Jew­ish Cul­ture Between Canon and Heresy

  • Review
By – May 8, 2023

In 1968, David Biale left Har­vard after his fresh­man year, attract­ed by the intel­lec­tu­al fer­ment, activism, and coun­ter­cul­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. Ever since, his schol­ar­ly inter­ests have focused on rebels and heretics who chal­lenged con­ven­tion­al Jew­ish wis­dom, a field in which he has become an acknowl­edged author­i­ty. Each of the fif­teen essays in this cap­ti­vat­ing col­lec­tion touch­es on one or more of those individuals.

Dis­senters have always been with us. When Moses led the Jew­ish peo­ple to the Promised Land, Korach led a rebel­lion against him. But why? Was it an urge to vio­late bound­aries? A pop­ulist claim that all of Israel are holy”? Or was it just the pre­rog­a­tive of a wealthy man? These are the kinds of ques­tions that ani­mate Biale’s research.

No one knows who com­piled the out­ra­geous text Toldot Yeshu, a medieval col­lec­tion of dis­parag­ing leg­ends about Jesus. Mar­tin Luther assumed it was writ­ten by Jews in order to mock Chris­tian­i­ty. David Biale sug­gests it might actu­al­ly have been a satir­i­cal folk­tale rather than a polemic.

Biale applies the word rad­i­cal” to the meth­ods of the poet, philoso­pher, and Bible com­men­ta­tor Abra­ham ibn Ezra (10931167). Antic­i­pat­ing mod­ern bib­li­cal crit­ics, ibn Ezra viewed some texts through a human lens, oth­ers from a uni­ver­sal per­spec­tive, and then he syn­the­sized the two. A very dif­fer­ent fig­ure, the Hasidic Rab­bi Nach­man of Brat­slav (17721810), cre­at­ed a new dimen­sion in prayer when he embraced pray­ing in sor­row, as well as in the usu­al Hasidic mode of praise and joy.

Sev­er­al coun­ter­his­to­ries — Biale’s term for hereti­cal or under­ground nar­ra­tives — arose in ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Ger­many. Ger­shom Scholem treat­ed mys­ti­cism as a sub­ject for seri­ous study. Hans Jonas argued that exis­ten­tial­ism was pre­fig­ured by Jew­ish Gnos­ti­cism. Leo Strauss reject­ed the author­i­ty of rev­e­la­tion in favor of a process of uncov­er­ing what has been concealed.

One high­light of this book is a tran­script of David Biale’s 1980 inter­view with Scholem, which recalls the events of the philosopher’s six decades in Israel. Anoth­er is his chap­ter deal­ing with the moral com­plex­i­ties of the Nurem­berg tri­als, in which Han­nah Arendt asks trou­bling ques­tions: On what grounds was geno­cide held to be a crime? By what author­i­ty was the Nurem­berg tri­bunal empow­ered to pass a death sentence?

In a lengthy dis­cus­sion of the false mes­si­ah Shabb­tai Zvi, a native of Smyrna/​Izmir, Biale unex­pect­ed­ly argues that ori­en­tal­ism played a part in Shabbtai’s recep­tion in the West. That’s a dif­fi­cult argu­ment to make. Edward Said, who coined the term ori­en­tal­ism, saw it as a specif­i­cal­ly colo­nial­ist con­struc­tion of the exot­ic. But the Ottomans were con­querors, not colonies, and Sephardic Jews were often seen in the West as mod­els. Above all, Shabb­tai inspired Euro­pean Jews who des­per­ate­ly hoped for a mes­si­ah fol­low­ing the Jew­ish mas­sacres of 1648. Biale’s invo­ca­tion of the idea of ori­en­tal­ism seems tan­gen­tial at best.

Intel­lec­tu­al­ly excit­ing and a plea­sure to read, the essays in this col­lec­tion are a fine intro­duc­tion to many impor­tant thinkers in the Jew­ish tradition. 

Discussion Questions