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SIDIC Periodical IX - 1976/2
Targum and Midrash (Pages 19 - 21)

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What a Christian May Expect from a Jewish Reading of the Bible
Marcel Dubois


In the introduction to his book La Bible et les theories littiyaires modernes, Meir Weiss says. 4( Biblical studies in each generation accurately reflect dominant fashions of thought.
Even if one thinks that philosophy is something more than a fashion, even if one refuses to accept the Hegelian idea that it is simply the reflection of a given epoch or the pure expression of a culture, one can say with some truth that “biblical studies in each generation reflect accurately the dominant philosophical thought”. This is particularly true when theology and the reading of the Bible are freed from authority and the canons of orthodoxy. Such has been the position of exegesis in the Protestant churches since the Reformation. Such is the position in the schools of biblical criticism as a whole, in our own times.
Though it incontestably marks a step forward in our approach to the text and its context, this state of things is not without its dangers for an authentic religious reading of the Word of God within the confines of the tradition of the faith.
In view of this threat to Christian exegesis it seems to me that a Jewish reading of the Bible could provide a permanent example of the spiritual attitude inherited by the Church, the secret of her right judgment, on which she can draw inexhaustibly.

Reading the Bible in Israel
Just as the wisdom of the philosopher finds its health in an acceptance of being and of truth prior to any critical attitude, similarly the wisdom of Christian faith and existence rests on a candid reading of the Word, confirmed by Tradition, that is to say, finally, by the life of the community of the Church and by the existence of the saints. Analytic and exegetic methods may indeed criticize the conditions of such reading but can never eliminate it for it is prior to theirs. This is how the Fathers of the Church read; such is the reading the liturgy holds out to us. And indeed it is just such reading which contains the secret of Jewish tradition. This, for the Christians in Israel, is a conviction confirmed by life in this country in the midst of this people, in the land of the Bible, in the heart of the people of Israel.
Reading the Bible in Israel means understanding it in the context of the human history underlying it; it is to learn to interpret the Word in the mirror of existence, Liber et speculum », as St. Bernard said. And in this country one realizes to what an extent a Jewish understanding of the Bible, joined with an experience of the life and faith of the people whose history it is, can be a model for the Church.

Universal Value of Scripture
The Bible has sometimes been compared with the report of a psychoanalyst, the analysis that God himself has made of his people, the diagnosis and the cure, the bringing to light and the purification tirelessly renewed, of the passions and reactions of Israel. This is indeed true with regard to the destiny of Israel for every Jewish conscience, but every human adventure, any human situation can discover in this history the lines of its own destiny. It may be psychoanalysis but it is divine psychoanalysis, integrating and open to the universal, the story of a people on earth perhaps, but at the same time a divine discourse, the story of salvation for any man ready to recognize there the picture of his own spiritual destiny.
But more than this, it is as if the very way in which this special people — chosen and destined quite precisely — recounts, interprets and recalls the events of its history, assumes straight away a universal value, at the same time integrating and exemplary. And this is why a Christian reading of the Bible can find a rule, a model, in the way in which Jewish tradition has tirelessly received and borne the kerygma. Let it be sufficient here to suggest three examples which seem to me specially characteristic, and which in addition are closely connected.
Perhaps the first example may be surprising for it is usually offered as the touch stone separating Jewish from Christian tradition. I mean the fundamental distinction in Judaism between the Torah she bikhtav and the Torah she he-al peh, the written law and the oral law. It is true that in the eyes of our Jewish brethren a Christian reading of the Bible appears congenitally infirm and mutilated, for it only considers written law. A religious Jew, for his part, attaches as much importance to the Talmud and to the tradition of the sages as to the letter of the written text. This original difference covers an immense and difficult problem into which I may not enter here, for this is not the point of my argument. If I have drawn attention here to this fundamental distinction it is, paradoxically, to invite reflection on the exemplary value of this dichotomy. Indeed it lights up the condition of any approach to Scripture according to faith, and it announces in particular the complementarity between Scripture and Tradition in a Christian reading of the Bible. Written law, oral law: in spite of appearances this latter is not a text added to the former, an oral Bible alongside the other, a verbal message side by side with the written one. A frequentation of Jewish tradition reveals the question as rather one of a flair, a capacity to understand, a kind of divine trust, an affinity given by God to his people with a view to understanding his Word and putting it into practice. Is not this, for the Church, the most suggestive example of the gift of faith as affinity with the revealed message and of the role of Tradition as a Christian subjectivity?
A second example I would see in the Haggadah of Passover: « In every generation it is a duty for man to see himself as if he had come out of Egypt. a During the Passover seder this sentence is read as in fact the expression of tradition and of hope. Thus a transcendent event is remembered as a mighty deed of the past, of course, but above all as a divine gesture which remains actually present to the Jewish conscience. The event of the Exodus is at the origin of the adventure of the Jewish people, and it remains actually present at every instant of its unrolling in time, assembling the community in the same act of memorial, all through its history. The commemoration of this irruption of the divine into the destiny of the people of Israel is reallyan original kerygma, the permanent, ever-renewed source of Jewish identity throughout the centuries.
Just so the transcendence of God's initiative in the history of Israel confers a universal value upon the account which records the event. Conceived as a gesture of God, expressed by mode of kerygma, the destiny of a particular people unveils an inexhaustible richness, both by its capacity of integration and its valve as exemplar.
On the one hand indeed, all who adhere to the kerygma in which Israel's confession of faith is expressed, may appropriate its significance. Every man becomes capable, by faith, of associating himself existentially in a common destiny with the people whose history the Bible relates, with the word of him who said: « My father was an Aramean who came down out of Egypt. a
But on the other hand this power of assumption, which Jewish reading of the biblical event possesses, is lived by the Church in a still more precise manner. Christian reading of the Bible finds in the Haggadah of Passover an example of what might be called sacramental structure. « Do this in remembrance of me. a It is likewise by an act of remembrance that the Church is joined again to the event which is the inexhaustible source of her existence. Like the Jewish people commemorating in the Haggadah the event of the Exodus, the Church finds in adhesion to an original kerygma, always present to her faith, the permanent source of her identity and her development.
The third example of this two-fold value of Jewish reading of the Bible, value-integrating and exemplary at the same time, furnishes so to speak the fundamental structure. For the Jewish conscience there is a vital link between the original event, the text in which it is recorded, the community which receives it, and the faith by which this community adheres to it. This is what gives to the Midrash and the aggadah their particular flavor, and this is exactly what we find in the Jewish celebration of the Passover. It would seem that many false problems could be avoided and many crises resolved if the key of all Christian reading of the Word could be found in this living attitude. Not only has the Church inherited this fundamental structure, but the mystery of Christ has further brought to it a decisive application. The happening of Easter, the Gospel which relates it, the Church which receives and transmits it, finding therein the source of her life, the faith by which she cleaves to it, are merely the aspects of one and the same gift and come from the same spirit.
These three examples are sufficient to show how the spiritual attitude implied in the traditional Jewish approach to Scripture overcomes effectively the divorce between the mere event and the kerygma, between the meaning and its significance, which threatens a certain contemporary exegesis. The people keep and pass on by tradition the recital of the original event, according to the rigor of its meaning, and in this recital itself the confession of Israel's faith is expressed. On the other hand, it is this expressing of faith which determines the organization of the recital, making it signify the history by which Israel comes into existence. From this it is evident that in order to escape from the excesses of new methods, in either the structuralist or the existential direction, Christian reading of the Bible finds a source of health and vigor by coming back to this living example.

Fr. Marcel Dubois o.p. is superior of the Dominican community at St. Isaiah House in Jerusalem and lectures in medieval philosophy at the Hebrew University.


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