, more flexible, more supportable than the somewhat brittle and polemical version that Kaufmann himself presented in תולדות. In so doing, Muffs confirms the main insight about monotheism that Kaufmann learned from Cohen: Monotheism does not simply mean that there are no other immortal or heavenly beings beside Yhwh. (In fact both biblical and rabbinic texts assume the existence of angels, whom the Bible often refers to as “gods;” see, e.g., Psalm 29:1, 35:10, 71:19, 82:6, 86:8, 87:7-9; Exodus 15:11.) Rather, monotheism means that there are no forces in the universe stronger than Yhwh—not nature, not death, not fate, not the laws of physics. (The other gods, on the other hand, are usually subject to these forces and invariably subject to Yhwh’s power; in this way, the gods/angels are basically similar to human beings, and it is for this reason that their existence does not impugn the Bible’s monotheism.) While emphasizing this notion of divinity, Muffs also focuses on Heschel’s portrayal of God. Heschel’s God is a highly anthropomorphic deity, or, more precisely, an anthropopathic one (that is, a God with human emotions). In focusing on Heschel’s very personal God, Muffs emphasizes divine freedom and preserves God’s absolute lack of subservience to any force, even reason. In this way, Muffs brings together these two conceptions of God, one from Kaufmann and one from Heschel. When one pauses to reflect on the intellectual and spiritual genealogies of Kaufmann and Heschel, one realizes that Muffs’ accomplishment goes even further. As we have seen, Kaufmann’s larger project is fundamentally to provide a historical restatement of Cohen’s rationalist philosophy, while Heschel wrote not only as an academic scholar but also as a certain kind of Hasidic Jew (a Hasid who left Poland to pursue a doctoral degree and liberal ordination in Berlin, to be sure, but a Hasid all the same). At the deepest level, then, Muffs was combining Cohen’s neo-Kantian rationalist theology with traditional chasidus. Muffs achieves nothing less than an exquisitely balanced theology that brings together the Jewish rationalist and mystical traditions.

Muffs’ reading of the Bible in Personhood, then, is as much a contribution to modern Jewish theology as it is a work of biblical criticism. Yet when Muffs reads the Bible, he is specifically reading the biblical critics’ Bible. At every turn, he interprets biblical texts in their ancient Near Eastern context, comparing them especially to Mesopotamian religious texts and referring frequently to the work of Assyriologists (that is, scholars of ancient Babylonian and Assyrian culture). It is precisely his grounding in ancient Near Eastern patterns of thought that allows Muffs to defend the definition of monotheism proposed by Cohen and Kaufmann, and it is on the basis of his background in ancient Near Eastern studies and biblical criticism that he creates his synthesis of rationalist and mystical forms of Judaism.

Another side of Muffs’ work is especially well represented in his essay on divine justice and grace as they appear in the prayers of biblical prophets.[11] There Muffs confronts the contradiction between two sets of verses in the Bible. On the one hand, Exodus 34.6-7 states that God “surely does not clean away all guilt, but remembers the sin of the fathers against the children, the grandchildren, and the third and fourth generations”—that is, God punishes the descendants of a sinner for what the sinner did. Several additional biblical passages refer to this idea as well (for example, Numbers 14.14-19, 1 Kings 22, Isaiah 39.8, Psalm 99.8). Other biblical passages, however, state precisely the opposite: God does not pay attention to a sinner’s guilt forever and does not punish innocent people for their ancestors’ crimes. This idea is stated most clearly in Ezekiel 18, and also appears in texts such as Deuteronomy 7.9-10, Jonah 4.2 and Psalm 103.8-10. The contradiction between the passages is not the only difficulty Muffs addresses; in addition, he notes that texts such as Numbers 14.14-19 make it clear that biblical authors considered God’s decision to punish innocent descendants to be an example of divine mercy.

In confronting these difficulties, Muffs shows that we can speak of three different types of thinking about divine retribution in ancient Israel. In the earliest sort of thinking, sin was seen as having an objective character, as if it were a physical substance that attached to a person who committed a sin. It was like a tumor that has to be cut away through suffering or even death. Repentance or regret did not get rid of it. This is the most primitive stage, which really represents a prebiblical point of view, with a very strong stress on דין, or divine justice. In the third stage, sin has a subjective character. It is no longer thought of as a substance that is external to a person. Rather, it is a state of mind, a spiritual disease, and the cure is repentance or regret. Once a person repents and regrets the sin committed, the sinful state of mind is simply gone; the sin and the guilt associated with it no longer exist. In this way of thinking, punishment does not cleanse away the sin, though it might be a useful inducement to repentance: God might send suffering to sinners to encourage them to examine their actions so that they will realize what they did wrong. This point of view puts a strong stress on רחמים, or divine mercy. It is the second stage, represented by texts like Exodus 34.5-7, that is hardest to understand. This stage shares features of the first and the third stages. Both justice and mercy are present, and each demands to be taken into account. Sin is still seen as a substance, and thus punishment must occur to wipe away the guilt. But in light of God’s mercy, repentance has to be taken into account; if the sinner regrets the sin, the sinner should not be punished. The solution at this second stage is to defer punishment to later generations; God “lifts up the sin” (נושא עון) temporarily, taking it away from the sinner. This deferment is actually an act of divine mercy—the sinner is being forgiven and not punished! But sin does not just disappear. Eventually God lets go of the sin, which must be paid for, albeit by a member of the sinner’s family a few generations on.

What is most significant in Muffs’ brilliant analysis of these difficult texts is not just the way he explains the various points of view but how Muffs shows an organic development of ancient Jewish thought. It is not only in the modern era that Jewish theologians generate new ideas. Biblical authors, too, take issue with their predecessors and present bold innovations, even as they stress their connection with the earlier thinkers. One might have thought that the stage three authors would have wanted to ignore or bury the stage two thinkers who, in their eyes, presented an incorrect picture of God as treating innocents unfairly. In fact, Muffs shows, Deuteronomy 7.9-10, Jonah 4.2 and Psalm 103.8-10 all borrowed language from the main text they disagreed with, Exodus 34.5-7:


Yhwh, Yhwh, a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and full of abundant loyalty and truth. He maintains loyalty to the thousandth generation, holding sin and punishment and guilt in abeyance. But He does not ignore punishment at all, but visits the guilt of parents upon children and grandchildren, upon the third and fourth generations. (Exodus 34.6-7.)


Yhwh is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, full of abundant loyalty. He does not fight a case forever or maintain His anger for all time. (Psalm 103.8-9.)


‍The psalm uses crucial vocabulary from the earlier text, calling it to mind so that audiences will notice the innovative element even as they sense the ways that the new texts echo and grow out of the old one. It is here that the relevance of a biblical critical finding for Conservative Jews becomes evident. The Conservative movement stresses a certain degree of pluralism within Judaism, allowing divergent points of view to exist alongside each other. As a result, publications by the movement not infrequently contain contributions that disagree with each other and debate each other. Muffs’ essay shows that debate, difference, and development typify not only modern Jewish anthologies but the ancient Jewish anthology known as the Bible; in fact, given Deuteronomy 7’s disagreement with Exodus 34, they can be found even within the Torah itself. The Conservative movement’s toleration of multiple points of view that do not go beyond some boundary has a great deal of historical authenticity.



Moshe Greenberg

The implicit claims that the Bible is a Jewish book and a work of humanistic depth and subtlety are found throughout the writings of Professor Greenberg as well. Because Greenberg is the most well-known of the three thinkers whom I discuss, I will focus on just one example of his work, a famous study of capital punishment in biblical and ancient Mesopotamian law he wrote early in his career, “Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law.”[12] This essay reveals central values of biblical thinking that were developed more fully in rabbinic literature. Greenberg shows that biblical texts regard human life as sacred and therefore incommensurable: nothing can substitute for a human life. Hence legal corpora in the Bible insist that murder must be punished in every case by the execution of the murderer; the Bible rejects other sanctions permitted by Mesopotamian law codes such as the Code of Ḫammurapi in certain cases of murder (for example, compelling the murderer to pay a fine or to pay damages to the victim’s family, or substituting some other family member’s life for the life of the murderer). Of course, the punishment that results from the notion of the sanctity of human life is paradoxical, since it compels human courts to destroy precisely what it exalts. Much later than the Bible, the rabbis would institute laws of evidence and narrow definitions of capital crimes which severely limited—indeed, came close to abolishing—the application of the death penalty. In so doing, the rabbis were not so much overturning the biblical legal system as taking its logic quite seriously, in a sense more seriously than the biblical law codes themselves.

Although Greenberg’s study barely mentions rabbinic texts (the only reference to the rabbinic laws occurs in one brief paragraph and in footnotes 28 and 29 of his essay), it is nonetheless a deeply Jewish one, because it identifies a core value-concept in biblical law that came to a more consistent and thoroughgoing expression in post-biblical Jewish literature. At the same time Greenberg contributes to our understanding of biblical and Mesopotamian law and thus is rewarding to any students of the ancient Near East, whether they are interested in Jewish thought or not. It is at once, then, a study of ancient Near Eastern legal history and, in a subtle and not fully explicit manner, an attempt to note the basis in biblical law for a development in rabbinic law. Greenberg’s essay, then, not only explains the nature of biblical law but implies something crucial about talmudic law: while the limits the rabbis put on capital punishment seem to go against the grain of particular biblical laws (the mandates for capital punishment), these limits also allow a foundational element of biblical law (the sacrality of human life) to develop more fully.

Greenberg is more explicit about the connections between the Bible and rabbinic culture in his later writings—for example, the essays “Using Rabbinic Exegesis as an Educational Resource When Teaching the Book of Joshua” and “How Should One Interpret the Torah Today?”[13] In the former, Greenberg delineates how rabbinic teachings from the Talmudic era temper and even overturn the Bible’s violent commands regarding the Canaanites. His attention to these rabbis’ interpretive techniques heightens our ability to sense multiple voices regarding the Canaanites not only among the rabbinic interpreters but also in the biblical texts themselves. In the latter, Greenberg analyzes rabbinic attempts at articulating the central value-concepts that should guide Jewish reading of the Bible. The explicit rabbinic discussions regarding the fundamental principle in the Torah (כלל גדול בתורה, e.g., in Sifra to Leviticus 18.19; b. Makkot 23b-24a) lead Greenberg to notice an analogous, albeit implicit, discussion of central principles in the Bible itself, in Ezekiel 18.

In these and other examples, Greenberg uses midrashic and medieval rabbinic interpretations not only as tools that aid his own interpretations; he also sees rabbinic literature as an outgrowth of the Bible’s own theological system. On the basis of Greenberg’s work one might say that rabbinic literature is sometimes more biblical than the Bible. Further, because rabbinic literature results from the evolution of biblical thought in the post-biblical period, it is possible to use rabbinic literature to understand the Bible; for Greenberg, as for Milgrom, they are part of a single cultural trajectory. To understand the Bible, one must see it as part of this trajectory, or we might say, as part of a tradition. Greenberg does not just read the Bible by itself—he is not a Protestant, rejecting tradition as an authoritative religious category. Nor does he just read Rashi, or the Bible through Rashi—he is not a certain kind of Orthodox Jew. Rather, Greenberg does both, and he does them together: he reads the Bible on its own cultural and linguistic ground in part by reading it through a rabbinic lens. He demonstrates how traditional rabbinic commentaries aid him in understanding the Bible in its ancient Near Eastern context.



The Conservative Context

In this tendency to be a both-and thinker, I think that Greenberg is the best sort of Conservative Jew. He is not middle-of-the-road; instead, he succeeds on being on both sides of a polarity; indeed, he succeeds in showing that it is not really a polarity at all. (Here I allude to the instructive title of a book by former JTS Chancellor Ismar Schorsch, Polarities in Balance, a series of essays that present a Conservative approach to Jewish learning and practice.) This deft ability to embrace what strike others as opposing conceptions and to demonstrate that they need not be in opposition at all characterizes all three of the scholars I have discussed. It would not be correct to say that they were religious Jews and also biblical critics, nor that they were religious Jews in spite of the fact that they were biblical critics; rather, they were religious Jews, in part, through being biblical critics. They showed how modern methods of study reveal the Bible’s relevance to Judaism. In light of their writings, it becomes clear how being fully critical and intellectually honest is an important way of being a serious, committed Jew.

In this respect, they were products of the education they received as rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Unlike many biblical critics (including many Jewish biblical critics), Greenberg, Milgrom and Muffs received strong training not only in Bible but in all fields of Jewish learning, including especially the study of Talmud. All three were exposed to the core ideology of Conservative Judaism, an ideology that goes back through Solomon Schechter (1847-1915) to Zechariah Frankel (1801-1875) and the original Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau, Germany. Scholars like Schechter and Frankel insisted that we should use the full array of modern academic methods to study Judaism. Since the mid-19th century Conservative Judaism (or Positive-Historical Judaism, as it was known in Europe) has taught that to ignore what archaeology, comparative religion, history and linguistics tell us about Judaism is to retreat behind walls of a ghetto (or of a yeshiva). To fear that Torah could be harmed by evidence from these fields constitutes an insult to Torah. Further, the Conservative or Positive-Historical approach, with its commitment to “tradition and change” (a phrase that serves the movement as a sort of motto), has always stressed elements of continuity in Jewish intellectual history: it has taught that authentic changes emerge in part from within the tradition. The word “and” is the crucial word in this motto, which, pointedly, is not “tradition vs. change,” or “change in spite of tradition.” In this light, the emphasis we noted above in the work of Milgrom and Greenberg on biblical and rabbinic Judaism as existing on a long historical trajectory was not only a response to the firewall mentality prevalent among biblical critics; it was also an expression of their Conservative worldview. (This emphasis also emerges in work by Muffs that I have not discussed here, especially in his first book[14] and some of the shorter articles in Love and Joy; further, as we have seen, Muffs implicitly extended this trajectory to encompass Jewish philosophy and mysticism.)

In light of the stress these scholars put on continuity between biblical and rabbinic Judaism, it is worth pausing to recall an essay written at the end of the 1800s by Schechter. A brilliant scholar of Second Temple, rabbinic, and medieval Jewish literature, Schechter would later become the most influential Chancellor in the history of the various Jewish Theological Seminaries and their sister schools in Europe, the United States, Argentina and Israel (the last of which is named after him). In an essay he wrote about Leopold Zunz, the founder of the modern critical study of rabbinic literature and Jewish liturgy, Schechter made a pregnant comment about a key goal in Zunz’s work. Alluding to the neo-supersessionist firewall mentality I described above, Schechter noted that among German Protestant scholars,

the Talmud and the Midrashim were considered as a perversion of the Pentateuch and the books of the Prophets, and the Jewish liturgy a bad paraphrase of the Psalms…To destroy these false notions, to bridge over this seemingly wide and deep gap, to restore the missing links between the Bible and tradition, to prove the continuity and development of Jewish thought through history, to show their religious depth and their moral and ennobling influence, to teach us how our own age with all its altered notions might nevertheless be a stage in the continuous development of Jewish ideals and might make these older thoughts a part of its own progress—this was the great task to which Zunz devoted his life.[15]


These words describe Schechter himself as much as they describe his hero; Schechter’s essay on Zunz is in part a disguised autobiography. It is not a coincidence that Schechter’s statement applies beautifully to the work of the JTS-trained scholars whom I have discussed. All three used the tools of modern biblical criticism, and especially their superb training in ancient Near Eastern literature, to uncover the deep continuities that link the Bible with later Judaism.



Biblical Criticism Today

It is a measure of these scholars’ success that much of what they attempted is now common in biblical studies. The notion that biblical criticism belongs not only to the study of the ancient Near East but also to the academic field of Jewish Studies is not controversial, and many leading biblical critics (both Jewish and non-Jewish) whose careers began in the 1970s and 1980s see it as perfectly natural to use classical and medieval rabbinic texts to interpret the Bible and to contextualize biblical texts within Jewish intellectual history. To be sure, Greenberg, Milgrom and Muffs were not the only scholars who led to the recontextualization and re-Judaization of the Bible; one might also speak of the influential work of their contemporaries Moshe Weinfeld, Menahem Haran, Shemaryahu Talmon, Nahum Sarna, Alexander Rofé and Shalom Paul, as well as some of their teachers, such as H.L. Ginsberg. Further, our three scholars (along with many other Jewish biblicists) were deeply influenced by Yehezkel Kaufmann; the changes these scholars helped introduce into biblical studies resulted not only from the effect of Conservative Jewish ideology on their scholarly practice but from the impact of Kaufmann’s massive and thought-provoking work as well. One could also discuss the importance of literary and theological approaches associated with both Christian and Jewish scholars I mentioned earlier.

These approaches led scholars to move beyond the trivial nature of so much biblical criticism and to understand the humanistic and existential depth of biblical narrative, poetry, and ritual. The result of all these developments is that reading the Bible as understood by biblical critics no longer needs to threaten or upset religious Jewish readers. Biblical criticism may surprise us, and it may challenge us. But it is precisely by challenging us that it helps us to seek guidance from the canonical texts that came to us from ancient Israel.



The Bible, the Rabbis and Conservative Jews Today

What sort of guidance, then, might emerge from the conclusions of these three scholars? I think that the biblical canon as they describe it provides a crucial model for contemporary Judaism. Ours is an era of rapid change, and also an era that idolizes innovation. Pluralism is a byword for contemporary culture, which celebrates diversity and difference at the expense of what we share; indeed, I think that when people speak of pluralism, in many cases they really mean relativism, which rejects the possibility of a common thread that holds a culture together. It would be easy, much too easy, to find a justification (or rather, a rationalization) for this outlook in the Bible as understood by biblical criticism. Many biblical critics have demonstrated that the Bible has many voices, that its varied texts debate each other, and that it clearly reflects theological and legal development over time. Further, the stark differences between biblical and rabbinic religion can easily allow one to enlist the Talmud as another alleged predecessor for a modern temperament. Some ideas that are central to rabbinic Judaism, such as the resurrection of the dead, seem to have little or no basis in biblical theology, while important rabbinic practices such as the separation of milk and meat are essentially unknown in biblical law. Extrapolating from these facts, one might conclude that the rabbis of the Talmudic era created a new religion connected to the Bible only nominally. If this is so, then the modern Jew who values innovation and multiplicity, who admires bold moves beyond conventional boundaries, might claim the Bible and the Talmuds as useful prooftexts.

But the picture of the Bible and its relationship to rabbinic culture that we saw above warns against this facile conclusion. Unlike modern Western culture, the Bible and rabbinic literature emphasize tradition and continuity. Muffs’ discussion of the theologies of divine retribution in the Bible shows that even when biblical thinkers introduced new ideas and disagreed with their predecessors, they used vocabulary and literary forms that underscored their connections with what came before them, and they did so in order to show that their new ideas emerged out of specific elements of older ideas. (Stage two and stage three agree that divine mercy is crucial; stage three attempts to define that mercy in a more self-consistent manner.) Greenberg’s work on the varied law codes in the Torah shows that they have an underlying ideological unity, at least as far as capital punishment goes; in that essay and elsewhere, he argued that there are fundamental ideas that draw biblical texts together, even when a fundamental idea manifests itself in multiple ways. Milgrom shows that Priestly texts focus attention on community, and on the communal implications of individual actions, a theme that moves against modern Western culture’s heavy emphasis on individualism. Further, all these scholars draw our attention to continuities between the Bible and the rabbis, and from this it becomes clear that at the most basic level the rabbis were far less innovative than they initially appear. At times the specifics of the laws they codify in the Talmud were new, but the core values they express—the sanctity of human life, the importance of ritual for expressing religious and moral ideas, the personhood of God—are not at all new but come from the Bible.

In an era in which change so often trumps tradition, in which novelty is savored and continuity belittled, the worldview of the Bible and the rabbis is deeply countercultural. At the same time, the rigorous and subtle work of Greenberg, Muffs, and Milgrom helps us recognize that biblical and rabbinic texts do not reject novelty outright. Even as they respect continuity, biblical and rabbinic authors refrain from making it a false god that prevents them from introducing fresh notions or practices. Judaism accentuates tradition precisely as it engages in change. One can easily deny that change occurs; it takes no effort to pretend that there is no such thing as history and to reject the possibility that the new can become sacred. Indeed, denial of this sort is popular among some Jews of our era precisely because it is such a facile path. Conversely, a person with only a little learning can readily embrace change while giving mere lip service to tradition. The Bible and rabbinic literature chose neither of these options. Instead, they struggled to permit the new to emerge while placing it into an already existing and authoritative context. To conserve Judaism even as one moves it forward is a much more challenging path than the one most modern Jews have chosen. Careful study of our sacred texts demonstrates that it is also the correct one.[16]


Benjamin D. Sommer is Professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Previously he served as Director of the Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies at Northwestern University. His most recent book, Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition, received the Goldstein-Goren Prize in Jewish Thought for the years 2014-2016 from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The book was also a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and for the Jordan Schnitzer Award of the Association for Jewish Studies. Professor Sommer delivered the inaugural Moshe Greenberg Memorial Lecture at the Hebrew University in May of 2014. This summer he will deliver the Plenary Lecture at the 100th anniversary meeting of Britain’s Society for Old Testament Study, as well as the 11th Rabbi Louis Jacobs Jahrzeit Lecture, both in London.


[1] In addition, some Jews have regarded biblical criticism as unnerving because it casts doubt on the historical reliability of biblical texts. The extent of this challenge for believers who are not overly concerned with minutia has been vastly exaggerated, however, since there is no archaeological or historical reason to doubt the core elements of the biblical history: namely, that the ancestors of the Israelites included an important group who came from Mesopotamia; that at least some Israelites were enslaved to Egyptians and were surprisingly rescued from Egyptian bondage; that they experienced a revelation that played a crucial role in the formation of their national, religious and ethnic identity; that they settled down in the hill country of the land of Canaan at the beginning of the Iron Age, around 1300 or 1200 B.C.E.; that they formed kingdoms there a few centuries later, around 1000 B.C.E.; and that these kingdoms were eventually destroyed by Assyrian and Babylonian armies.

[2] Solomon Schechter, “Higher Criticism—Higher Anti-Semitism,” in Seminary Addresses and Other Papers, with an introduction by Louis Finkelstein (New York: Burning Bush Press, 1959), 35-39.

[3] I should note that unlike many faculty members at JTS, and unlike many Conservative rabbis, I did not study with these three men, and I barely knew them personally. I met each of them only once, chatting with Muffs at a conference for about five minutes and with Greenberg and Milgrom at their homes in Jerusalem for a few hours. On the other hand, though I never had the privilege of sitting in their classrooms, I regard each of them as my teacher, because their writings have had an enormous influence on my published work. The claims I make about their goals and the origins of their approach are based not on personal knowledge but on my reading of their books, articles, and commentaries. In this respect what I say about them doesn’t differ from what a scholar might write about the religious goals and intellectual genealogy of, say, Rashi or Maimonides based on a careful study of their work and their historical contexts.

[4] I should note that none of our three scholars really came out and articulated these ideas in any programmatic statement. Rather, these ideas guide their work and are implied by their work, but they are never the thesis of a particular book or article. Greenberg did address some of these issues in short but instructive essays he wrote, many of them collected in two anthologies: Moshe Greenberg, ‘Al Hammiqra’ Ve‘al Hayyahadut [in Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Am Oveid, 1984), and Moshe Greenberg, Studies in the Bible and Jewish Thought (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995). See also his comments on the important place of ancient and medieval commentators for modern interpreters in Moshe Greenberg, Understanding Exodus (New York: Behrman House and the Melton Research Center of the Jewish Theological Seminary, 1969), 5-7. Milgrom does not discuss his intention to demonstrate the “organically bound together and… mutually illuminating” nature of P and post-biblical texts, but Avigdor Victor Hurowitz does so (in his review essay about Milgrom, “Ancient Israelite Cult in History, Tradition and Interpretation,” AJS Review 19 [1994]: 213-36; the phrase I quote comes from page 221), and Milgrom acknowledges that Hurowitz describes him correctly on page 2452 of his Leviticus 23-27 (concerning which see the next note).

[5] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1991); Leviticus 17–22: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB; New York: Doubleday, 2000); and Leviticus 23–27: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB; New York: Doubleday, 2001).

[6] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics (Continental Commentary; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).

[7] Jacob Milgrom, Numbers (JPS Torah Commentary; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989).

[8] Leviticus 1-16, 345.

[9] This phrase appears in Leviticus 1-16, 377.

[10] Yochanan Muffs, The Personhood of God. Biblical Theology, Human Faith and the Divine Image (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2005). The book is also available in Hebrew as Ishiyuto shel Elohim: Te’ologiyah Miqra’it, Emunah Enoshit, Udemut Ha’el (Jerusalem: Hartman Institute and Keter Publishing, 2007).

[11] The essay appeared originally in Hebrew as Yochanan Muffs, “Bein Din Leraḥamim: Tefillatam shel Nevi’im,” in Torah Nidreshet, ed. Moshe Greenberg (Jerusalem: Am Oved and The Jewish Theological Seminary, 1984), 39–87, and is also available in Ahavah Vesimḥah: Ḥoq, Lashon Vadat Bamiqra Uvsifrut Ḥazal (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2001). An English translation appears in Yochanan Muffs, “Who Will Stand in the Breach?: A Study of Prophetic Intercession,” in Love and Joy: Law, Language and Religion in Ancient Israel (New York and Cambridge: The Jewish Theological Seminary and Harvard University Press, 1992), 9–48.

[12] “Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law,” originally published in Yehezkel Kaufmann Jubilee Volume, ed. Menahem Haran (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1960), 5-28; reprinted in several collections, including Greenberg, Studies, 25-41. It is also available in Hebrew in Torah Nidreshet, ed. Moshe Greenberg (Jerusalem: Am Oveid and The Jewish Theological Seminary, 1984), 13-37.

[13] These appear in Moshe Greenberg, Hassegullah Vehakkoaḥ [in Hebrew] (Oranim: Hakkibbutz Hameuhad, 1985), 11–18 and 49–67. Material approximating the former appears in English as “A Problematic Heritage: The Attitude Toward the Gentile in the Jewish Tradition—An Israeli Perspective,” Conservative Judaism 48 (1996):22–35. Some of the latter article appears in English as “On the Political Use of the Bible in Modern Israel: An Engaged Critique,” in Pomegranates and Golden Bells, eds. D. Wright et al. (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1995), 461–471. See also Moshe Greenberg, “You Are Called Human,” [in Hebrew] in ‘Al Hammiqra’ Ve‘al Hayyahadut, 55–67.

[14] Yochanan Muffs, Studies in the Aramaic Legal Papyri from Elephantine (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1969).

[15] Solomon Schechter, “Leopold Zunz,” in Studies in Judaism, Third Series (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1924), 98.

[16] It is a pleasure to express my thanks to Richard Tupper and Arnold Eisen for the insights and advice they shared with me as I wrote this article.