Adult Education Handouts and Readings
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Complete Class Notes
- • History of the Bible: Its Origin, Evolution, and Translation
- When we discuss the origins and development of the Hebrew Bible, we need to put aside the theological underpinnings of its authorship and sources. We call the Torah, which is the first part of the three-part text of the Bible, “The Five Books of Moses,” because Jewish tradition holds that Moses was the author of the Torah, that is, Genesis through Deuteronomy. In fact, Orthodox Jews mostly believe this is true, if only at some spiritual level. But textual scholarship over the past two hundred fifty years has shown, almost conclusively, that the Bible comes from many authors, sources, and periods, and some sources are apparently from periods as early as the second millennium BCE. Later, as Jewish culture developed, other parts were added to the Torah text and eventually the Hebrew Bible evolved and its development continued to progress for greater than a thousand years. This course explores how the Bible developed from ancient times and traces how it became shaped into the form that currently exists, covering the development of both the Hebrew text as well as its translations into Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and English (and a few other languages important to biblical scholarship).
- • Sephardic Poets of the Jewish Golden Age of Spain
- The unique form of Spanish Hebrew poetry that developed during the High Middle Ages of Iberia was a direct outgrowth of the Islamic invasion of Spain in the eighth century. The contact of the Iberian Jews with Islam and the influence on the Jews of the Arabic language, together with the receptive attitude of the Islamic rulers and the cultural environment that was present in the rulers’ courts, greatly encouraged the development of the literary arts. The development of the Hebrew poetry of this period owed much, perhaps everything, to the Arabic poetry of the era; in fact, much of the earliest of this new form of Hebrew poetry was composed in competition with the Arabic poetry that was written to entertain the Muslim rulers’ courts. We will explore the backstory of this amazing period of Jewish life and discuss the history of the period and the life and works of five of the greatest poets of the period.
- • Intertestamental Period: History of Second-Temple Judaism.
- This class examines the period of Jewish history from the Babylonian exile up until Herod’s rule of Judea, a period the scholars call the “Intertestamental Period.” Most Jews have a vague idea of Jewish history during the last half of the first millennium BCE, an idea that goes along these lines: The Persians controlled the Levant until the Greeks under Alexander conquered it; then the Syrians took over the area that included Palestine. Judea was liberated from the Syrians by the Hasmoneans who ruled until the advent of Rome. End of story? Not quite. While this quick description is all (mostly) true, it’s the details that make the story so much more interesting.
This is an extremely complex period—politically, culturally, and theologically—and the difficulty in understanding its history is compounded by the lack of primary texts describing these times. But studying its history is important since it is during this period that many books of the Bible were written, other texts important to the development of Judaism were composed, the Jewish canon was essentially established, Judaism became an international religion, and the roots of rabbinic Judaism began to develop. This is why the knowledge of this period is so important to the understanding of many of the books of the Bible and of Judaism itself.
- • What You Don't Know About... Chanukah: History and background of the holiday.
- Chanukah. This is a holiday that everyone knows all about. But do they really? The holiday is supposed to celebrate the miraculous triumph of a rag-tag band of guerrilla freedom fighters over a military world power, thus restoring religious and political freedom to the tiny Jewish province of Judea in the second century BCE. Hey, that’s what we all learned in Sunday school, right? For proof, just read the Amidah, a prayer that traditional Jews say three times a day every day of the year and look for the special insertion that's read during Chanukah, and you’ll find that traditional story. But to quote Ira Gershwin: “It Ain’t Necessarily So!” So — what's the real story? What really happened in Judea back during the years 175 to 165 BCE? What are the origins of the Chanukah customs, and which are based on facts and which are based on myths? This class covers the origin of the holiday, its historical basis, and many of the holiday’s customs and interesting facts.
- • Extra-Canonical Books Based on the Hebrew Bible: Survey of the texts.
- How were the books that are included in the Bible chosen? Why are some books included and others not? For example, why is the Song of Songs in but the Books of Maccabees out? The reasons are not a matter of when those books were actually written. After the works that comprise the Bible were written and collected into the canon, the writing of religious and theological works did not cease. In fact, many works written contemporaneously with texts that became canonized were not themselves included in the canon. Some of these texts are quite ancient; at least one extant non-canonical text was written as early as the seventh century BCE, well before most of the books of the Torah were assembled. This class examines the texts that are classified as extra-canonical in order to learn why they were not included in the canon and looks at some of the major Jewish writings that were composed after the Hebrew Bible was set in its final form.
- • History of the Ashkenazic Jews: Origins and History: Rome to the Reformation.
- This discussion covers the roots of the culture of the Ashkenazic Jews starting from the earliest presence of Jews in Europe outside the Iberian peninsula. It traces the development of Jewish communities across Europe from pre-Roman times to the end of the Middle Ages and examines these communities and their cultures during this period and concludes with the establishment of the Ashkenazic communities of Germany, Poland, and Lithuania, stopping coverage at the Early Modern Period, prior to the Reformation, and only briefly considers the development of the great centers of Yiddish civilization in Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and western Russia. It explores the history, culture, economics, religion, and language of the Jews of northern Europe, showing how Ashkenazim developed from its ancestors, the Jews of Italy and Greece.
- • The Midrash in Literature: History and Characteristics of the Genre.
- This class discusses the origin of the midrash and how this literary genre developed and influenced Bible interpretation and the growth of rabbinic Judaism. It examines exactly what makes a text a midrash, where midrashim may be found in Jewish works, the types of midrashic writings, and how they were composed.
- • History of the Jews in Spain: Origins of Sephardic Jewry: Judea to the Expulsion.
- When did the Jews first arrive in Spain? There are hints from the Bible that the lands of the western Mediterranean were well known to the Israelites. Around 970 BCE Solomon formed an alliance with Hiram of Tyre, the king of the Phoenicians, providing Hiram with sailors who had a knowledge of the sea equivalent to that of the Phoenician sailors. The territories of the Israelite tribes of Asher, Zebulon, and Dan were part of Phoenicia and some early Spanish Jewish documents actually refer to those tribes as having descendants living in Iberia. The Bible implies that expeditions to Spain were routine as early as the tenth century BCE.
But what is the actual origin of the Sephardim? When did Jews really first arrive in Spain? What was the Jewish Golden Age in Spain and how did it come about? What are crypto-Jews, conversos, marranos, cristianos nuevos, and anusim, and how are they different? This class explores the origin of the Sephardim in the context of medieval European history and traces the growth of Jewish culture in Iberia under the Romans, Visigoths, Muslims, and Christians from the Jews’ first arrival on the peninsula until their expulsion in 1492. Bonus: answering the mystery of “who was Columbus?”
- • Scripture and Its Interpretation from Ancient to Modern Times: Texts and their methods of interpretation.
- Do you believe that the word “midrash” describes outlandish, fanciful biblical tales? How is the Talmud related to the Bible? Where did the kabbalah come from? Who were the Karaites and exactly what was their challenge to rabbinic Judaism? Was any Bible interpretation being done by Jews during the “Dark Ages” (Early Middle Ages, 450–1000 CE)? This class is an overview of how the Bible was interpreted from antiquity, who the interpreters were, how they worked, and how biblical interpretation evolved over the past two-and-a-half millennia. It covers the types of interpretive writings from these periods and shows how the interpretive tradition did not gradually evolve into its current state, but saw its principles and direction undergo extreme shifts during discrete periods of transition. The first part of the class discusses the basics of biblical interpretation described above and the remainder covers modern biblical interpretative history.
Links to chapters from Understanding Classical Hebrew by J. Love are below. Since this is a copyrighted work, Jack does not especially want it openly available on the Internet, so in order to open these files you must register for access to the KI Member page. Your User ID and password for the Member Page will also allow your access to these documents. If you haven't already registered, you can do that using this link.
* Oral law: When we read the Torah we come upon many passages whose interpretation defies analysis. There are many reasons for this; one of the more common reasons is vocabulary shift where the meaning of a word has changed over time. We see this happening in English usage today; word meaning changes from ancient to modern Hebrew were common as well. Other reasons for the inscrutability of some passages lies in idiomatic usage. The meaning of idioms that were part of the language when the Bible was written are frequently lost to us. A third reason could lie in grammatical structure. The grammar of languages changes over time and passages having certain grammatical structures likely had different contextual meanings when they were composed. Yet another problem occurs when the meaning of nouns is lost. Some nouns used in the Bible have no counterpart in the modern language or in cognate languages and scholars have no way of deducing what the word really means, and the context doesn't always provide good clues, especially if the word is used infrequently.
Despite all these problems, the authors of midrashim and the Mishnah usually had good ideas about the meaning of many obscure passages. It is likely that the only way early scholars could have had insight into their meaning was through learning the meaning of the passages from their teachers: through oral transmission. In fact, study of the Torah is based on these two modes of transmission of the text: written and oral. The work of the Masorites (the word comes from Hebrew meaning “tradition”), began as early as 200 bce with the work of groups of scribes known as nakdanim, “pointers,” who marked the biblical text with “points,” the vowels, a process known as “vocalization” of the text. Providing the vowels resulted in standardizing the pronounciation, which also had the effect of fixing the meaning of the biblical text to make the sense of certain passages less obscure. The Masorites continued this work and also regularized and corrected the spelling of many words which had become corrupted during the process of scribal duplication. The very act of standardizing pronunciation and word spelling was itself a significant act of interpretation and commentary. Masoretic activity reached its peak during the eighth to ninth centuries ce in Tiberias, but continued well into the eleventh century; the Masoretic text as we know it today was finalized about 1420.
So understanding the Torah (and Bible) ultimately depends on understanding the oral traditions which explain and amplify the written word in addition to understanding the meaning of the actual words themselves. But there still are many passages in the Bible whose meaning remains truly inscrutable. Examples include the story of the “red heifer” (Num. 19:2) and the reference to “Azazel” in the description of the ceremonies for Yom Kippur (Lev. 16:10).
Chart and comment from S. Rayburn